Documentaries with a point of view

Production Journal

POV: Lumo is a collaboration among four different filmmakers with very different skill sets. Can you talk about how your skills complemented each other during production?

Nelson Walker III: There were four of us on the project — B.J. Perlmutt, Louie Abelman, Lynn True and me. On our first trip, it was just B.J. and me, then on the second trip, because so much of the film is in Swahili, we wanted translation on the spot, so we brought along our editor, Lynn True, and she was part of the process for most of the filming. It was a great collaboration and nice to have four different minds that think in four very different ways approaching one single goal and one story. B.J. and I are filmmakers, Lynn is a professional editor, and I worked on my first film with her about five years ago. Louie has a background in journalism and works for The New York Times.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt: We all work together well because Nelson was very precise about what images he wanted and how to move the camera, while I was more looking at the broader picture and thinking about what we needed to get tomorrow and the day after that. Neither Nelson nor I speak Swahili, and my French isn’t as good as I wanted it to be, so I invited Louie, who is half French, so he could communicate with others and gather information with a journalistic approach. On the second trip, Lynn was a godsend because she’s so organized — she would perch in the office all day, we’d bring her the footage, and she’d start downloading it immediately and working with the translators. Having four people collaborating and four very unique personalities always clashing really helped the process. I love how when Nelson and I disagreed, great things came out of that and helped us propel each scene forward.

POV: Lumo was shot in a community where multiple languages are spoken, including French and Swahili. How did you manage the language issues, and how did they wind up affecting the atmosphere of the film?

Perlmutt: The language issue wasn’t as big of a challenge as I thought it was going to be because we were observing more than interviewing. Both Nelson and I wanted to follow the emotions of the characters rather than what they were saying. In a lot of cases, when you’re shooting a film in English, you’re attuned to the information being passed along and you tend to overlook the expressions on your subjects’ faces and the emotional energy of the room. In a way, it helped us not knowing the language when we were shooting. But it was difficult knowing what to shoot and when, and we would have been better organized if we had spoken Swahili fluently.

Walker: Sometimes the way things were communicated made things very difficult. It was actually even difficult to determine when Lumo was going to have surgery. I walked into the hospital one day and Lumo was going into surgery. I was lucky that I got there when I did. We had been in touch with the doctors all along, but things happen there very spontaneously. We never fully got a grasp of how and when things were going to happen. We had to shoot from the hip and be ready at any moment for anything.

POV: What can you tell us about the editing process for Lumo?

Perlmutt: Editing was difficult because we had 200 hours of footage in seven different languages. I had edited “Control Room” before this project, and we edited that in three months, which I thought was normal, but I learned very quickly that three months was in fact extremely fast — we were under the gun for that project. With “Lumo,” we’ve been editing for a year now and we’re just wrapping up the color corrections. This project really showed me how difficult it is to edit 200 hours of footage into 52 minutes. As a cinematographer, it’s very different: You’re proud of the amount of footage you shoot, but then you don’t fully realize what that translates into later because each hour you shoot is another 10 hours of translating and another two weeks of editing. About six months ago, we didn’t know what shape the film was going to take. Fortunately, we edited it in an unconventional manner, where rather than taking the 200 hours and whittling away, we knew we had to do a 27-minute piece for Columbia University, and that made us realize that rather than focusing on several characters we should just focus on one. By doing that, we saw that we had enough footage to do a longer piece that just focused on Lumo. It really helped us to focus our story because we had another storyline on a broader scale, with the U.N. and the country healing, but we ended up cutting that because we had such powerful footage with Lumo.

POV: How long did it take to make the film?

Walker: It took a little over two years to make, and it was filmed on two different occasions in the Congo for three months each. The first three months we filmed the surgical training videos and got familiar with the story and with some of the women, so on that first trip we actually filmed what ends up as about 10 minutes of the film. Then we came back to the United States, started cutting that together and got a sense of how we wanted to tell the story. We returned to the Congo the following year and filmed for about three months there with Lumo, specifically. Then we returned to the U.S. and edited for close to a year.