/Interview by Natalia Dukhovnikova/
Alex Siles is a young director and writer from Canada. He has created «The Frontliners» in order to show the world the worker’s point of view and what they experience going through day by day, dealing with the pandemic. This film is a reminder to all of us always to remember who save our lives in a tough time. We talked to Alex and found out what it means to be a frontliner in Canada and to make essential documentaries like his one.
It is clear that the topic of pandemic is now as actual as nothing else. But why have you chosen it for your project?
The thing in dealing with pandemic is that we have the sort of fear that we have to stay inside to make sure we are healthy. But not everyone can stay at home. The essential workers still have to continue working every day, providing a service for us. They are still putting themselves at the risk when going to their workplaces. I think this documentary is more for the recognition to those workers. I wanted to show their side of the stories of what COVID-19 means to them. I wanted to show how the world is developing around them. Doctors are working every day on the frontline to provide medical care for us, grocery stores provide stocking shelves to make sure we have the necessary needs to survive on the daily basis. I think it’s the most crucial thing that we have to not just think about COVID-19 from our point of view but also think about all the workers, how they try to provide a sacrifice for us to make sure that we have everything we need.
Have you worked yourself on frontlines?
I recently worked in a grocery store so I completely understand what it means to still continue on the work, wearing a mask and gloves, and still provide service to people. It was a huge time shift for us, we had to obey the new rules and other stuff. My parents keep working too: my dad works as a truck delivery guy and my mom works as a district manager for the restaurant. So I clearly understand what they have to go through in this constant battle. And most of my entire neighborhood is full of essential workers. So learning more about them and their stories has made me want to feel intrigued about these people and their daily battles. I wanted to find out what these workers feel about the fact that they have to survive not only themselves and take care of their families but to help others do that.
Can you tell more details about the filming process: how much time did it take to prepare and the filming itself?
I filmed in spring of 2020. There was still fresh news of COVID-19 and I understood that it was the absolute must time to shoot a documentary, at least to get people aware of what the situation was. The aim was to show something new about that, not to tell what we already knew. I think the biggest problem at that time was that people didn’t really seem to care seriously about the workers, they just wanted to grab what they came to buy and leave without some sort of recognition for the workers. I wanted to give them my support.
Here in Toronto from March till mid May of last year everyone was on full alert, buying so many essential stuff. Then by time when summer warmth came, everyone seemed to forget that COVID-19 still existed and that doctors, for example, hadn’t seen their kids for months due to this. In my film you can see a park with lots of people there. In my documentary there are stretches full on from last year to this one too because it’s still around, it’s still the biggest issue. Even with vaccines it still needs awareness and a good publication.
The filming process took me roughly about a month: a couple of weeks just shooting and then post-production. Everything went smoothly. And it’s important to notice that it was a no budget project. I did everything on my own. It was a good experience and my first legitimate documentary. I’m pleased with the result 100%. Now I’m eager to do more things.
Did you have any problems during the filmmaking process?
The most difficult thing about this project was that I had to ask people to record their workplaces. People weren’t comfortable about that but this project is based on true stories. I wanted to show the audience all working processes of frontliners in their eyes. Thanks to my characters you can see various opinions. Personally, I recorded myself at a grocery store, showing my coworker putting pallets on top. The rest of this film was pretty good to make. At the end we got to give quite a deliverable message: what an essential worker is and what to do to prevent more cases as time progresses on.
After discussing your project, let’s find out more information about you as a person and director. Why do you create exactly documentary films?
Right now I feel like I’m in a good position to work on documentaries. That’s so because I graduated from the Toronto Film School with a documentary profile and it was my first serious student short film. I had to work with a crew and actors for the first time. I love it so much. I already have some scripts for new projects in mind that I want to make real. The creation never stops so I’m always open to try new things. I’m eager to see where my ambitions take me from here on.
Tell more about your studying. How has the Toronto Film School influenced your mind as a director?
Well, before that I had an experience of being a freelance filmmaker and videographer, working on corporations and brands. I worked on a fashion magazine and with big time corporations. I’ve worked on music videos and artisan interviews. I wanted to get an experience before entering the school. I did it and then entered the Toronto Film School and had the full year and a half program.
One thing I definitely learned there that changed my mind 100%: I didn’t know as much as I needed. I understood how many things were not opened to me and I’m glad I got that course. I also learned how to be proactive with myself as an independent filmmaker. And the pandemic has shown people that everyone should be able to rely on himself and also be ready to work online. Now is the best time to be a filmmaker because there are so many opportunities of streaming on various services. Our job is to make sure that our creation will never stop. We have to pursue what we have and make it good for the audience. We have to make cinematography survive. During the Toronto Film School I realized: I have to learn new things.
What are your plans for the nearest future?
I don’t know yet what work exactly I want to get. I’d say I want to figure out where my heart and creation will lead me to. But yes, I’m focusing right now on looking for a placement to work as a video editor. But some time later I want to come back to studies and I’ll earn the master’s degree. I also want to become able to teach others who need help in learning experience in this sphere. I always think of helping others and try to find ways to do that.
Do you prefer to film real people or professional actors in your projects?
I think actors already know what they have to do and that’s their advantage. But I like to work with real people too because they may have some personal stories, special sides of these stories that only they know. Sometimes people may have a new interesting way of looking at your script. I think the most important thing in being a filmmaker is to experiment new things. You try new things and look if it works or it doesn’t. That’s what filmmaking is.
What are your movie preferences?
As I’m in love with films, I really watch them constantly. I’m a fan of not just drama film but more thriller ones, crime and adventure types. I’m from that kind of filmmakers who want to dive deeper into emotions and portray them in a straight way. When you see it, you feel it. As I said, I watch movies on a constant basis and while doing that I try to pick things I like from there and remember them so that then I can use all this stuff in my creation. I’m a very abstract person and colors which portray the scene or the frame really get me. Every color relies a message. When I play around the colors, I want to target their meaning into things I’m filming. The atmosphere really helps to feel something while watching.
What do you like more: short movies or long ones?
I’d like to see myself as a filmmaker of long movies, like feature ones. I’d like to see myself on big screens. But I understand that in this sphere you can’t just jump in and start creating serious films. And I really like working on small stories that are put in short films. Firstly, I need to film short ones and then get to feature films and play with bigger people.
In your opinion, is it necessary to go to Hollywood to become a professional filmmaker?
No, I’m sure for filmmaking it doesn’t matter where you are from. As long as you have a story and a camera, then you are in the right place. The only thing you need is to start making something. The more you shoot, the more recognition you get and it doesn’t matter where you live, in Canada or wherever else. This I’ve learned long before the Toronto Film School. I started from recording everything just on my phone and then I bought myself my first camera. With every new stuff I was buying, my ambitions have started building up. I prefer to work in Canada because I feel there is so much to show, so many stories to be told. You don’t see lots of movies made in Canada or Toronto and that’s what I’m going to change.
Do you think, teamwork is a good thing?
Personally, I like working with a team, with a very collaborative great creating team. Once you have a ready script and story to tell, your next task is to find the right people to bring that vision into life, into the frame. Creativity is the most crucial thing. So yeah, I rather prefer working with a team but COVID-19 made us do everything by ourselves. My classes were online and I did everything on my own. I learned how to edit and sound-edit, how to make color correction and lots of other things by myself. But now I’ve learned how to be remote. Yes, now I’m used to it but I rather choose teamwork.
What is your favorite part in the whole filmmaking process?
I’d say that organizing and editing all together is my favorite part. When you have filmed everything you wanted, now your job is to put everything together and make it perfect. That’s what I like mostly about working in cinematography: you can piece everything together in a way you want it to be. Besides, I like directing and controlling the filmmaking process so that everything works perfectly as it should. The last thing I like about all this is hiring perfect people for your project. Sometimes it takes so much time. It’s like finding a perfect small stone in a rocky sand.
In your opinion, does a director need to be good at post-production?
In cinematography usually directors don’t edit, they hire specialists for that, picture or story editors. But I was under circumstances over COVID-19 when I had to be everyone. And also if you don’t have a budget to hire an editor, then you take it upon yourself. It’s your job to make sure that what you put on the screen is accurate to what you are editing on. Otherwise you won’t be happy with it.
What do you think, are there enough options today for young filmmakers to improve their skills and realize their potential?
Today there are hundreds of courses online to help you learn basic things about the filmmaking process. Of course, not all of them are free but there are many classes of various directors you can take part in online. And talking about the biggest platform for studying – YouTube, there you can find any tutorials you want. It can give you lots of useful tips and details of how to become better. I know it on myself. As I said, before the Toronto Film School, I self-taught myself how to be a filmmaker by watching YouTube and experimenting things. And it’s very important not to rely only on one source of information. Sometimes you need to watch many people’s opinions. The more you learn from various people, the more you understand about this world. In cinematography there are so many different ways and variants you can choose from.
You can learn new things even by watching your favorite movies. While doing that you can pinpoint moments you like and then try to repeat them in work.
Is it a problem for you to notice every cinematographic detail when watching movies and series?
After learning so much about the film production process and graduation from the Toronto Film School, I can’t be an ordinary viewer anymore. I mean, the more films I watch, the more I’m automatically looking for every interesting detail, the way the film was shot, the lights. All these little pieces catch my eyes. Now I have the necessary knowledge and experience to understand why directors do what we see.
What features as a filmmaker do you already find pretty good developed in yourself?
Definitely editing. I feel exactly how to edit, how to synchronize everything together. I feel myself good at picture and video editing. What I like in it is that you can make something better from something that has been already shot. Sometimes I’m really very proud of myself. Besides, I know something about colors and cameras that are necessary to be used in different situations. I understand how to shoot an object properly so that it will look the same way it should on the final scene.
Does a filmmaker need to have a talent?
You don’t need to have a talent to become a filmmaker. You can make any movies you want and even if they look bad, there is something good in them. You may find bad actors but your way of shooting will save the project. Realistically, you don’t need to be a perfect filmmaker. Of course you can try to be but realize that no one is perfect.
Is it important to repeat someone’s example of filmmaking?
The number one thing we really need to do is to watch films. And they can be films of various directors and of all times. You take pieces of every bit of films and you make it in your way. You shouldn’t just copy and paste. And obviously all films are inspired by others. Any director should keep his eyes open to see what others offer in the film industry.
What do you think, is it real to make a perfectly original project or it will always just be a remake, a new version of something that has been done before by someone else?
Every sort of art is inspired by one person who then inspires others. And that’s how it works. You can try to make something original by some personal influences but there is nothing 100% original.