She and the production team follow journalist and war photographer Benjamin Hiller as he captures images of a YPJ all-female fighter unit, a refugee camp in Erbil, the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, and Kurdish soldiers fighting in Northern Iraq.
Now back in Heidelberg, Ana Monte was kind enough to share some of her experiences working on such an ambitious and perilous film:
Written by Adriane Kuzminski
Hello, Ana! Please introduce yourself:
Hello there! I’m Ana Monte, a freelance sound designer from Brazil living in the beautiful city of Heidelberg in Germany.
Recently, you worked on the film Picturing War. Could you tell us a little about it?
My graduation film Picturing War was a life-changing experience, professionally and personally. The movie was shot in Kurdistan (Northern Iraq and Syria), Rwanda, Holland, France and Germany. It follows photojournalist Benjamin Hiller on his quest to capture photos and asks the questions, ‘Which conflict is worth reporting? Which war might interest the consumers of media outlets? And how do pictures travel around the globe, from zones of conflict to the worldwide public?’
Could you tell us about your role in the production team?
My role for Picturing War was Production Sound Mixer and Sound Designer. I was in charge of planning all the audio for the movie from pre-production to post-production. I decided what equipment would work for each country, and since we went to areas of conflict, I had to look into things like what equipment would be the lightest and most compact to carry around and what frequency band I could use with my lavalier microphones so I wouldn’t interfere with military frequencies. This was especially important when we were planning our trip to Israel/Gaza – which didn’t end up happening, but they are very strict about who is “picking up” their military frequencies, even if it is by accident.
For choosing equipment and survival tips, I counted on the support of my highly experienced teacher, Ed Cantu (Sound Mixer for Homeland in 2015, among other movies). On one of our trips, we were supposed to secretly record a market that dealt with human trafficking and he gave me tips on how to hide my recorder in my bag. Big shout out to Ed Cantu for his amazing support!
With so much travel involved, I can only imagine the coordination it took. Did you run into any issues during the production?
The whole production process was an undertaking from the start due to so many obstacles we as a team had to overcome. The woman who was our first protagonist was killed in Afghanistan. We also had to end our contract with our second protagonist because she required business class plane tickets (which we couldn’t afford as a student production). Plus, a military coup started one week before shooting in Thailand, and we had to deal with the filming permit bureaucracy in Rwanda and more. We (the team) still joke about the “curse of Picturing War”, and the director later wrote an article called “How Not to Shoot in War Zones”.
Especially after such troubling events, how did you prepare for these risky journeys, both as a sound recordist and as a non-combatant in a war zone?
When you are dealing with dangerous locations, it is important to do your research and to focus on safety. This was our film school’s main concern! They even got us bulletproof vests, which we eventually only used to take selfies in the hotel room :D
Planning is also a very important part of movie-making, be it for feature film or documentary. You can avoid a lot of trouble if you have things planned out and a back-up plan for when things go wrong. Because they will.
You can avoid a lot of trouble if you have things planned out and a back-up plan for when things go wrong. Because they will
I admit I did not fear any moment during our shooting, because our director, Konstantin, is an incredibly responsible young man and he put our security ahead of everything else. I always felt safe because he let us know if we felt unsafe at any point, we could stay behind. One of these moments happened when he chose to go alone to Afghanistan because he felt it would be unsafe for the team. This is how the woman who was our first protagonist was killed. She went ahead to check out the location and was later shot and killed by a sniper. Thank God Konstantin wasn’t there!
How was the production team able to navigate around conflict areas?
In Kurdistan, we relied on a great fixer who is Kurdish and lives in Germany. A fixer is a person who knows his or her way around and knows the culture, the language, and has political connections. They are extremely important in these dangerous locations, and journalists rely heavily on them. Through our fixer, we were able to interview General Najat Ali, the Peshmerga Commander of the Makhmour front, which is a 40-kilometer frontline roughly one mile away from an ISIS-controlled city. We interviewed him on the frontline, so this was probably one of the few times I considered using the bulletproof vest, but the thing was so heavy I left it in the car. One week later, Makhmour was attacked, leaving several people dead.
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With so much risk in this production, what was your biggest challenge working on the film?
For me, personally, it was the humanitarian side. Documentaries are exciting to me because you get to meet so many interesting people and hear their stories. Unfortunately, this also involves tough stories. It was extremely difficult shooting in the refugee camps. We visited two camps and heard the stories of many people and saw the faces of many children. How can you see something like this and not be moved?
As our movie states, we are bombarded daily with thousands of pictures which almost make us immune and indifferent to them. But meeting one of these refugees changes your life: parents concerned about their children missing school; families separated because there was not enough space for the whole family in one camp – and yet, through all the suffering, so much generosity! Children without toys, without proper clothes, running up to you and offering you candy and fruits and whatever they could give you. It brought tears to my eyes!
This humanitarian awareness is very apparent in your ambiences. Though the film has not yet been broadcasted, you released your ambiences for Picturing War in your SFX libraries, Atmospheres of Kurdistan and Atmospheres of Rwanda, which capture the human experience in ways that many libraries overlook. Was this a goal? How do you approach ambiences in this way?
Yes, that is definitely a goal. It didn’t start off as a conscience choice; I knew finding ambient sounds online for places like Kurdistan or Rwanda would be challenging, so I tried capturing as much as I could while I was there, and it later just developed that way. Now I try to make it my “signature sound”.
Sound has the power to transport you to places, so when I record I ask myself, ‘Is there a certain fauna characteristic related to this place? Can I find a place where you can hear a bit of the local language?’ Acoustical authenticity is really important to me when it comes to background sounds. These are sounds that subconsciously guide you through the film. In the case of the Kurdish language, it’s not your everyday language, so it was important to record good walla ambiences that could be used in the movie. It might not be important to us non-natives, but for a Kurdish native, he or she will distinguish the language rhythm or subtle music being played in the background of a tea shop.
The best thing about the movie’s shooting schedule was that we had different shooting blocks, so every time I came back from a certain country, I would listen to my ambient sounds and see what worked and what didn’t, including the equipment and the miking techniques. The concept that worked well was to pick sounds to record that were acoustically specific to the country or city. Most people record ambiences that are so neutral they could be from anywhere. These are useful for certain situations, but when I record sounds that will be attached to the image of a country or city, they need to be personal. Think NYC and sirens. I know, it’s a sound cliché, but anyone who has been to NYC knows that sirens are an important part of the city soundscape.
When I record sounds that will be attached to the image of a country or city, they need to be personal
Another wish I had while shooting was to record local musicians. I remember talking to a musician playing a tanbur at the music store where we recorded. He was happy Kurdish music would be played in a movie, as they have been persecuted for playing their music and speaking their language. His recording became the soundtrack for the Kurdistan Teaser:
Also, on the last day of shooting in Rwanda, we found out our translator was a talented singer-songwriter. She wrote a beautiful song for us in only two hours while we were packing to leave. Before we left for the airport, I built a sound booth in the hotel room with the room drapes and recorded her beautiful voice. This became the soundtrack to our Rwanda teaser:
Here is the beautiful text roughly translated into English:
By Ndimbira Shenge
Please come with me,
So that I can show you Rwanda
A country of a thousand hills
The Rwanda of King Gihanga
That everybody is amazed of
Wake up very early so I don’t go without you
We already know about its bad history
Where Rwandese killed other Rwandese
But after they cured themselves
And healed their own wounds
Even the scars are disappearing
By changing into small beauty signs.
Get ready to dance girl
Get ready to dance boy
Your heroism is beyond the limits
Your heroism is beyond the limits
What do you enjoy most about field recording?
The traveling. My ultimate dream is to get sponsored by someone and just travel the world recording ambiences. Did you hear me, rich millionaire sponsor? I’m ready when you are! ;)
Now for the serious side: I love going on this acoustical treasure hunt, keeping my ears open to specific sounds that I’ve never heard before. I remember being overwhelmed the first time I heard the call of prayer in the old citadel of Erbil. There were many towers spread around the city where you could hear the voices crying out and it was really cool. This summer, it was a lot of fun recording the stadium crowds while watching the Olympic games in my hometown of Rio.
At A Sound Effect, we’ve noticed you are currently the only woman who has submitted sound effects libraries. Do you find this to often be the case in your work life?
First of all, this is really crazy! And surprising, considering there are so many talented women sound designers out there! Yes, we do exist! Unfortunately, women in sound are like unicorns; but like in other professions, we want to be recognized for our work based on our capabilities and not our gender! With that being said, yes, it is a male-dominated industry. Thankfully, I have not experienced any discrimination while working in Germany. The usual reaction when working with me has been for men to treat me like one of the guys or treat me like their sister. For Picturing War we were a team of four guys (protagonist, fixer, DOP and director) and me, and I seriously felt like I had four bodyguards! It’s not every day that you are 5 km from the ISIS frontline and still feel safe! I guess the bulletproof vest also helped.
Regardless of gender, we are all people and we have our insecurities, especially in a business that has so much competition
For my Master’s studies, I was the only girl along with six others guys. They had my back throughout the whole program and there was never a problem with ego between us. I think ego wars can sometimes be more common among guys than between a guy and a girl. Regardless of gender, we are all people and we have our insecurities, especially in a business that has so much competition. My advice is to be a team player, respect your co-workers and let your work speak for itself!
Ana, thank you so much for sharing your insight and your experiences! It has been very interesting to hear about them. Do you have any advice for sound designers who are looking to get into documentaries?
• Read a lot, watch videos, and join forums. With the internet, there are no excuses to not find the information you need.
• Getting involved with local student films or no-budget productions could be a good way to start. These are productions where you can afford to make mistakes because everyone is still learning.
• Contact experienced sound designers that can mentor you. You’d be surprised by how excited people are to give tips and help out.
• Finally, be a well-rounded professional and not, as Germans say, a Fachidiot (a one-trick pony). In documentaries, the teams tend to be small, so all of your skill set will be appreciated. Don’t just stick to your department; be ready to contribute to all departments. This could include carrying heavy camera equipment or helping translate with your broken high school Spanish.
Great advice! And what projects are you currently working on?
Right now I am editing hours and hours of ambient sounds from the Olympic games. I got a bit too excited. They never end! The problem is they play a lot of music during the breaks, and we all know music is a big no-no. So I’m cutting out the music every time someone scores a point. It’s monotonous, but I don’t want Taylor Swift suing me. ;)
I’ve also started an audio post-production company that focuses on spatial audio for VR, 360° film, games, and installations called DELTA Soundworks. We believe spatial audio is the best technique for a fully-immersive experience, and with ambisonics technology, we are able to simulate surround sound for headphones and provide rotating audio that follows the video.
Sounds like you have your work cut out for you and exciting stuff in store for the future! If people want to get in touch or hear updates about your company, how can they reach you or follow you?
People can contact me regarding sound libraries at firstname.lastname@example.org, and for any questions regarding spatial audio for VR productions at email@example.com. They can also follow our Facebook pages www.facebook.com/deltasoundworks and www.facebook.com/montesound.
Thank you very much, Ana!
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