Behind the scenes: interviewing for Woman

A woman wears a silken headscarf with brown, green and red floral patterns.
For Woman, many hundreds of interviews were conducted with women of all ages and from diverse cultures around the world. © Marco Strullu

The office of Hope Production, on the bank of the Seine, in Paris, is buzzing. When we meet them, the team are part way through filming Woman, the follow-up to Yann Arthus-Bertrand's epic documentary, Human. It's co-directed by Anastasia Mikova and, like its predecessor, will centre on intimate first-person interviews shot all over the world.

On one office wall is a map showing the locations in which the mainly-female team are shooting. They zip around, talking on the phone, tapping away on keyboards and nipping to the in-house studio to do interviews. There's a sense that something important is under way.

By the time filming wraps up, the team will have covered close to 50 countries, accumulating hundreds of hours of interview footage. A journalist and cinematographer team spends two or three weeks in each country, filming up to 25 interviews with women. The producers also work closely with journalists, researchers and NGOs on the ground months ahead of the trip to source and brief women with relevant stories. Some of these will be 'ordinary', anonymous women who may never have been interviewed before, while others are pioneering public figures such as education campaigner Malala Yousafzai or Mozambique politician Graça Machel.

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Each interviewer has guidelines to follow, including a standard set of about 50 questions they ask each woman, along with further questions tailored to important issues in that particular country – abortion in Ireland or the genocide in Rwanda, for example. The first question is always the same: "Tell me a memory from your childhood." This sets the tone for what is an intensely "self-reflective" process, according to Anastasia, who's overseeing the interview side of the film while Yann creates the visual sequences that will weave them together. "It's about going deep down inside yourself and trying to understand who you are," she says.

"There's really a 'before' and an 'after' the interview," adds Saskia Weber, one of the journalists working on the film. So far she has interviewed women in Ireland, Mexico, Rwanda and Paris. "After the interview, we hug, we cry, we laugh. Some of them tell me it's the first time they've told their stories. I remember a woman in Ireland told me that she had been raped. She hadn't told anybody, not even her husband, not even her family. She felt so relieved, and she said, 'Now, I'm going to change my life.'"

The interviewer's job is to uncover those personal stories that have shaped women's lives – stories that make them unique and which they share with women across the world. It's rare that someone will open up and reveal these stories immediately; they normally need to take time to relax, to forget about the camera, which is why most interviews last an hour or two.

However, says Anastasia, when you've found "the story", there’s no mistaking it. The atmosphere in the room shifts. "I've been to maybe 30, 40 different countries with Human and then Woman," she says. "Often I didn't understand the language. But sometimes without the translator explaining it to me, I can feel that something is happening. These are the moments that will be kept in the film."

An African-American woman wears traditional clothing.
Interviews took place in locations including Ireland, Mexico, Rwanda, Paris and New York City, where Alice Lesepen was filmed. © Marco Strullu

All the footage is shot in 4K or better. "4K is now the minimum for an ambitious movie like this one. Skin details are really incredible, with a good lens!" says Hope Production's Marco Strullu, who was in charge of all of the equipment. "The Canon EOS C300 Mark II is a really good choice. This camera is easy to use, not too big, and the dailies quality/size ratio is really good, when we need quality but are capturing thousands of hours of footage."

Framing is also a consideration. "We chose to shoot in the widest frame we could with the EOS C300 Mark II: 4,096 x 2,160," Marco explains. "With this 1.89 ratio, we captured a bit more of the background than in UHD, which is 1.77 ratio. So, if we post-produce the movie in 1.77, we have the possibility to pan in each scene a bit."

For each interview, some location footage is also shot to establish context. It might be the interview subject's home, place of work, or somewhere else of significance to her. The B-camera on many occasions is a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, using Canon Log to deliver footage as close as possible to that from Cinema EOS cameras as well as capturing as wide a dynamic range as possible (12 stops at ISO400), helping ensure natural results in high-contrast situations such as in the interview setting, with the brightly-lit interview subject in front of a black backdrop.

A blonde woman wears a black leather jacket, red lipstick and heart-shaped gold necklace.
Anne Moilanen from Finland is captured during a lighthearted moment. The range of subjects covered in the interviews for Woman elicited a range of reactions and emotions. © Marco Strullu
Filmmaker Alice Aedy on the coast of Kiribati holding a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.

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With shooting taking place in so many countries around the world, with potentially such different light conditions, and with many different crews involved, it is vital to get the incoming footage as uniform as possible. Hope Production therefore issued a very detailed 24-page shooting protocol document, which specified exactly what was required, including camera settings, the lighting setup and the precise studio layout. So no matter where they went, from rural villages to huge cities, the setup in their pop-up studio was the same, to ensure uniformity across the footage. A Canon EOS C300 Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens was positioned 2.6 metres from the interviewee's chair. The room was always quiet and dark, with a black backdrop. Present were the woman, the interviewer, a cinematographer and sometimes a translator.

"If I speak the language," Saskia explains, "then I am just behind the camera and looking directly eye-to-eye with the women, and if not, I ask the question in English or French, then a translator repeats it. It takes some time. Depending on the country, if the women watch television or not, the reactions are quite different. Some don't even understand what a camera is."

All of the journalists who carry out the interviews are women themselves. This is a conscious decision on Anastasia's part. "We speak about periods, we speak about sexuality, about the relationship we have with our body, and many women wouldn't open up to a man in the same way," she says. But a number of the cinematographers are men. "In some cultures, it's really important that there are only women present in the room, while in other cultures it may help you to have a man in your team because you need the husband to agree to the interview," she explains. "Having a man there can be reassuring."

Two cinematographers look at a monitor on the top of a Canon video camera with long lens.
In addition to the uniformly-shot interviews, exterior footage was filmed for context in all the various locations where interviews took place around the world. Here the crew in the Republic of the Congo line up a shot with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II cine camera with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens. © Marco Strullu

That said, they never censor questions for different cultural settings, no matter how taboo certain topics appear. "When we arrive in a country," says Anastasia, "generally, the translator or the fixer says, 'Oh, you know, in our country we don't speak about that,' and we say, 'Yeah, of course.' During the interview, you ask the question anyway and the translator is like: 'No, I think I cannot translate that,' but you insist. Obviously there are women who feel like, 'My God. What?' But there is no exception and it's never happened to me that a woman wouldn't open up. You realise that these are things you never talk about, but once you open the door there is so much to say."

It doesn't always run smoothly. "I remember one woman who was really excited to be interviewed but she couldn't do it," says Marion Gaborit, who's worked as an interviewer and cinematographer in Belgium, Romania, France and the Philippines. "She never answered my questions. I asked about her divorce and she talked about the birth of her daughter. After 45 minutes I gave up."

Occasionally, women decide they don't want their interview to be used – a decision that's always respected. "I had a woman telling me fantastic stories," recalls Saskia. "She said when she was been pregnant for the 10th time, she was playing cards with a friend when she went into labour. She told her baby, 'Calm down, I have to finish the party!' A week later, she said: 'I'm sorry. Just get rid of the interview.' So we did."

A large group of women play African drums in a marketplace, while being filmed.
Filming a group of woman drummers in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand can be seen at the far right in a white shirt. © Marco Strullu

Most of the time, though, the interview is a rewarding experience for interviewer as well as interviewee. "I have learned a lot working on this project," says Marion. "I feel lucky because we don't just share words in an interview, it's a really specific moment." Saskia agrees. "Before I started working for Woman, I was going to a therapist, but I stopped," she says. "By interviewing all these women, I started to feel more confident myself. They gave me strength."

In Paris one of the city's few female cab drivers, Clochette, has just finished her Woman interview with Saskia, filmed by Marion. "It went really well," she smiles. "It was a fabulous experience, really fulfilling. And it will be for all the women who see the film too." Saskia believes the film can help bring about positive change: "My hope," she says, "is that everyone who watches the documentary will find one story which makes him or her change their attitude towards women – in their families, at work, in the street, in the metro: everywhere."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

The Woman project's kitbag

The key kit for filming an international documentary

Two men and a woman look at the back of a Canon video camera with a long lens.


Canon EOS C300 Mark II

The EOS C300 Mark II captures stunning 4K/Full HD video with an incredible 15 stops of dynamic range. Its XF-AVC format at 410 megabits per second "is the perfect balance between quality and size," says Thomas Lavergne, director of post-production on Woman.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160). This was the B-camera on Woman, with Canon Log delivering footage as close as possible to that from Cinema EOS cameras, as well as capturing a wide dynamic range.


Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabiliser and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours. In the Woman shooting protocol document, this lens was always used with the C300 Mark II, positioned 2.6 metres from the interviewee's chair.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. A four-stop Image Stabiliser maximises sharpness and instinctive controls enhance handing. This lens was used by the Woman team for capturing some of the exterior contextual footage.

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