Adventure, invention and ingenuity seems to sum up both the film Chumbak and the approach of filmmakers Tobias Worrall and Isabelle van Hoorn.
The filmmaking couple from England (Liverpool) and Holland (Amsterdam) set off for India with their camera gear and the last of their money. They had traveled to India before and in Varanasi met some children using magnets from old speakers to fish for coins from the river Ganges. “We were told that a lot of pilgrims make wishes by throwing coins in the holy river,” they said. “To us, symbolically, it was like the children were ‘catching’ the wishes of these people.”
We spoke to Toby and Isabelle about how they made Chumbak, and we caught some wishes along the way.
D&CFilm: How did you come to be make Chumbak together?
Toby and Isabelle: We love to travel. We actually met 14 years ago whilst working in a beach bar in Cambodia. Since then we’ve spent many years traveling and working around the world, often to far-flung corners. We came to make Chumbak together by combining our love for travel and our passion for filmmaking. We chose India as a location because we had already been there and were blown away by the natural beauty and the people. We knew it was a fitting location to tell an interesting story.
With just our camera equipment and a rough idea for a story we booked our flights to India. We already had a few locations in mind where we wanted to shoot. Once we were in India we talked our good film friend James Simmons into coming over and help us shoot it. We had two weeks until he arrived so the pressure was on to finish the script and take care of as much preproduction logistics as possible.
We wrote the script from our hotel room in Varanasi that overlooked the river Ganges. We had a window view into the everyday life of the locals and what it felt like to live in such a holy place. Inspired by our surroundings Chumbak came to life.
D&CFilm: Tell us what you can about the story of Chumbak.
Toby and Isabelle: Chumbak is a story about hope and aspirations of a young girl who has lost her mother. Having moved from her hometown in the lush jungle to the bustling city, she finds an innovative way to make an income to help her family through the struggle.
Within the story we played around with the contrast of the city and jungle and how people adapt to change and struggle. We wanted to show this through the fragility of a child’s spirit and how the fire within never burns out and can inspire us to new heights.
D&CFilm: It can be difficult making a film in your own language in your own backyard – how hard was it to over coming filming a self-funded short in potentially new surroundings – I thinking about finding cast and crew, securing permissions to film, and logistics?
Toby and Isabelle: We definitely threw ourselves in the deep end by choosing to shoot a film in a foreign country in a language that we do not speak. With a micro crew and budget we had to wear many hats all the time. But The first few days of being in Varanasi we met a few incredible locals who helped us immensely with many of the logistics. Our friend Shiva knew all the local shop owners and helped us find and secure locations and got us shooting permissions.
We decided to cast local people we met on the streets and in the local shops rather than using a casting agency.
Although wearing many hats was difficult, it allowed us to think freely outside of the box and make quick spontaneous decisions.
Which is very much needed in a country like India where you’re often in a position where you have to create order out of chaos. India often throws everything at you all at once.
We dealt with sudden changes in locations and last-minute changes in the casting and storyline. While shooting in the narrow alleyways of the old city, we even had to dodge bulls that would sometimes run towards you full force and force you to shoot in another location.
D&CFilm: Tobias mentions (in his Vimeo bio) enjoying shooting films in native languages – what’s the draw of that and why do you think it’s important?
Toby: For many years I have lived in foreign countries surrounded by languages that I don’t understand. But there is an element to language that even if you don’t understand the words, you can still pick up on the emotions and the rhythm. I think it is important in films to keep the authenticity of the language as part of the story and performances and keep them true to their surroundings.
D&CFilm: He also says he enjoys ‘the craft of story and self-expression through the art of filmmaking and cinematography’. What is it about film that attracts you?
Toby: I often find it difficult to express myself with just words alone, so finding film as a medium to express my ideas was a wonderful discovery for me. Film allows me to get creative inside my mind.
I like to create worlds on a blank slate and then drop interesting characters and odd situations into the mix and play them out in my mind to see what might be interesting and what might work or not. I often get inspired with things that happen in everyday life and people I meet in random interactions.
It was only since the last few years that I sort of accidently discovered my passion for filmmaking and the penny dropped. I realized I was tapping into my childhood passions. I remember from a very young age that when I heard music, I would create a visual world in mind to accompany the sound and vice versa, marrying the sound to image.
D&CFilm: You’ve both got a passion for travel – how does that inform the way you see the world and subsequently your filmmaking?
Toby and Isabelle: One thing we have learned from traveling is being extremely adaptable. Plans always change, you can find yourself in places you never knew existed doing things you never dreamed of. Being fully open to the unknown really teaches you to get the most out of experiences and trust the unfamiliar. Opportunities can arise out of thin air and present themselves to you just as you need them. Translating that into filmmaking, these travel experiences have really given us the confidence that things will work out and that anything is possible. We feel very comfortable having to start from scratch in a completely new environment and figuring out logistics. It feels exciting to start fresh on a blank slate. We have gained trust that we will find solutions to problems that undoubtedly will arise during filmmaking and that when things go wrong that we will somehow figure it out. We are open to making changes during production and we love to take advantage of opportunities that come up and adjust our plans when needed.
But most importantly, we have gained trust in people. People all over the world are generally extremely kind, generous and helpful. Collaborating with people from different cultures and sharing our passion for film with them has been such a rewarding experience.
D&CFilm: Are there themes that run through your work either in terms of style, shooting or story?
Toby and Isabelle: In terms of style, we try to use as much natural beauty as possible. We use natural light whenever we can and aim to pick stunning locations that stand out. There are so many beautiful places in the world that are already naturally dressed sets. We like to incorporate as much of these stunning locations in our stories as possible.
We shot most of Chumbak with just one prime lens and an anamorphic adapter. The same focal length view throughout the film gives it perhaps a certain style as well. It definitely forced us to make use of the whole frame in all the different situations and locations.
D&CFilm: Once a film is made, how difficult is it to find an audience and share it, and what’s your experience of film festivals?
Toby and Isabelle: This is our first film and we are learning the process as we go along. Film festivals are a great way to share the film with an audience and get some exposure. We’re looking forward to attend some film festivals in person because it is a great way to network with other filmmakers and others in the industry.
However, we did not really anticipate all the costs that come with the whole process. Each submission costs money and is by no means a guarantee of being selected. Then there are the travel costs on top if you want to attend the festival. It all adds up but with all the connections and possible future collaborations we believe it is worth it.
D&CFilm: What was one of the unexpected positive moments that made you smile during Chumbak?
Toby and Isabelle: There were so many moments that we felt so overwhelmed with emotions. India is an incredible beast to try and tame and you often experience all extremes within the space of a day. There were many times that were extremely chaotic when shooting on the streets, but it is also in these moments that it all can turn into miracles unexpectedly.
When we were shooting a wide shot of Aarna pulling an old television by its electrical chord along a busy street, we had a constant stream of traffic to deal with. People started crowding around the camera and were curious of what we were doing. More and more people started getting involved and it seemed like they collectively understood what we were hoping to achieve. A spontaneous domino effect of shouting occurred and before we knew it, the extremely busy street of traffic came to a halt on both sides. The traffic stopped and bulged on both sides for just the right amount of time for us to get the perfect shot! One second later, the weaving stream of traffic continued and we moved on.
D&CFilm: What are you working on now and next, and how can we keep up with what you’re up to?
Toby and Isabelle: We are working on a couple of micro budget short film ideas as well as our first feature film Northern Sunshine set in Wales in the 1970s. It is a story based on true events around an acid drug bust. It is a story we have been very interested in for the quite a few years. Instead of telling the story through the perspective of the policemen, we want to tell the story from the perspective of the insiders. They were all extremely interesting, unique and intelligent. The story is so captivating and we are very excited about this project.
Our production company is called diatomfilms, you can follow us on our instagram account @diatomfilms.
D&CFilm: Thank you, Toby and Isabelle!