New Renaissance Film Festival 2023
STRINGS OF THE ANDES
Oct 3, 2023
"The Vanishing Strings of the Andes" is an extraordinary documentary that not only educates but also touches the hearts of its audience. Sam Watkins' directorial debut showcases his remarkable talent and dedication to shedding light on important social issues through the power of visual storytelling.
Hi Sam, It’s really great to talk with you. Are you looking forward to NFRR?
Great to speak to you too! I’m super excited for NFRR. It’s going to be a fantastic festival. I’ve had a look at some of the selected films already and it seems like a great selection.
What has it meant to you to have your latest short film, The Vanishing Strings of the Andes, in the Challenges and Resilience section of the 2023 NRFF?
Honestly, it’s really exciting! It’s very appropriate to have the film included in the Challenges and Resilience section because the entire short is aimed at spreading awareness of the challenges faced by guitar makers in Ecuador. Their entire livelihoods are at risk. The resilience that they show in the face of this seemingly insurmountable challenge is truly impressive.
With this being Watkins Films’ first independently produced documentary, does this add any extra pressure on you and your team ahead of the screening?
I think at the start there was some pressure, but that dissipated somewhat following the first few screenings. And just last week we took home the award for ‘Best Music Documentary Short’ at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival in Arizona, USA. That has helped take the pressure off somewhat, because the documentary is already doing so well – which we’re super pleased about!
How important are film festivals like NRFF in being able to platform indie short films, and what more can be done to bring these shorts films and filmmakers to wider audiences outside of the festival circuit?
Film festivals like NRFF are hugely important as just an official selection in itself can lend a degree of credibility to filmmakers and their works. It shows reputable and important festivals believe in a filmmaker and their work enough to make it part of their programming. This helps filmmakers start to gain recognition and clout which is hugely important in today’s attention-deficit society. So festivals provide us with a heuristic-means, a shortcut to understanding what is a quality piece of work and what is not.
In regards to what more can be done to bring these short films to wider audiences outside the festival circuit… I think getting distribution is important. Normally, short films are seen as portfolio pieces by emerging filmmakers to allow them to get funding or move onto bigger or longer projects… but I don’t think that should be the only focus. For instance, the New York Times YouTube Channel had a Op-ed short film called ‘Iraq War Veterans, 20 Years later’. It’s only 17 minutes long but it’s an incredibly powerful story, an excellent short, and has more than 6.7 million views. Of course, we don’t all have access to the New York Times, but I believe filmmakers should strive to find a channel or outlet where your audience is and where your content is relevant. And being selected by a film festival like NRFF is going to give you the clout to be able to go to a distributor and say: ‘Look, I’ve got a film that I think would fit perfectly with your audience and here’s the proof’.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Vanishing Strings of the Andes, how did you become familiar with Ecuador’s forgotten guitar road?
In my spare time, I am an aspiring guitarist. While reading up about guitars, I found a very short mention of guitar makers in the remote Andes mountains of Ecuador. I tried to find out more about them, and I discovered there wasn’t much information out there. I began to realise that if I wanted to find out about them, I’d have to go there myself.
"For my first film I went halfway around the world… to a place I had never been before… to a different time zone… to work with people that I had never worked with before…to direct in both Spanish and English and then edit a film in a foreign language."
What was it about this story and history that connected with you so much as a filmmaker?
As a guitarist, there was a natural interest in finding out how the guitars were made. As a filmmaker, I was fascinated that there wasn’t much that had already been published about these Ecuadorian luthiers and the problems they face. After I got in contact with them, and began to realise their entire livelihood was at risk, I felt it was important for me to go there in person, document their struggles, and hopefully spread some awareness. And it’s something that has already born fruit – the guitar makers say that sales have picked up since the documentary was released, and they have also been contacted by someone who wants to export their guitars and sell them in the United States.
What was the most challenging aspect you’ve faced bringing The Vanishing Strings of the Andes, how did you go about finding participants for this film and was there any hesitation from them to be involved?
The most challenging aspect, for me, was communication. I knew I wanted to tell this story, and that I had a good level of Spanish, but I didn’t take into account the regional dialect which was hard for me to understand. Thankfully, I had amazing help while on the ground there, in the form of a fixer called Carlos Lara who helped find a number of luthiers willing to speak to me. There was not hesitation from any of the interviewees. They were all keen to share and to do whatever they could to try and preserve their work and way of life.
During the production what were some of the more surprising things you discovered about Ecuador’s guitar tradition?
I think what surprised me was how ingenious craftsmen they were. For instance, something that we weren’t able to include in the film, was that one of the guitar luthiers, Gabriel Coyago, actually makes some of his own custom tools for his work. And they don’t even use any ovens or other artificial techniques to dry the wood, because doing so might shorten the life of the guitar. They just let the wood dry naturally – which takes years and years. And it’s all in the name of creating a long-lasting product. You don’t see that much these days. Nowadays, products are almost purposefully created to last a shorter amount of time, so that you have to buy another one sooner, and spend more money. These luthiers are crafting items that will last for a long time, and are extremely proud of that fact.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this film been for you?
The whole project was a challenge. Most first-time filmmakers make their first short film in their local area, usually with support from their friends or local network. For my first film I went halfway around the world… to a place I had never been before… to a different time zone… to work with people that I had never worked with before… to direct in both Spanish and English and then edit a film in a foreign language. Looking back, I have no idea how I got through it. I could have made things easier on myself, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the story I needed to tell. Regardless of how difficult it was going to be.
Looking back at this production, what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from the shoot?
As of this moment, I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you need to find a story that you really care about – that you can stick with no matter what. If you really, truly care about the film you’re making, about the story you’re telling, then that will get you over every single hurdle.
First think about the story that you want to tell and why it matters to you, and then why it should matter to other people. Between a choice of something easy to pull off but doesn’t excited you much, and something that is really difficult but does excite you, always go for the latter.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
From a very young age, I’ve always had a passion for creativity, drawing, design, and music. My passion for filmmaking specifically came after I completed my University studies. I started working in the industry, first as an intern at BBC Scotland, and later with various commercial film editing companies. Over the years, I really wanted to try my hand at independent filmmaking…and here we are!
Has your background as a video editor helped you as you’ve moved more into directing?
One hundred percent. I genuinely think I have been able to avoid the most common pitfalls that first-time filmmakers find themselves in, thanks to my background in commercial film editing. Mistakes in audio quality, for example, or in not keeping the edit as tight as possible. I’m not saying I’ve never made these mistakes, but that I made them years ago when I first started as a video editor. This experience has really helped me hit the ground running as an independent filmmaker.
What’s next for you on your filmmaking journey? Are there any film genres you’re looking forward to exploring with future projects?
I’d really love to direct more unscripted and documentary content. I’d also love to do some more work highlighting the stories of underserved communities and indigenous people. I have a few ideas that I’m looking to get funding for. Now that I have this first film down, I’m looking to start building more of a track record. But I do intend to keep promoting ‘The Vanishing Strings of the Andes’ for the next while, because I believe it’s a story that needs to be told in order to help those who are featured in it.
What do you you want to say with this film and is there any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
I want to encourage values of appreciating quality over quantity. Whilst globalism has its merits, I feel we need more of a balance in our society and that we should seek to preserve those quality trades and crafts. Otherwise, they will likely be lost forever.
In terms of general filmmaking advice, I would say for your first film - just do it. You learn so much by doing. But thereafter you need to figure out how to get paid (or at least break even) for film two and beyond. We work in the film business, after all, and I think many indie filmmakers focus on just the creative aspect and hope that that will carry them to lofty heights. This often comes at the expense of the business and marketing side of things. After all, you can have the best film in the world but if nobody sees it then it’s not going anywhere.
Finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from The Vanishing Strings of the Andes?
I want audiences to gain a greater awareness of the plight of guitar luthiers in Ecuador, but to also gain a sense of who these craftsmen are, and why they do what they do. I think the documentary will also give audiences an insight into globalisation, and help them start to spend their money more consciously – perhaps choosing to support their local stores, artists, and craftsmen.