Producer-directors Corinna McFarlane and Robert Cannan talk to Matt Mueller about the challenges of filming a spiritual retreat on a shoestring budget.
Screening to acclaim at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, documentary Three Miles North Of Molkom marks the feature debut of UK producer-directors Corinna McFarlane and Robert Cannan. The pair met on the 2005 UK film The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael (Cannan was assistant director and McFarlane assistant producer). “The film did well,” says McFarlane. “But as a consequence of talking about the things we would do differently, we found an affinity.”
Their original plan was to collaborate on narrative features but, inspired by the recent raft of quality documentaries, they switched to non-fiction film-making. “We realised documentary is in some ways an even freer form than drama, especially in terms of what you can achieve with a tiny crew and minimal resources,” says Cannan.
Having gone their separate ways to build up experience (Cannan worked with Nick Broomfield, McFarlane made music videos), the pair reunited on the spur of the moment when a friend told McFarlane about a spiritual retreat called Angsbacka, deep in the forests of Sweden.
Overcoming the retreat's initial wariness, Cannan and McFarlane visited the site and determined that its self-contained, intensive nature (it takes place over two weeks in mid-summer), stunning natural beauty and enlightenment-seeking participants made it a perfect documentary subject. “It was a gamble because we had no idea what was going to happen there,” admits Cannan. “But we just felt there were going to be interesting stories to tell. It was people attempting to get to the depths of themselves.”
They were proved right, finding a captivating, eccentric cast of characters - including a Swedish celebrity, Finnish grandmother and cynical Australian rugby coach - who take part in tantric workshops, sweat lodges and other esoteric pursuits.
Because Molkom came together spontaneously, the duo did not have time to raise money through the usual sources, but were able to raise a “shoestring budget” courtesy of “a friend of a friend”.
With a crew of four and two cameras, they worked 20-hour days and shot 150 hours of footage. “We were constantly amazed about how open people were,” says Cannan.
“Normally a film crew sticks out,” echoes McFarlane, “but it was like we were in a playground - an adult playground where everyone got naked!”
Following the shoot, they raised a small sum for post-production and relied on the generosity of friends and family, staying in borrowed houses across Europe to edit the film. The result is a compelling, enjoyable debut that steers clear of condescension.
The film landed a best documentary nomination at the British Independent Film Awards and has been picked up for the UK by Metrodome Pictures, with Tristan Whalley and Nicki Parfitt's Goalpost Films coming on board to handle further international sales. McFarlane and Cannan have also fielded calls from several studios interested in a narrative remake.
Despite Molkom's success, though, it is McFarlane and Cannan's intention to move their company, Third Eye Film Productions, away from non-fiction films while, adds Cannan, still crafting “uplifting tales that inspire and have meaning”.