Hugo Sobelman tells the story of the making of his first feature film. A vibrant film around the question of transmission, both musical and political
It was from a trip you undertook in 2016 to the United States with a friend in the land of your favorite music – Louisiana jazz, Mississippi blues, Memphis soul… – needlepoint, from meeting to meeting, you have discovered this free music school in the heart of the premises of the legendary Stax label (that of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes…). What made you want to make it the subject of a documentary?
Hugo sobelman : Because I am welcomed on site by people of a stunning humanity who advocate and support popular education in the first sense of the term. Learn to sing, of course, but above all build a generation that can reflect, get involved, influence the future because it knows its past better. And this is in line with my desire to speak of music of course but also of heritage, of segregation by giving voice to those concerned.
How do you start working there?
We spend two days observing in the classrooms without filming. The students were rehearsing for a concert that was to take place at the end of the week and where they played for the Bar-Kays, the band that at the time accompanied Otis Redding on stage. There I spot children with incredible energy. So on Friday evening, after the concert, I call my producers and when we have to leave in 3 days, I explain to him that I have just found the thread of my film. I ask him to leave us 3 more weeks on site to film things and bring back images that will be used for funding. And as throughout the adventure, my producers assure and understand that I operate like that. By image and by instinct and not by note of intention.
How do you choose the children you are going to put forward?
We used the pretext of a casting phase to spend time with everyone. But we never suspected that with the microphone extended, such powerful, eloquent, mature and sincere testimonies would emerge. So much so that in the film, we will hear them in voiceover because I didn’t want them to reproduce them in front of the camera. I don’t ask them any questions, I don’t ask them what it means to be black in Memphis, they spontaneously talk to me about it because it builds the fruit of their learning in that school. In addition to singing in a stunning way. It was like digging into a candy store! I knew I wanted to make a choral film and not focus on one or two children. I started to focus on a few as if to reassure myself, but the further the shooting went, the more the film opened up. And even more during editing.
How did you build the rest of the shoot, after this first trip?
When we got back to Paris, we went upstairs for four months. These early versions combine images of the Stax and our previous trip to the heart of the Mississippi. Then little by little, we will refocus on the Stax even if there are traces of this initiatory journey. It is after having ended up with a 50-minute version that my producers like me come to the certainty that a film is being made. And, by relying on this assembly with holes, we set off on a new journey in order to fill them. We filmed for five more weeks. And 75% of the images in the final cut come from this last trip.
We only see two white students in this music school. Is it reserved primarily for black children?
Absolutely not. Especially since the Stax label had the particularity of being the first with groups bringing together white and black musicians! It’s part of his heritage and that’s why the school is open to everyone. But indeed there are only two white students, two twin brothers. So I tried to find out why and their mother and the school staff explained to me that it is simply extremely frowned upon for white families to put their children in schools attended by blacks. So by doing this, this mother is making a gesture of resistance and a huge gift to her children in terms of knowledge.
When do we know when we are done shooting?
We do not know how to ask the question for financial matters. We couldn’t afford fifty trips. And above all, the end of the school year was coming, so I wouldn’t have found the same generation again if I had continued. I knew above all that I had the collective end scene, the narrative culmination of what this school can offer. It is a tremendous opportunity and asset. It reassures. But the question that arises above all is: when do we know that we have finished editing?
And what is the answer?
It’s hard because it was my first film but also the first documentary feature of my editor Maxime Mathis. Because we feel a responsibility towards these children. There were 18 editing versions. But this long time was essential for a documentary whose plot was not written.