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Why sound is important in film: Q & A with director Sarah Noa Bozenhard

26 April 2019

Sound has a vital role to play when it comes to film as it can be pivotal in immersing your viewer in the world you’ve created and guiding them through the physical and emotional levels of the film.

To illustrate how important sound can be we spoke to documentary filmmaker Sarah Noa Bozenhardt whose film Medanit – Cure relied heavily on sound design to shape and inform the narrative of the protagonist, Aster, a visually impaired mother in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A great example of how audio can impact a viewer, from it’s very opening scene Medanit – Cure conveys how sound can inform a viewers perception of the environment in which a film exists. In a frank Q & A the filmmaker explains how:

Please can you introduce yourself?

I am Sarah Noa Bozenhardt and I am a documentary filmmaker, currently living in Berlin, Germany. I grew up in Ethiopia, an experience that continues to form my work as a director today.

Can you tell us a bit about your film, what it was about and what it sought to achieve?

Medanit – Cure was a short documentary film with a poetic narrative and visual elements set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The short film grew out of my personal relationship with a group of visually impaired women and their children, who lived in a shelter for single mothers that was in turn founded by my mother. Together we wanted to explore cinema as an artistic tool that merges the visual and auditory to create a piece of art that is accessible to both visually impaired people and the sighted community. This way, we hoped that the often marginalized visually impaired mothers and their children would be seen and heard by their surrounding community. Instead of using film as a tool to mark differences and othering, this project aimed to create connections within a community and ultimately between continents.

Can you tell me a bit about the sound design for Medanit, the choices you made and why?

Since sound was such a crucial part of the project to make sure that everyone involved would find themselves in the final film, we put great emphasis on sound from the get go. I held several sound workshops with the visually impaired women and they received their own recording devices. They began to record their environments, songs, conversations and interviews with each other. Many of these recordings made it into the sound design of Medanit – Cure and transport a sense of ownership to the participants of the project, whilst opening the sensory world of the sighted viewer.

How did you use sound to bring the viewer into Aster’s world?

Aster’s voice and the sound of her touch – braiding hair, washing cloth, running her hand across a cement wall – were very crucial to connect the viewer with our main protagonist. Her voice singing songs of past love, and telling endearing bedtime stories to her daughter, are full of intimacy. Aster lets down her guard and with her voice, she leads us through her thoughts, which ultimately construct the dramaturgy of the film’s narrative. She wishes to change her daughter’s name, claiming what belongs to her, stepping away from wishes of her daughter’s absent father. Her songs guide the viewer and listener into an abstract world of lights flashing and darkness. These sounds, which were so closely related to Aster, helped us build a relationship with the audience.

How did you use sound to convey emotion?

We didn’t use any extensive sound scores. Everything was kept simple, and relatable to the recording experience of the visually impaired participants. It was important to me not to define an emotional response, but rather use auditory observations made by the participants to create an environment in the sound scape. I wanted sound to appear more dominant when it was what the women had recorded and marked as particularly important to them. This is for example, how the sound of rain dropping, dogs barking in the distance, chirping of insects, and grinding of coffee opened up the always very tight visual space. The imagery didn’t reveal where we were, but the audio always opens up an environment. If this in turn creates emotion, is a question that the audience can best answer. To me, for sure, it does because I feel extremely close to Aster and her daughter, as if I was invited to join them in their intimate experience of the world around them.

At what points did you use sound as a storytelling device?

As mentioned above, the voiceover recorded with Aster was used as a narrative device, which leads the listener and viewer through her internal reflections that occurred during the process of the film project. In the end, it is this voiceover that ties together all the moments we experience with Aster and her friends.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about with regards to this which people may have initially missed?

To me as a documentary director, sound has become a crucial element in the production because of my experience in making Medanit – Cure. I now always record the sound on location. When I am wearing my headphones and always carry the voices of the participants with me, wherever I turn, I feel very close to them. Their words, breath, heartbeat stays with me throughout the shooting, making sure that I never forget why I do what I do – to create a platform for their voices.

This case study is part of CharityComms’ FilmKit for charities guide.

Molly Clarke

former digital content officer, CharityComms

Molly was formerly the digital content officer at CharityComms and a Charity Works fellow. Before CharityComms, she was studying for her MA in International Development. Prior to that, she directed, produced and edited film projects both in a corporate and not-for-profit setting in the UK and internationally.