Land of the Living from Goh Iromoto opens with a seemingly simple yet deceptively complex question: “How does one live with time?”. From that opening until the closing credits, Iromoto submerges us in the gentle cadence of voices and poetic reverie overlaying images, sounds and scenes of Kenyan wildlife worthy of a David Attenborough series. Following the lives of four families living in East Africa working for Nairobi based safari company Bush & Beyond, Land of the Living is a film born from both personal loss and passion. The breathtaking beauty of each frame of the painstakingly captured self-shot footage is weighed against the burden of conscious existence – a state where struggles with the concepts of time, morality and the balance of life are inevitable.
Iromoto is a Toronto based filmmaker whose background, love for cinematography and curiosity about the world around him have enabled him to craft this visually stunning and undeniably powerful feature. The writing is delicately and poignantly balanced with the harsh yet beautiful landscape of Kenya and its majestic animals, and whilst the film is clearly a documentary there is an incredible pull to lose yourself in a narrative that is as compellingly laid out as the most gripping works of fiction. Making its online premiere on DN today, we spoke to Iromoto about the piecing together of over 100 hours of footage, the challenges of rigging sturdy enough grip equipment to a suitable vehicle in the remote Kenyan safari lands and why he hopes Land of the Living will encourage audiences to reflect on their own lives.
Land of the Living is bursting at the seams with powerful and sometimes overbearing questions, how did this film come to be?
This story originally derived from deep personal loss. 5 years ago my wife and I both experienced immense joy when finding out we had conceived a new life into this world, only to find out that 12 weeks later this life no longer existed. Over the years, the same occurrence happened three more times. So it was a difficult choice we made by the fourth loss when we finally decided to accept a new course in life – a life without children. It was a feeling of true loss and one that made us really contemplate deep questions about life – How would we ever accept and move on from such losses? If not bearing children, what purpose do humans serve? What is it that we want to leave behind or accomplish in this short existence of ours?
What initiated the collaboration with Bush & Beyond and how did you decide on the families who feature in the film?
In 2017, Bush & Beyond saw a short film I had done and reached out to see if my wife Courtney, and I would be interested in doing work with them. After a number of meetings and finding out how Bush & Beyond was essentially a network of independent family owned lodges out in Kenya, we were more than enthusiastic to go explore a new part of the world that neither of us had been to. Fast forward to 2020, and by then we had probably logged close to 6 months worth of time out there. Over the years, we both became very close with several of the families (who eventually became the characters of our films).
My wife and I even got married in 2019 under a large tree out in Laikipia, wedded by one of the families in our film as well. We spent countless hours talking about nature, conservation, and family life throughout the years – but the one thing that always resonated with us was this raw sense of self that each individual instinctively obtained. Perhaps it was the harsh landscape, or the constant element of danger and risks that one had to endure being out there. But whatever it was, it made individuals feel very present in every moment out in that region of the world.
While we initially began our relationship with Bush & Beyond and the families that are part of it to help with their marketing, it turned into something so much bigger. Luckily, they gave us their full trust and were very supportive throughout the entire process. We will always be very grateful for the trust and intimacy that the families gave us as they eventually became the characters in our film.
I should note that all the words spoken by the characters are indeed their own thoughts and feelings. We spent hours interviewing each person early on in the process, we then sent the recordings to our co-writer, Rob Gendron who so beautifully together helped craft their thoughts and wrote such powerful reflective monologues for each character and the beautiful soliloquies that we hear in the film.
How did Rob come on board the project and what was your working dynamic as co-writers?
We actually met on a commercial project (he had written the voice over of a car commercial) – but our mutual love of Terrence Malick films connected us. I very much wanted support in writing this project, and he was in need of a non-commercial personal project. So the timing was perfect. Our process was interesting and nontraditional. We spent weeks prior to filming honing in on a theme – we had multiple brainstorming sessions at a local bar. Then during principal filming in 2019, my wife and I would conduct the interviews with our characters while we were shooting in Kenya. Luckily via WhatsApp and whatever cell reception I would have out there, I’d send low res versions of these interviews to Rob. He would then shoot back these beautiful soliloquies within a day (or sometimes hours) which we then would record. The people and characters themselves are reading the wonderful verses and the intro and outro are written by Seiya Macfarlane, who we felt attained the perfect innocence to voice our narration (who was meant to represent ’time’ herself). All the other characters that we see featured throughout the film read their own parts.
Everything about this project seemed nontraditional and I love that the writing process also took on this natural organic creative workflow as well.
Once I was back home, Rob and I spent a good 6 months further honing in on the theme of our story. We realized in January 2020 that we needed to re-record new lines so just before the pandemic, we were able to make a quick trip back out to Kenya and re-record everyone’s final lines. Everything about this project seemed nontraditional and I love that the writing process also took on this natural organic creative workflow as well.
The soundtrack feels so symbiotic with the visuals. Who did you work with on the score and what touchpoints did you use to define the film’s music?
For our original soundtrack, I worked with long time collaborator, friend and talented composer Andrew Seistrup. We began working together back in 2017 on a short film called The Canoe. In truth, I had found some of his music and licensed it. After seeing the film, Andrew reached out to me directly wanting to collaborate on future projects. Ever since, we’ve created numerous shorts and commercial projects (which won him a Clio Award recently!). So during the beginning stages of this latest project, it was a given that I collaborate with Andrew again. Especially for our mutual love of composers such as Max Richter, Johan Johannsen and Olafur Arnauds, we used those as inspiration points to develop the soundtrack for our film.
Even before filming, Andrew became inspired and sent a rough sketch to me which I listened to constantly during filming. This then organically developed into a wider broader soundtrack simultaneously during the editing process. Over months and months we had lots of back and forth between myself, my editor and Andrew. An incredible experience getting to organically work between music and picture throughout the process of harnessing our story. I’m forever grateful for Andrew’s passion, enthusiasm and talent on this project.
Land of the Living is replete with stunning footage worthy of a David Attenborough series. Did you shoot it all yourself?
Every single shot in our film was taken by me with the help of Courtney usually assisting me or even camera operating in some instances as well. We captured over 100 hours of footage of human and wildlife moments which took several months of continuous puzzle-like weaving by our Editor Alison Gordon to put together into the cohesive film we see today.
While I attest the amount of footage as common practice in documentary filmmaking (especially when filming wildlife), I take responsibility for the sheer amount of footage and blame my method of capturing human moments – one that follows characters intimately for almost all hours of the day. It’s a methodology that’s been inspired by filmmaker Terrence Malick, whom I have great admiration for. Once we premiere our film, we plan to also launch the film via Film Supply where the footage will be available for licensing.
Can you elaborate on the technical aspects of your filming processes?
Principal filming began in May 2019. We spent close to 2 months out in Kenya travelling from one family to the next. We also went back in Jan 2020 to do pickup shots and additional voice over recording for about 10 days. Some of the wildlife footage and moments though date back all the way to our first trip out there in 2017. So in essence, this film encapsulates the best moments from the entirety of our experiences out in Kenya.
It was a bit nerve wracking having close to $100k worth of camera equipment be so exposed and vulnerable to such powerful creatures.
While we were a small crew of two, we travelled with 10 check-ins and 4 carry-ons. I think we were close to 600lbs in gear. Our main two cameras were a Red Helium, but we also had a DJI Inspire 2 Pro for our aerial shots. I think the most unique piece of gear we were able to employ though was a camera arm mounted to the outside of our filming vehicles. We needed to triangulate 2” steel pipes on the outside of our camera cars so that we could safely mount our arm, gimbal and camera. The goal was to not only capture smoother moving shots but also be low to the ground and closer to wildlife. I would then control the movement of the camera all from inside our truck.
It was a bit nerve wracking having close to $100k worth of camera equipment be so exposed and vulnerable to such powerful creatures, but in the end it was completely worth it. We actually flew the steel pipes in a ski bag from Canada (where we’re based). At first I was hoping to attain them in Kenya. We spoke several times to our ground team there about finding them locally and preparing them before we arrived. At one point though I started to get slightly concerned as to whether they’d find the pipes (as they had to be certain size and strength). When we arrived and began rigging the vehicles, one of our team members in Kenya saw what we were doing and said “Wow, I’m glad you brought your own pipes because we were thinking of just using wood!”. Haha, it definitely made us laugh.
A good portion of the footage features Kenyan locals. How did they react to the filming and how did you avoid shooting tourist fodder akin to poverty porn?
This is a really important question and to be honest, one that I don’t want to appear as if we are completely safe from doing so as Kenya is a vast country with many layers. The wilderness aspect is only one element of the rich and vibrant culture of Kenya – for instance, there are incredible urban developments that are growing in the country. The wilderness is also a layer of the country that is mostly seen and visited by outside visitors. It’s only in recent years that more and more local interest and pride is growing for these spaces – not to mention the financial means to access some of these places. My hope is that I’ve taken an approach that feels less exploitative, but more so allows both Kenyans and those outside the country to see the wonders and beauty that lie within these regions.
Our characters are all local Kenyan born families who take pride in living authentic lifestyles (as seen in the film) and share those lifestyles with others whenever possible. Jackson in particular is Masaai himself and takes pride in sharing his own culture with others. The Francombes (characters that are on horseback) live in a northern more arid region known as Laikipia where still to this day Samburu, Pokot, and Turkana tribes live nomadic lifestyles that while changing with modern society are still relatively intact. All the people and characters I met always were kind open and took pride in showing a version of their country, region and life that felt worth sharing.
With such an arsenal of footage how did you decide on the path and direction of the film’s final cut?
Given the observational approach of capturing our characters, combined with wildlife cinematography (which has a natural occurrence of rolling for hours and hours on uninteresting behaviour waiting for something to happen), we had over 100 hours of footage. Thankfully I had a long time collaborator Alison Gordon at the helm for editing this film. Her and her legion of editors at Outsider Editorial helped churn through every frame to find the most magical moments that helped to create the feeling for our story.
We printed out on paper the beats for each character arc. We then used tape and scissors and ended up crafting a first draft of the story all with paper and tape at first.
Trying to take all of these moments and scenes and turn them into a narrative was an immense challenge – I think Alison referred to it as “the great puzzle”. It’s a process I’d been used to with a lot of my short film works, but for a story of this calibre it was an additionally difficult feat. We must’ve spent close to 6-8 months editing the story – but I remember having two key moments which helped to dictate the arc and the moments to choose. One was finally sharing with Alison what the backstory was behind this film (which I admittedly didn’t share right at the beginning). The other was a late evening at the studio, where we printed out on paper the beats for each character arc. We then used tape and scissors and ended up crafting a first draft of the story all with paper and tape at first. In this way, Alison was an immense help in guiding where the story should go from one moment to the next. With a background in dance, her ability to be guided by rhythm and an instinctual flow of movement was key to manifesting the beautiful spiritual feeling within our film.
Due to the deeply personal nature of the film’s genesis, were there elements you struggled with or did you find the process a form of catharsis?
Going through numerous miscarriages as a couple (or as individuals) is a hard challenge for anyone. There’s an undeniable feeling of loss, followed by a grieving period that never seems to fully go away – at least for us. Like any production, the filming process can act as sort of a distraction – or possibly there’s a therapeutic element to keeping your mind busy during these times. Whichever the case, there was always something positive for me and my wife in having endured through a challenge together successfully.
Personally, it came down to those human to human vulnerable moments where I felt like I somehow grew as an individual throughout this project.
We didn’t openly mention to others at this point what was driving us to tell this story. For me though, that changed once we entered post-production and I realized how important it was to share the core of where this story comes from with collaborators like my editor or even composer. This was probably one of the more vulnerable moments of sharing something personal with others – something that still feels slightly (although much less so) uncomfortable. While you’d imagine that being amongst a herd of massive elephants would bring a level of catharsis – for me personally, it came down to those human to human vulnerable moments where I felt like I somehow grew as an individual throughout this project.
What do you hope for Land of the Living now it’s out online?
While we may not need another reminder that touches upon the fragility of life after these last two years, for anyone who is generous enough to take the time to view our film, my hope is that this film simply allows them a chance to reflect upon their own lives. To remind them of the little beautiful moments this one life has to offer. Moments in nature. The everyday moments with family, friends, and loved ones. A nudge to hug your kids a little tighter or to squeeze the hand of your partner a little stronger.
What are you working on next?
Since the completion of this project, I’ve been taking a turn in a couple of ways. For one, I’m leaning strongly towards creating more traditional narrative shorts – ones where we focus on writing, characters, dialogue, etc. right from the beginning. The opposite of how this film was produced. More challenging though is an effort to further open the doors of vulnerability when it comes to storytelling. To continue writing and exploring stories that are more personal and less cascaded by a shield to protect myself. In particular, these last couple years have really opened the door to having me think back on my own cultural identity and sense of belonging.