Sidik and The Panther
Amsterdam, 2020-11-17 - Freek Zonderland
'Sidik en De Panter' is a film about a man called Sidik, wandering around in the mountains of Kurdistan looking for a sign of the Persian leopard. An animal that once lived in Kurdistan but fled across borders because of wars and conflicts. He believes that after a long history of war and politics when he can find and photograph the leopard first, the region will become a national park, and bombs will never drop again over the Kurdish mountains.
Reber Dosky, the director, followed Sidik for years on his trips in the mountains. Everybody else in the region is occupied with conflict and politics but he just hides in the mountains every day to find the leopard and other interesting species. He thinks that once the leopard is found, balance will be restored between humans and nature. We wanted this film to look like a feature drama. The scenery was so mythical and the places Sidik took us were if you stepped right into a movie. We also wanted the scope image ratio to show as much of the country's beauty as possible. Normally, the only thing you see from the Kurdish region is war and devastation. We have shot this film on an Arri Amira (Alexa Mini, some parts) and some rehoused Cooke S3 lenses. With this narrative setup, we started almost every scene in a wide-angle shot to observe Sidik in this majestic scenery. We only changed lenses or position when we thought it would add value to the scene. This way of shooting was sometimes quite heavy on the crew with hours of climbing in the mountains, it really forced us to look very closely at everything that was happening. We couldn't 'crash zoom' on everything that occurred and I think that really helped us develop a carefully chosen language for this film.
The film premiered on IDFA 2019 and won the award for best Dutch documentary. After that, we received a nomination for the IMAGO international cinematography awards, which for me personally was a big honor. Now the selection for Camerimage is a dream come true.
This film does not just tell Sidik's story. In the film, we see him as a guide through the mountains. He shows us his places but he also meets new people with a story. Through him, the film tells the story of the Kurds
One of the scenes that means a lot to me is of a large group of women, all dressed in black, coming to an anonymous graveyard where hundreds of young men are buried after one of the attacks of Sadam Hussein on the Kurdish people. They mourn for their husbands, brothers, and sons that were killed just because they were Kurds. The older woman on the right of the frame tells us that she had a dream about her late brother being buried underneath a specific tree in that graveyard. Even though all graves are unnamed, she has a strong feeling that her brother is in that specific grave. Since that dream, she comes back every week to sing for her brother. The only thing Sidik does in this scene is to listen to the songs. He does that in a very serene and patient way, almost like a prophet.
On top of that, right before everyone leaves the site, a storm comes up and the wind starts moving the trees and the black dresses. Leaving everybody silent.
During the film, Sidik tries to capture the glances of the leopard by placing hidden camera traps in the mountains. Sometimes he places dead animals in front of the lens to lure the animals. Some of these exciting night shots are edited in the film. It gives a stunning view of all the wildlife that is present in the Kurdish part of Iraq. In this short scene, we see how Sidik picks up a born dead calf at a local farm to use as bait for the leopard. It's a bit of a graphic scene but also a very subtle way to show life and death.
Throughout the film, we lavishly used all the seasons of the year to show the different looks the countryside of Kurdistan can have. We started the shoot in the rainy fall and went from knee-deep snow towards screensaver-like spring hills and bone dry 45 degrees Celsius summer heat. It truly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited in my life. The beauty of these mountains was important to show because it has so many contrasts. Not only the literal contrasts of the seasons but also the contrasts of beautiful mountains on the outside and harsh battles fought from within these mountains. Kurds have always used their mountains for shelter when attacked, and they still do. An important phrase that came up in the film is: 'the mountains are the Kurds' only friends'. That's why it was so important to Reber to show these mountains in full glory.
During this shooting period, we got tested by the elements. From unpredictable weather between the mountains to the political games you have to cope with while shooting in this kind of environment. But the solution was always in the story. As long as the crew, and especially the director lives and breathes it (and Reber is a master at that) you always know what to do, even when things don't go as planned. In this scene, we were filming Ali, an old man who has been blind for the largest part of his life. We wanted to film him near a beautiful water spring that we had seen. But during the long drive into the mountains a thick fog came up and we couldn't go any further. At first, we were discouraged about it but when we looked around and saw the place where we stopped had become a field of silhouettes of dark trees that were barely visible through the mist. We realized that it would be very interesting to just ask Ali to sit down and tell his story on that spot with poor visibility. There we were, listening to this old, wise man telling about his memories and how his family fled for the gas attacks of Sadam Hussein, covering everything in white clouds.
Technically I tried to keep things as simple as possible. Before we started this shoot I knew we were going to be shooting in the wild. Shooting in the mountains meant a lot of hiking, sometimes for 3 hours or more just to get to altitude. We had help from a horse or donkey to carry equipment, but on some trips, we had to go to places that were too steep for horses and donkeys. Which meant we had to carry everything ourselves.
On the first trip (we went on trips of 10 to 14 days each season) we carried everything by hand. Something that really challenges you when you're up a slope above the clouds.
So we decided we had to upgrade our gear. With a lot of help from Edwin Verstegen and talks with Dick Harrewijn on shooting in nature, I pimped my gear with special backpacks that could fit an Amira body and another one for the Cooke S3 set + Zeiss 70-200mm Zoom (my wildlife lens). Because of the rockiness in the mountains, I wanted to try a new kind of tripod system from the Sachtler Flowtech series. They are very lightweight but solid as well. With help from Edwin and his team really made me feel comfortable to go on the plane without any worries. Once you land, you really are a long way from home.
The reason I wanted to shoot this film on Arri was not only because of its proven look (It was reason number one though!) but also the confidence I have in these cameras. I don't want to be shooting in 1.5 meters of snow with a plastic camera while my eyepiece is falling off. The technical part of this job should be second nature, something you don't have to think about during shooting. As soon as technology gets in your way, something is wrong. So I went for the Amira (and one season on the Mini) because I knew they wouldn't let me down in winter or summer.
But the image quality of this camera was the first reason. We wanted this film to be cinematic, like a western sometimes. I knew what I wanted to do in color grading and after a lot of testing the Amira with the natural look of the Cooke S3 lenses turned out to be the best combination. It's soft and it’s look is not too digital. I think, in a film that is so much about nature, that organic feel is important to me.
Another important thing was shooting with natural light. I love to shoot in natural light conditions. I knew it was impossible to take a lot of lights with me, so it felt liberating to just skip it completely. It can feel good to know that you have restrictions. These are then things I don't need to think about. A big number of scenes would be Exterior /Day so I didn't need much light anyway but the natural, filmic look we were going for also asked for a natural approach in lighting.
In the scene where Sidik is collecting a dead calf, the stable we shot was pitch dark without windows. I asked the farmer (with hands and feet communication) if there was a way to get more light in. So we opened a door and the farmer started removing bags of hay that he uses as insulation. As if he knew, he only removed three bags. Creating a small, window-like, hole in the wall which created a small puddle of soft light on the dead calf. It immediately looked like a painting. If we would have artificially lit the scene from the inside, it definitely wouldn't look as intimate as it does know. As if the farmer painted the light for his own shot.
For some exterior scenes, we picked the best time of day (when the sun was lower and opposite of the camera) but most things couldn't be planned, unfortunately. We tried to play with that, seeking shadow under trees while shooting at noon to break the light (and the heat). But the mountain view was so deep and layered that during any time of day there was an interesting contrast or play of light.
Director: Reber Dosky
Editor: Stefan Kamp
Sound Design: Tom Jansen
Sound Recordist: Taco Drijfhout
Producer: Jos de Putter
Colorist: Martin Klein at Filmmore
Gear: Het Raam Digital Cinema