A few weeks back there was a light-hearted event in London called The Adventurists Film Festival — in their own words, “fighting to make the world less boring”. The overall winner of the open competition came from a bunch of misfits known as the Vagabondz, who drove a clapped-out old van from England to Georgia. I challenge you to watch this 20-minute film in full:
Why did this film win?
I’d hazard a guess that it won because it fulfilled better than all other entries the single most important element of filmmaking: story.
It is by no means perfect. The filming is mostly awful. The picture quality is rubbish; the technical aspects of the shoot are inconsistent and lacking, there is no stunning high-definition eye-candy and little compositional flair. And the flow stalls a little in the second half too. But none of that really matters.
Because the human side is captured superbly, the protagonists remain honest and natural on camera, the editor has told the story in a dynamic, captivating and humorous way. Somehow the amateur camerawork is transformed into an endearing aspect of the piece. We follow the rag-tag travellers on their journey — physical and psychological — from naivety through learning by overcoming obstacles to eventual enlightenment. A classic story formula.
On the other hand, many of the other entries failed to engage in this way. Instead of posing a dilemma and opening with a question, they left nothing in suspense. Start: This is what we did. Bang. Film’s over before it’s begun. Isn’t the spirit of adventure defined in part by not knowing what’s coming?
If you continue watching, this happened, then this happened, then this happened. We finished. The end. Pictures, not people, meant that empathy never arose in the viewer. Emotional engagement was lacking. Trite soundtracks and endless shots of travelling down roads filled the required minutes.
People don’t follow adventures. They follow those who are having them. It’s far more interesting to watch someone live out their story than to glance through a high-speed selection of things that the person saw on the way.
I’m exaggerating the successes and failures, of course — most of the videos were entertaining enough, and some of them were excellent.
But just as one wouldn’t win any awards for writing a book of descriptions of landscapes in chronological order, or telling the story in the first chapter and then spending the rest of the book on some of the details, so goes the same thing for travel films.
So many of the lessons of good writing — the art of storytelling — can be applied to filmmaking, but this is often forgotten. And video is a medium relentlessly on the rise. We need to learn what makes a good film.
The festival was held in the spirit of fun and comedy, but the entrants represented all that is good and bad about adventure films. In an age of ever-more-alluring technical wizardry and clever equipment, and the corresponding emergence of some of the most obscene eye-candy ever seen, budding adventure filmmakers would do well to remember why Vagabondz won.