VIFF 2019 Interview – HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN: A MOSAIC IN ONE MILE director Sandra Ignagni

“A sensory documentary exploring No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC, where more than 20 diverse places of religious worship stand side-by-side along a short stretch of suburban road. With no dialogue or narration, this definitely isn’t your conventional documentary, and yet it’s fully capable of provoking thought and reflection as audiences are immersed in one of the most unique cultural landscapes on Earth.” Director Sandra Ignagni on HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN: A MOSAIC IN ONE MILE which screens in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. 

I hear you are back this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.

This is my second short film at VIFF and I wouldn’t miss it for the world! My last short film, RANGER, premiered at VIFF in 2016. VIFF is one of my favourite film festivals in terms of accessibility and enjoyability for the film-going public. The festival programmers do a fantastic job of selecting creative films from around the world—an incredibly diverse selection of films that would be difficult to see otherwise. The length of the festival means that festival-goers have some breathing room between screenings. You’re not scrambling to plan 10 films in three days or anything like that. You can easily tackle 15 films over two-and-a-half weeks without the festival taking over your life! This also leaves lots of time to explore all the city has to offer, particularly the galleries, beaches and great selection of restaurants. 

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

Oh boy! That’s a big question. In 2014, I was teaching political science at a local university. I noticed that the best discussions I was having with students were around films and visual material that would get them thinking about a concept in a new way. Everyone had a smartphone, the cost of data was dropping, and I reasoned that nonfiction film was set to become an increasingly important educational tool in the future. 

Originally, I thought I would make historical and social-impact documentaries, since I’m a researcher by training and I have a lot to say about the state of the world! But the more I learned about the form (both documentary and narrative and everything in between), the more I found myself drawn to non-linear and non-character-driven films. There’s a saturation of high-impact films appealing to affect these days, so much so that for me these films were starting to lose their intended effect. I wondered if there was space for alternative forms, styles or even subjects? Could a film invite an audience to ask a question, rather than providing an answer?

So after taking a few film production classes locally, I applied to the UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Brooklyn, NY, and was admitted to their summer intensive program. I consider myself very lucky to have studied there! UnionDocs trains artists, experimental media makers and journalists—documentarians who use a very wide variety of tools and methods. We were a motley crew of eight from around the world—Canada, Brazil, Estonia, Somalia, the USA and Norway. Not only did I have the chance to learn from leading filmmakers, including Brett Story and Martha Shane, at UnionDocs I found a community that nurtured and supported my interests in nonfiction film and my unique way of seeing the world. That’s very rare in the documentary landscape. 

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

Highway to Heaven was a three-year project that began just prior to my time at UnionDocs. I used my time in Brooklyn to collate my ideas and observations into a proper treatment for the film. When I returned to Vancouver, I pitched the idea to the National Film Board of Canada and they agreed to support the film. From there, we developed the concept further over a period of many months. This development period included additional research, additional interviews and observation—both by myself and with producers Teri Snelgrove and Shirley Vercruysse, and involving the director of photography, Andrew Coppin. We moved into production in June of 2018, shooting the film over eight days. I then spent many months reviewing the roughly 30 hours of footage we gathered in isolation, working with the themes that interested me most, comparing footage to the original treatment and script, to the interviews and so forth. In late 2018, I began to work with editor Milena Salazar to sculpt each scene of the film. Sound designer Eva Madden joined the team in early 2019 to create a symphonic soundscape for each place we bring the audience in the film. 

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN is my second professional short film. If you ask my friends and colleagues, they’ll tell you that I very regularly declare that I will never make another film! It’s too difficult! But then I’ll see something I can’t forget. Like the field office of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting in East Hollywood. Thirty or so journeymen service 220,000 street lights in the City of Los Angeles! Their labour is incredibly valuable. It’s essential, actually, to the community at large, and yet invisible! When my father arrived in Canada from Italy at age 18, he was one of those men—in Toronto—quietly building the physical infrastructure for the city that everyone now enjoys. So I see certain places that resonate with me. I realize that if I don’t make the film, no one will. And so I have to make another film! I care deeply about our historical record. 

And yes, I drink way too much coffee.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was our production schedule. Eight production days meant that we had to work quickly and efficiently to get the images we needed for the film. Add to that the complexity of places and events we were filming—religious ceremonies and monastic life in general. We were in holy spaces and it was important to be mindful of our footprint. I can’t say enough positive things about Teri, Andrew and my production crew. These folks worked tirelessly and literally around the clock to produce the images you see in the film. No small feat given how many people appear in front of the camera. Particularly Andrew—I wish every film director the great experience of working with a talented and conscientious DOP like Andrew. He’s a true gem.

In terms of rewards, I absolutely loved working with Milena Salazar on the film. She’s funny and smart—a perfect combination for a challenging edit. When people see the film, it can appear deceptively simple. You think, oh, it’s only images and diegetic sound and no story to construct—very easy. Quite the opposite is true. When you don’t have a specific character journey to anchor the edit (plot and turning points and such), the possibilities become endless! There are hundreds upon hundreds of combinations of images. It takes a very skilled editor to navigate that terrain, to help the director get their message across with a visual language, without the use of words, and to walk the fine line between intentionality and openness. 

Of course, sharing the completed film with the communities that appear in it was the ultimate reward. And then bringing it TIFF? A crazy wild ride.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

We filmed the documentary using two ARRI Mini cameras and in 2.39 aspect ratio because this is ultimately a cinematic landscape film. Because of the film’s structure and content, image quality was a key concern driving visual design. I’m a fan of documentary minimalism. Though we placed the Mini on a Ronin for at least part of the time in production, and captured stunning movements, ultimately my preference in the edit was for static images so that the audience could process each one quickly and then move on to the next. I wanted to distill each place down to its essence, and for me, personally, that’s harder to do with the camera looking around everywhere. Sure, you might see more of a space, but it’s the quiet moments—fingers rolling methodically over prayer beads, for example—that capture the essence of faith.

Andrew and I visited the locations many times together. We had a very clear shooting script. With that said, this is documentary, and nothing ever goes quite as planned, but we were very well prepared. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Vancouver?

To me, the ultimate joy with this film is hearing what it made people think about and feel. It’s a film that is experienced in a very personal way—the way one “reads” it ultimately rests on one’s own life experiences. It’s the process of seeing the film through someone else’s eyes that is very rewarding for me as the film’s director. I learn so much in every conversation I have. 

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

After VIFF we’re headed to Chicago for our United States premiere in competition at the Chicago International Film Festival.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

I’d assume that they would have a very good reason for doing so.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

I’ll pass along some sage advice shared by Ron Mann at the RIDM Talent Lab many moons ago: Don’t look up for help—look to your peer group. That’s what I did with Ranger. I didn’t bother seeking financing—the boat was scheduled to be decommissioned and I needed to just go. I used my lifetime accumulation of air miles to purchase two tickets to Labrador, packed a suitcase full of power bars for sustenance, and the rest is history. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

The Forgotten Space is a film essay by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, which I saw at Hot Docs in 2012.

VIFF screening in Beyond Belief shorts program:

Sunday, October 6, 2019 at 8:15 PM International Village 8

For this and more movies playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, point your browser to www.viff.org

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