Sparrow Songs: Twelve Films in Twelve Months
Darkroom epiphanies, the creative merit of empathy, and why cell phones are the future of cinema.
By Maria Popova
The world is full of interestingness and talent, and Brain Pickings has been on a mission to unearth it for years. So we’re always delighted to come across likeminded cultural treasure-hunters who seek to document the fringes of human fascination. Which is why we love Sparrow Songs — a new project by filmmakers Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten (Rize), releasing one short documentary per month, every month, for a year.
Each of the twelve films spotlights an interesting person or project, from a musician who records a full-length album every month to the secret life of a Los Angeles puppet theater to a portrait of a donut shop. Cinematically shot and beautifully directed, the films are a promising exercise in filmmaking innovation — and judging by the filmmakers’ track record of previous critical acclaim across high-profile festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and True/False, they’re bound to strike a chord.
Today, we sit down with Alex and Michael to talk about the vision behind the project, emotional curiosity, and creating an audience for nonfiction film in the age of transmedia storytelling.
Hey Alex and Michael. Tell us a bit about your background, your brand of creative curiosity and what inspires you.
Alex: I went to grad school at UCLA where I got turned on to documentaries. Sparrow Songs is my first project out of school. For me this project is less about creative curiosity and more about emotional curiosity. I hear about these places or these lives and wonder what they feel like. I want to know what there is to be learned there. We go and experience the people and the place and then the creativity comes into play with Michael and I working together to try and find a way to convey those feelings and that reality.
Michael: My initial interest in photography stems from my uncle, who in his youth built a darkroom in my grandparent’s basement. In the 7th grade I discovered that same darkroom along with all his old black and white negatives. At the time I didn’t have a camera so I experimented with printing his photos, most of which were of him and his friends getting high. The images were so mysterious and poetic, it seemed there was a story behind each of them.
Those photographs inspired me to begin shooting and started me down the path of filmmaking. I also have a lot of people I’m inspired by, some of whom are: Bill Henson, Jeff Wall, Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Prince, Anna Gaskell and Harmony Korine.
How did the two of you partner up and what was the inspiration for the project?
Alex: Some of the inspiration came from the tradition of street photography — Helen Leavitt, Walker Evans, Nan Goldin, Joel Sternfeld, etc. I asked myself what those folks would be doing if they were starting out now and these short, intimate and portable portraits felt like a good answer. The inspiration also came from John Wood and his Learning Music project.
Michael had just gotten back from a job in Afghanistan when we met through a friend. I mentioned the project to him and he seemed interested. He has a wonderfully calm and peaceful energy and I… well, I don’t. It felt like it’d be a good balance.
Michael: Alex and I originally met on a music video that I was shooting. Then months later we randomly ran into each other in an alleyway behind my studio in Echo Park. Alex told me about Sparrow Songs and asked me what I thought. I loved the idea, a week later we shot our first episode.
What’s your process in curating the themes, subjects and people to make documentaries about?
Alex: I’ve just been trying to follow my intuition; with only a month to make each film you can’t have too many false starts or you wind up way behind. One thing that has really stuck with me — especially in the moments when I feel like the film we’re making is going to be terrible — is something Howard Suber, a professor at UCLA, said:
‘With enough compassion you can make a film about anything.’ I think that’s true, if you look deep enough into any life or any place, you’ll find something compelling.”
The past decade has seen a massive spike in documentary filmmaking, bringing the genre from the fringes of cinema into the mainstream of popular taste. What factors do you think have facilitated this? How do you anticipate documentary film will evolve as social media and everything they enable — worldwide connectivity, citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, instant news, transparency — continue to take hold?
Alex: For the audience, I think the political environment of the last ten years made documentaries feel more urgent and more needed than before. From the filmmaking side, the work has changed so quickly, almost across the board the films have become much more cinematic in scope and feel. And that’s important because this is the new journalistic form; this is the new essay.
Our generation’s Woodward and Bernstein aren’t going to be writing for a newspaper, they’ll be making nonfiction films. And the way those films are consumed will be different: the next film that changes the world won’t be seen in a movie theater — it’ll be posted on Facebook or watched on an iPad and emailed along.
Michael: In an odd way, reality television opened people up to the idea that maybe reality can be entertaining. Along with that you had the advances in technology, the ‘digital revolution’ that made making documentaries much easier for independent filmmakers. People now had the means to tell the stories they were passionate about. And then with Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock you had documentarians becoming household names. As far as the future goes, we’re only a couple years away from a moment when every phone has a video camera in it. At that point, to some extent, everyone will be a documentary filmmaker.
Why “Sparrow Songs”?
Michael: It sounds good, it feels right. The project changes with each film and I think the meaning of the name does too.
Alex: That’s true. Like a lot of things with this project, the idea came first and then the meaning(s) emerged. At first the name seemed to mirror what we’d be doing — making these pieces and just releasing them out into the world, just doing it for the sake of doing it.
More recently though it seems to me that a bird singing in a tree is something you can either stop and look at and appreciate or something that you can just ignore. I think the subjects in our films are like that, they could just as easily go by unnoticed but if you pause and look a lot can be revealed not only about them, but about the world around us.
Published April 19, 2010