Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SOUND OF THE SOUL—The Evening Class Interview With Stephen Olsson

Stephen Olsson has produced and directed documentary films, television series and feature news reports throughout the world. He has been the recipient of television's three major awards: the National Emmy Award, the Du-Pont-Columbia Silver Baton for excellence in broadcast journalism and the George Foster Peabody Award. His films—which have played at international film festivals and broadcast throughout the world—include Last Images of War, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Last Images of War premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive the National Emmy Award for Outstanding Director. His other projects include Our House in Havana, School Colors, Afghanistan: The Fight For A Way Of Life, and most recently Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, opening this Friday, April 13, at the Roxie New College Film Center (where Olsson will accompany the film at all Friday and Saturday evening performances) and the San Rafael Film Center (where Olsson will accompany the film on Sunday, April 15, 7:00PM & Monday, April 16, 7:00PM).

As the San Rafael Film Center capsule attests, Sound of the Soul "transports us to the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco, a celebration that reflects the city's history of tolerance and diversity with an array of musicians from Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds. With its heritage as an ancient sanctuary, its mystical Islamic foundations and its evocative medieval sites, Fez is an ideal location for an exceptional festival, and the film includes a transcendent chorus of African Berber women, a Portuguese Fado singer, a Sephardic chanteuse, a French early music ensemble, and players and vocalists from Afghanistan, England, Russia, Ireland, Mauritania, Turkey—even a gospel band from Harlem. These performances are intermixed with Moroccan Sufi performers and connected by profound expressions of passion and belief. In a world increasingly polarized by religious conflicts and fundamentalist forces, this timely film shines with unity, understanding and, most of all, hope."

The film shines no more and no less than Olsson's own countenance. There is bright, compassionate light in his eyes, limned with laughter.

The first thing I wanted to know from Olsson when we met at the Larsen Associates offices to discuss Sound of the Soul was the name of the Russian group. Their song pierced me and I couldn't locate their name on the rolling credits, and the page of music credits had been left off my press notes, and the group had not been included in the working draft of the soundtrack. Maybe I'm just completely griefstricken at this time in my life, I explained to Olsson, but their music spoke to me and made me cry. Olsson laughed sympathetically and identified them as Serene Choir. We settled in to our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Sound of the Soul has been a five-year project?

Stephen Olsson: It's been more like a three-year project.

MG: The invitation came to you in 2002, you accepted, and went….

Olsson: Filmed in 2002. Came back. Edited for 7-8 months. Realized that I needed to go back. Didn't go back in 2003, but went back in 2004. One of the problems with the material of 2002 was that we first went to Morocco not really knowing where the story was. We knew the festival was happening, but I didn't really want to make a concert film. I wanted to tell a story but I wasn't sure what that story was. It really took the first trip to crystallize what the story could be. Then going back in 2004 and actually shooting to that story, particularly the transitions between groups, creating a sense of the city as a character, the country. The Russian group and the British group and the Sufi girls group were the three groups that I shot in 2004.

MG: In terms of the editing then, how much footage did you actually return with? How much did you have to trim down?

Olsson: This was about a 50:1 ratio, so about almost 50 hours of material.

MG: Wow. So there were many musical groups that were not shown in the documentary?

Olsson: Quite a few. And many songs performed by these groups. We filmed about somewhere between 8-12 songs for each group.

MG: How does that work? How do you choose which groups and which songs to represent those groups?

Olsson: It's the first time I've actually made a film like this. On the one hand there's music you have a connection to. You think, "Oh, that's a great piece of music!" But you don't know what it means because you don't speak Arabic or Portuguese or Russian or Dari or Hebrew or Ladino. You find translators to translate the lyrics. Often the songs—being poetic—are some of the most difficult things to translate well. So that takes quite a while. What tends to happen—or what happened in this case—it's not until the lyrics are translated that you get the meaning of the song and then you figure out if that's really what the film wants to express. Are those lyrics really the message that would define that culture, that tradition?

MG: In contrast, then, to making a concert film, you're talking about the "story" of the film and the "message" of the film, and you got across your message of music being a unifying force amongst the various factions of religious belief; but, I'm curious how the documentary format itself furthers the story and what you consider to be the "soul" of your documentary?

Olsson: The soul of it is the discovery within yourself—which is a very personal experience—of who you are as a human being. You resonated with the Russian group, fine, so that's your access to the human expression of—call it prayer, call it devotion, call it union, call it connection—something happened for you. You said you got teary-eyed.

MG: I wept.

Olsson: You wept. That's where the soul of the film lies because I've taken the film around the world, shown it at Sarajevo, Dubai (in the Persian gulf), Jerusalem, Vancouver, all over the States (including New York City), and different people respond to different groups, like you did. Some people say, "Ah, I loved the film but you should take out that Russian group…."

MG: Where are those people? Let me talk to them!

Olsson: [Laughs.] So everyone's got a different [response]. When you translate the lyrics, and actually present that same Moroccan Sufi music or Russian music and actually know what they're singing—which, by the way, is not the case when you're there live, right?—[when] you know the story of that ballad. We're all different. It's not necessarily the case that the music that's closest to our own cultures [is] the one that speaks the loudest to us.

MG: Agreed. I felt the documentary succeeded precisely on that point. For me to become so moved by a piece of music in a foreign language I didn't initially understand (though subsequently I was assisted by subtitles), indicated there was something about the tone of the music and the manner of performance that struck flint deep inside, sparked grief, and reminded me that a music's soulfulness speaks to different stages of individual growth and spiritual development. Exactly as you've said, different people at different times, possibly at different viewings of your documentary, respond variously; but, because you have provided such a broad diversity of musical expression, I can't believe there wouldn't be something for everyone to walk away with.

Olsson: The intention was to create a series of experiential moments and to somehow find the balance between letting the music play for itself and providing enough context to allow you to understand this music in a certain way but then let it work its own magic. That was really tricky; the whole balance between letting a song play by itself and how much context is really beneficial to allowing you to get closer to the soul of that tradition.

MG: At what point did you know what the story was going to be and how the festival would serve as a backdrop to shape that story?

Olsson: After about six-seven months in the editing room as the translations to the lyrics started to come in. This whole notion of the native voice, the voice coming from that tradition, I had to honor that so I had to understand what material I came back with and that took six-seven months to understand what we had. Then you have that out on paper in front of you and [through] a mixture of instinct and working with the material you have, the story emerges.

MG: Sound of the Soul has traveled the festival circuit. I know you were at the Mill Valley Film Festival a couple of years ago and I imagine you have played at many other film festivals. I'm presuming the audience reception has been favorable?

Olsson: I realize with this film [that] it's not built around conflict. I have made films before about war, racism, diaspora stories, [themes] that are conflict-ridden. Frankly, even with documentaries, it's much easier to sell a documentary that has to do with a profound conflict. It's just that whole narrative priority. Making a film about harmony, what's working [chuckles], has the danger of being perceived as, "Oh, this is just a feel-good film." That's been a bit of a challenge. This film has found its champions but they've been people willing to celebrate it for what it is. Because it's very atypical; there's no conflict in the film.

MG: You've stated that—now that Sound of the Soul is being released theatrically—you want people to come into "the big tent."

Olsson: Right.

MG: Could you speak a little bit more about that?

Olsson: I've realized that with this film, it's all about getting people into the tent. Once they're in the tent, people don't leave during this film. They stay. They stay until the end. They most often stay through the whole credits. It's just getting them there, getting the word out, getting the sense that there's some discovery here. I'm happy—obviously any filmmaker is—when you see a full house; but, unlike a lot of films that I go to as well at festivals and otherwise, people tend to not leave this film.

MG: Understandable. It's engaging. Like you say, once you're in there and sitting down and listening to this wealth of music, you want to hear the rest, you want to experience the diversity. The one thing that did confuse me a bit was your choice not to explain more fully the presence of the politicians and corporate figureheads whom you interviewed between the musical acts. It wasn't clear to me that there were two events going on, the music festival, and the symposium.

Olsson: They were all part of the same festival. The symposium was in the mornings. The whole philosophy is that music will open the heart of people enabling them to communicate and have dialogue with the other that will be changed through the musical experience. The music opens the heart for a new kind of communication. Because you're in a different place. Because you're a different person. Your ability to listen, to respect the other, [is fostered]. They team up the symposium participants in a one-on-one fashion from different traditions. They go for hours listening and talking to each other about their perceptions of the other and all that; but, it's all done in the mornings and the rest of every day through midnight, through the early hours, [is] immersed in music. That's the festival's intention and the film tries to accomplish some of that as well. It's very tricky leaving the music and going into somebody speaking behind a podium.

MG: Well, frankly, how it came across to me was that you were presenting parallel forms of dialogue. The musicians in their dialogue by sharing music in their native tongues struck me as much more of a dialogue and cultural exchange. Whereas when it shifted to the corporate speak, I didn't go for it. I guess I'm cynical. I just didn't believe them.

Olsson: [Laughs.]

MG: But the contrast was effective. I loved the sequence where the Algerian Jewish woman sang to the Muslims. It was exquisite tension. Her admitted fears and concerns, the challenge she set for herself to sing from the truth of her heart, and then the audience's enthusiastic response; truly inspirational. Your documentary was clear in presenting the musicians as an eclectic assemblage of individuals from all over the world, but can you describe the demographics of the audiences? Are they primarily Moroccan? Is there a comparable diversity there?

Olsson: There were about 10-15,000 non-Moroccans who come every year, usually from Europe, usually from the French-speaking [countries]: France, Belgium, Switzerland. French TV 5 is one of the sponsors and they show news, three-four minute reports every evening during the festival. The French-speaking cultures of Europe know about the festival. English-speaking cultures tend to not know about it. Anyway, there's about 10-15,000 foreigners. There's different venues, these historic sites around the city, so the museum for example underneath the tree with the birds, where you saw the Irish group, to buy a ticket to go see music there is about $3-$4. That's a lot of money for a Moroccan. Immediately after those afternoon concerts, in the late afternoon there's a free concert in the street and that's where you saw the Sons of Thunder and that's where you have thousands of Moroccans because it's free. There are these class divisions. Then there's the evening concerts at the Royal Palace and tickets for that concert are about $10 each so then you see the Moroccan middle class and wealthy Moroccans. The foreigners tend to predominate in those [performance spaces].

MG: So during the process of filming, not knowing Arabic, I imagine your focus was purely technical, endeavoring to get the performances all down right? You've mentioned the story surfaces for you during the process of editing, but at what point did the film become personal for you?

Olsson: It was personal from the beginning because the Moroccan Sufi narrator of the film [Dr. Ahmed Sidi Kostas] came to San Francisco and I met him. He invited me to come just to discover Morocco. He said, if you come during the festival time, we still have some press tickets. We can give you a round trip ticket for you and your crew and so on. So it was a personal invitation to come; but, then you're right. You're there 10 days of festival. It's not just that I don't speak Arabic, I also don't speak Russian and these other languages; but, working with translators, people that I found there, you get some minimal sense of what you're recording. In the post-production and editing stage, you immerse yourself in the material and it's more of an instinctual thing. Things start to line up almost on a kind of molecular level. You start to feel the connections and it's not anything that you can actually necessarily even express; it's felt.

MG: Now that Sound of the Soul has achieved theatrical distribution, and you will be shepherding it through the process, what are you aiming for next? Are you already working on the next project?

Olsson: I've started working on a film about Jalal ad-Din [Muhammad] Rumi, the Persian poet. I went to Turkey recently to Konya for the 800th anniversary.

MG: I've been to Konya to see Rumi's tomb.

Olsson: This last December? Were you there then?

MG: No, not then. A few years back. I've long loved Rumi's poems.

Olsson: I've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and the Afghans consider Rumi Afghan because he's from Balkh, which is Khorasan, which is now Northern Afghanistan. The Persians, of course, consider Rumi their Rumi because he writes in Persian, and the Turks consider Rumi their's because he established the Mevlevi Order in Konya. I'm hoping to go back and actually travel that route from Balkh to Konya that Rumi's family followed—just in front of Genghis Khan actually; that's why they left Balkh—basically, to immerse myself in Rumi consciousness, poetry, music. You always have to be careful about what films you choose because you end up living with them for at least a couple of years or longer. [You want] something that has some ability to sustain you and feed your soul. That's what I'm sensitive to.

MG: I don't see how you could possibly go wrong with Rumi. He could feed your soul through a couple of lifetimes. I envy you your pilgrimage. How wonderful that you can do that. One final question: I'm interested in music rights. Did you have any problems with that with the many different musicians you filmed? How was that arranged?

Olsson: [The musicians] signed releases, mostly on the spot, although I went back to Morocco recently and visited all the Moroccan groups and got them all to sign releases, not just for the film but for a music CD. It's largely a matter of people believing in what you're doing.

MG: Have the musicians seen the film?

Olsson: Most of them. Maybe all of them now. Haven't heard back from all of them after sending the film.

MG: Well, I congratulate you on Sound of the Soul. It's a wonderful reminder of the power of music and the documentary's driving strength is your selection of musical performances and that you offered such generous portions of the music. Often when you see these kinds of documentaries, they tease you with brief samples of the music, which doesn't allow you to feel anything; but, as I mentioned, you had enough there to devastate me.

Olsson: [Laughs.] Oh good! Devastated. Annihilated.

MG: I fancy myself a soul-oriented person so I recognize the importance of falling apart like that. [Laughs.] Thank you very much for your time. Good luck with the film. I'll probably go see it again with a friend of mine who very much enjoys world music.

Olsson: Do you know about LinkTV? That's my day job. I'm the head of original programming for LinkTV and we have an incredible world music selection every day on our channel.

MG: I've heard of LinkTV primarily with regard to Latin-American….

Olsson: That's right. Latin Pulse. We're starting a new series after Mosaic from the Middle East, which we won a Peabody Award for last year. We're now expanding that and we have Latin Pulse, and now we're moving towards a Global Pulse, which is world news. LinkTV is a national satellite channel on DirectTV and DISH Network. Here in San Francisco it's on Comcast channel 27 [eaTV on weekends (midnight on Friday until Monday at 7 a.m.)] and KRBC [Digital Cable Channel 22, Monday through Friday from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.], the Santa Rosa PBS station, and it's in different cities on different public television channels; but, we're national. We have 6,000,000 regular viewers and the mission is to connect Americans with the rest of the world. This is what I've been doing as a filmmaker most of my life. A national TV channel comes to my hometown and sets up shop so—if you like world music—I would definitely check out LinkTV.

MG: World music, world cinema, I think they're the only chance we really have to find a workable solution to the volatile climate of our times.

Olsson: Absolutely. So we have Peter Scarlett who's hosting Cinemondo….

MG: That's where I'm familiar with LinkTV!! Well, again, thank you very much. Good luck with the project. I'm sure it's found its legs and will run on its own.

Olsson: It was a pleasure to meet you. I enjoyed it very much.

MG: And I hope you're pleased that you devastated me.

Olsson: [Laughs.] Always!

Cross-published at Twitch.