The Archipelago - Case study

“The Archipelago”

(2015, 41 mins - Colour / Dolby Digital) is a documentary directed by Benjamin Huguet.


The Faroe Islands: a gathering of dramatically weathered islands in the vast North Atlantic Sea with a community in transition. For centuries the Faroese have proudly lived mainly off the natural resources at their immediate disposal – a pact between mankind and the wilderness based on balance and self-sustainability. True to traditional methods of sustainability, the modern Faroese continue to hunt the pilot whales. This controversial practice has long been under the scrutiny of western society, and now the international community is stepping in.

This film is a portrait of a nation that for many years has lived undisturbed, but is now forced to explain and defend their way of living, as the International NGO Sea Shepherd announces its largest anti-whaling campaign to date. The clash between these two opposing ecological visions could very well change the face of the archipelago forever.

Brief and challenges

Working on a documentary which tries to address such a sensitive subject was indeed a job to do first on ourselves and then on the piece. The reason is dramatically embedded in its scope: it is extremely easy to be judgemental about what these people do (their hunting practices), and discard every kind of reasoning behind it.

Yet, this was indeed the objective of the film: creating an experience that, more than shocking you, would give you a complete sense and a broader understanding of why things happen in relation to a tradition and cultural heritage. And, in a way, rebalance your vision on why we usually assume things without considering the bigger picture, without giving a judgement or taking a definite position on such a strong subject. From this point of view, I guess I was lucky to find myself in the same condition and therefore able to understand how to leverage my work in music.

Research and process

The communication with the director was indeed very good, and started quite early in the process. As a music composer, it is always extremely valuable to be involved at an early stage. Even if the nature of the project did not require a strict script to follow, I could get a huge amount of inspiration by following periodic updates on the shooting and also see some raw footage and pictures taken on the islands while shooting. On my side, I tried to contribute as well by delivering early musical ideas based on these elements and to share ideas and inputs I had.

We started by having 3 main concepts in mind:

- the sense of space and time of the Faroes: the film takes place in a precise time and space, but we should get the sense that what happens there has been like that for centuries and centuries (and, nature-wise, millions and millions of years)
- the underlined connection between the whaling practice in the Faroes and Indonesia: in fact, these two communities share a very similar practice of hunting, although they are very obviously different communities
- the “opponent” forces that are present in the island, partly represented by the Sea Sheperds and their activity to oppose in every way the practice of hunting whales.

These three elements in a way shaped the sounds and the instrumentation that I chose as main components of the soundtracks:

- Instruments that would “blow”, like producing flowing, airy/windy sounds to represent the eternal ongoing nature of the islands (this was especially to be present in the very first shots of a dawn in the island, and the connecting shots of nature used to bridge sections);

- Instruments that would trace a connection between the Faroes and Indonesia: without being too blatant in choice of instrumentation, there were some sections were an artist represented the hunting in paintings, so that would be a perfect spot to score with this in mind; also, later in the doc there is some footage of another documentary that refers to the same setting, where the music could evolve from before;

- Instruments that generate a sense of oppression in the viewer, as to mean that something bad could happen - in relation to the Sea Sheperds approaching and the obvious potential frictions and fights between the community and the NGO group.

These concepts were to be interrelated with the 3 main characters of the film:

The old man, known as the artist, who symbolises the connection with the past and the Indonesian culture;
The teacher, who represents the active community living in the present;
The young man, who is the most exposed to the the clash of living in a place with ancient and debatable traditions, and having to adapt to a “common”, western way of living.

In the end we decided not to score the film as character-based soundtrack, but certainly there are some loose connection between each cue in the film and the characters in it.

A deep sense of nostalgia, roughness, and longing for traditions were words commonly used in our discussions.

References

A lot of existing references were discussed and taken as good example to use as inspiration. An experimental documentary from the sixties was particularly insightful, Bassae (1964) by Jean-Daniel Pollet (1936-2004). Other examples were some elements of the guitar tracks from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (2004), a film where the score keeps up incredibly well with that longing nature that resonates  a lot with a piece like The Archipelago.

Process and shaping of the soundtrack

During the shooting I happened to be I was in Sicily, an island in the southern part of Italy. Although extremely different in climate, both Sicily and The Faroes obviously share a lot in terms of “islandic nature”. I took this as a good opportunity and so composed some tracks based on recordings of the nature I took on the island. From an email I wrote to the director during production:

“I went to Selinunte, an archeological site in the west side of Sicily, where some Greek temple ruins are located. These temples are on a hill facing directly the sea, so you can hear it from there. I placed the mic in between some of the columns and tried to get some resonances from there. I got some interesting sounds, which I enhanced using EQing in post prod and played with a bit. You can find two versions of the file here, one just with the sea samples, one also with  balm crickets singing, which are quite loud in the area.”
Some of the ideas I produced with this were eventually developed and used in the opening section of the film, and in another sequence related that followed the same concept.

Bridging past and present on these sequences was a challenge achieved, in a way, by using actual sounds that one would link with a sense of being rooted in the past, and then filter and process them musically.