Alyssa Bolsey: The Bolex unites people around the world!

Jacques with Bolex

After working on her documentary Beyond the Bolex for the past thirteen years Alyssa Bolsey is finally ready to bring this story of her great-grandfather Jacques Bolsey—inventor of the Bolex camera—out into the world. The film receives its world premiere this Thursday November 8th at DOC NYC. #DirectedbyWomen was delighted that Bolsey took time from her busy schedule to share insights about the film and what helped keep her going along the way.

DBW: Alyssa, your project was among many that inspired me to launch the #DirectedbyWomen initiative to help film lovers notice, explore, and fall madly in love with films by women directors. I was among the backers of your Beyond the Bolex Kickstarter campaign back in 2013 and have been eagerly awaiting the completion of the film, so it is a real delight to have a chance to engage with you now in 2018 as you prepare to world premiere your documentary at DOC NYC on November 8.

AB: That’s so wonderful to hear, Barbara! The #DirectedbyWomen initiative is so important now, seemingly more so than ever. Thank you for believing in the documentary and backing us on Kickstarter as one of our first supporters. I’m so thankful to you and the rest of our backers for quite literally kickstarting us and helping us get to shooting the initial interviews with filmmakers. It gave us much needed momentum!

DBW: This is a film about discovery and invention. Can you talk about the moment when you who were already a filmmaker first realized that you were related to the inventor of the Bolex camera and how you made the decision to create this documentary?

AB: Timing was everything. My experimentation with moviemaking while growing up was video/digital-based and that was all I had known. 16mm film was intriguing but not something I had experienced. Had I made this discovery any sooner, my great-grandfather Jacques’ film world may have felt too intimidating. But at the time of this discovery, I was already charging ahead, entering film school and Intro to 16mm Film. I was ready to learn and explore. So, to hold Jacques’ 1927 Bolex prototype in my hands, it sparked a curiosity. It was almost like a portal into the film world, as well as into his.

I jumped into the documentary slowly and at the same time I took film school classes, in parallel. The documentary started with me running around with a Panasonic DVX100a shooting exploratory interviews for a few years and it took a little while for me to get my footing. That was the beginning of what became a 13-year journey. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that I would gather the team I currently have here in the US and Switzerland to make “Beyond the Bolex” in its current state.

DBW: Let’s talk a little about surviving a lengthy documentary filmmaking process. A project like this takes years. How did your understanding of the project evolve and what kept you going?

AB: I think if people knew upfront how long it takes and what a struggle it is to make a movie, some would never start. So my naivety factored into me jumping in. Ironically it is probably one of the biggest reasons the film was finished. Along the way I kept thinking, “I’m almost there” and that kept me going. If I had had a crystal ball to see how long it would take, and also the struggles… it would have been a very intimidating mountain to look up at and try to climb. Over the years as we encountered roadblocks, I started to realize that there wasn’t a direct path to making the documentary. So instead of getting frustrated, we had to get used to not being able to totally see the road ahead and to constantly pivot.

The project certainly evolved along the way. As we edited it became more and more focused on Jacques’ journey. Early on many people thought that the camera was what would bring in the most interest. But as we did test screenings it was the human story of Jacques’ dreams and struggle that really hooked people. In the final editing we also added more context to the times so his struggle would become more clear.

DBW: What camera(s) did you use to shoot the documentary?

AB: We used many different cameras over the years. We shot with the Canon 5D and 7D to start, and then we switched to the Canon C300, Sony F55, and then the Sony a7s. I shot some footage with the Bolex as well. People sometimes ask why we didn’t shoot the entire film with the Bolex, or even 16mm? But with the documentary being from my perspective as someone coming from a digital background (and making this discovery), I wanted to highlight the two eras colliding—digital and film. It was exciting to be able to show that through camera/format. By switching back and forth, the Bolex films also have more prominence when they do show on screen than if we had shot everything on 16mm. If this were a film by a filmmaker whose perspective was as a several decade veteran/fan of the Bolex making a love letter to the Bolex with the Bolex—I think they could make a really cool experimental documentary using only the Bolex. But this film is from a different perspective and goes beyond the Bolex.

DBW: How did you approach the editing process to weave together the film’s many strands and allow you to share about Jacques Bolsey’s life and camera inventions, while also taking us on a personal journey of discovery about your own family history, exploring the work of some of the world’s most daring experimental filmmakers, and much more?

AB: The editing was complex because as you mention there are several strands and it was an epic job working to weave these various storylines together and to determine the ratio of each. The biggest challenge was, I felt deeply that Jacques’ story was the main thread but it was also the most complicated to pull off. Figuring out how to tell the story about someone who died decades ago without interviews with him, with very few people alive today who knew him, and only one voice recording of his, was a non-stop challenge. That said we had photos, documents, his journal and hours of his home movies that were out of context, and with gaps… It was very much a puzzle.

Luckily I didn’t have to piece it together alone and had a great team. With a project spanning so many years and with limited budget I ended up working with quite a few fantastic editors including Vincent Pluss, Julie Janata and Carlos David Rivera who worked during different phases to solve the puzzle. There were also a couple years where I was editing myself off and on and I was blessed to have editor Tchavdar Georgiev come on as consulting editor. By trial and error we eventually got the ratio feeling right.

Bolsey 8

DBW: Jacques Bolsey’s intention to democratize image-making was forward thinking back during WWI. When you look around at the ways people use modern technologies to create and share motion pictures, do you see Jacques Bolsey’s influence still alive today?

AB: Yes I do! His work spanned decades of key technological changes as he started inventing at a time when movie cameras were large, wooden and bulky. He wanted to make cameras smaller, multi-functional, easy to use and accessible. In the 1920s he was shooting films casually like we do now! And while inventing cameras and testing them, he was dreaming of a time when everyone could have a movie camera in their pocket. The idea that he was dreaming up the realities in which we live today was surreal. Not only had he invented the Bolex movie camera but he also used that and later cameras of his invention to shoot hours of home movies. Those movies meant that I could discover him in a very modern way. This was at the beginnings of social media taking hold. I was used to seeing fragments of people’s lives through media. It was like he left fragments of his own prior to this cultural trend. I had enough to start piecing together his story.

I think he was ahead of his time. Though, he wasn’t alone with these ideas. But the Bolex was early in this effort and has stood the test of time. I think his influence was to give a shot of adrenaline to the process of allowing the ordinary individual access to what was then an entirely new area of self-expression. Through the decades, his cameras became smaller and smaller, culminating in a pocket movie camera that he would advertise in the 1950s as the smallest movie camera in the world that would take both stills and motion picture images.

DBW: I found Barbara Hammer’s demonstration of how women filmmakers can leverage their lower center of gravity to move fluidly with the Bolex one of the most exhilarating moments in the film. Can you share about how you approached your interviews with Hammer and other experimental filmmakers to capture the essence of their relationship with the Bolex?

AB: I feel like the Bolex is more than a tool. It allowed the user to use the Bolex as an extension of their bodies, and maybe their creative mind. From my interactions with filmmakers it seems like many have “relationships” of sorts with the camera and their own ways of interacting with it. From expressing a creative vision to capturing important moments in their life with it. Some of my favorite moments in the documentary were spontaneous and your example of Barbara Hammer is one of them.

I had questions I came prepared with but I also embraced them taking the discussion in a new direction. If there was something about their relationship and experience with the camera they wanted to share, we would go with that. It was inspiring to see their creativity and gain a new perspective to see how the camera means different things to different people.

Alyssa Bolsey
Alyssa Bolsey

DBW: Are there other thoughts you’d like to share as you prepare to bring your film out into the world at DOC NYC?

AB: NYC represented a new beginning for Jacques when he moved there in 1939. I’m thrilled to premiere the documentary in the same city as we prepare to bring the documentary to as many places as possible. Just as Jacques was a citizen of no country for many years of his life, in many ways he was a global citizen. The Bolex unites people around the world!

DBW: Thanks for taking time to communicate about your film. Wishing you a wonderful premiere. Keep us posted.

Follow Beyond the Bolex on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday November 8, 2018
9:15pm ET
Expected to Attend:
Director Alyssa Bolsey & producer Camilo Lara Jr.