Around the time stars were sashaying down the red carpet at Cannes, cinematic history was being made elsewhere. On May 25, places as far apart as Bogota and Bangalore hosted the worldwide premier of The Owner, a film by an unprecedented 25 film makers from 13 countries.
The film is held together by the protagonist, a backpack, which gets passed from person to person across five continents, in an attempt to be reunited with its owner, whose identity is a mystery. Thus, at various points, it is on a bullock cart in Mumbai, with a girl in search of her father in Lebanon and a gang of criminals in London.
The Owner is the first venture of CollabFeature, founded by Detroit-based film makers Ian Bonner and Marty Shea. With film makers from across the globe, this collaboration was almost entirely online. Many have never met in person. “Most of the collaboration work,” says Xavier Agudo, a Colombian director based in Berlin who made one of the segments, “was done through a central web platform with discussion forums that permitted the uploading of scripts, voting and managing tasks.”
Neha Raheja Thakker, a Mumbai-based film maker and one of the four Indian directors involved with The Owner, says she was concerned about how everything would be held together. “But as we began working, I saw how organised it was and was reassured.” There was also the high of being part of something that had never been attempted before, she says. Thakker had come on board after seeing a notice on a website inviting film makers for the project. Once everyone had agreed that the ‘theme’ would be of an object being shared (the backpack), each film maker pitched five ideas for their scripts, which were selected on the basis of ratings by their colleagues. Bonner and Shea took the shortlisted ideas and created the outline, after which each film maker had to shoot their segments of two to three minutes, and upload it for peer reviews.
Editing a film like this was no cakewalk, reveals Brian Shephard, the editor of The Owner who also directed one of the segments. While each film maker was responsible for editing his or her vignette, Shephard would take the edited versions, assemble the film and after matching audio levels, doing minor colour correction and inserting some temporary music, he would upload a version for the entire group to review. After getting feedback, changes would be made, which also meant reshooting some cases. The Orlando-based film maker then worked with the new edits, which would again be reviewed, a process that went on for six to seven times till they got “picture lock”.
The Owner took two-and-a-half-years in the making but CollabFeature has become more ambitious since. Its next film, The Train Station, involves 40-odd directors from 20 countries. The film, which is already in production, “follows a character throughout the world, essayed by different actors, while he makes different decisions for different situations,” says Agudo.
Nitye Sood, an Indian film maker involved in the new project, says The Train Station is more complicated than The Owner because the central character is a man, and not a prop. “There are different, parallel story paths,” says the engineering student who has made a few short films. Sood says in such a project there are bound to be disagreements but then, “it’s a bit of give and take. And you can make pretty good cinema through collaboration.”