ROBERTO SAIEH: WRITING & REWRITING REALITY


When is a writer both a writer and not a writer? It’s when they work on a premise that is based in reality. As writer Roberto Saieh states, “You can try to write a preliminary script of where you’d like the story to go but when filming starts…. all bets are off. It’s like any live event. You can have a pretty good idea of what’s supposed to happen, but if anything unexpected comes up- and it will- you need to be able to think on your feet and improvise. You can plan and hope but it still doesn’t mean that’s how it’s going to play out.” Award-winning director Rosita Lama Muvdi approached Saieh to work with her on the documentary “EL ESPIRITU DE LA CREATIVIDAD” about young scientists in Colombia. Due to the shifting nature of events and interviews, Roberto had the very unique experience of being involved for this documentary in preliminary, production, and post-production; an occurrence uncommon for a writer. Saieh’s work includes film (as in the upcoming Asia A) and advertising (as in Olimpica’s highly successful “Run, Run Olimpica” campaign) so the opportunity to stretch his creative muscles in the documentary world was a color he did not want to exclude from his already eclectic palette. Saieh is fond of professing that a creative mind is one which finds the compelling aspect of any story and medium by which it is presented. “EL ESPIRITU DE LA CREATIVIDAD” challenged him and also vetted him as a gifted and diverse writer in the modern entertainment culture.

Trust between a director and writer is a requirement, which is why Saieh was so quick to work with the director of “EL ESPIRITU DE LA CREATIVIDAD” Rosita Lama Muvdi. With a history of successful productions to their collaboration, the undertaking of this Coliseo Films production would reap the rewards of these two professionals and the ease of their communicative process. A documentary can have a general structure and template in place prior to production but it’s expected that this will be revised during the actual filming, necessitating confidence in the writer and director’s view of each other. Roberto focused on the actual storytelling aspect while Mudvi’s overall view allowed her to offer suggestions about where she saw the story moving towards.

“EL ESPIRITU DE LA CREATIVIDAD” is a short documentary about renowned Colombian microbiologist Dr. Raul Cuero and his work with the teenagers and young adults of Colombia. Dr. Cuero is one of the most well-known scientists and inventors around the world and has received several distinctions from NASA and the Colombian government. The youth that he works with are quite distinguished. In 1992 Dr. Cuero became a mentor to high school students and accomplished what had never been done before in Colombia; cultivating young inventors. The documentary initially began as a focus on Dr. Cuero but it became apparent to Saieh and Muvdi that his investment in these future inventors from Colombia was fascinating. The director comments, “When I first approached the project, I knew it would require a writer who was just as invested as I was in telling the story. The writer needed to have the talent and expertise to support the project every step of the way; from the preliminary screenplay, through production, and finally in post. Because I know his work so well, there was no doubt that Roberto was the perfect writer for this project. We traveled across various cities in Colombia interviewing these wonderful young scientists and future inventors of Colombia with questions that Roberto devised to highlight the story we wanted to tell. The greatest challenge came afterwards when he had to take the more than twelve hours of interview footage and pick the gems that were crafted into a seven-minute short documentary that would captivate audiences of millions of Colombian viewers. What Roberto fashioned was an emotional and inspiring story told through the words of these teens working with Dr. Raul Cuero. The documentary continues to be shown across the world and it's thanks to Roberto's talent as a writer that it can reach viewers everywhere.”

Roberto’s work on this documentary is highly different than that of a film, TV, or advertising campaigns. Although his work begins in preproduction in much the same way, it extended far beyond this for “EL ESPIRITU DE LA CREATIVIDAD.” In the case of this documentary it was the normal schedule of research and then creating questions for the interviews. Because it was expected that the narrative might morph, Saieh travelled across Colombia as part of the production, revising both the questions and their tone as new information presented itself. Because the young scientists and inventors were selected by Dr. Cuero’s team rather than the production, there was no way for Roberto to specifically research each individual ahead of time. As these interviews were conducted, the writer would practically simultaneously amend and redirect the line of questioning. In the crew’s journey from Bogota to Manizales to Bucaramanga and back to Bogota, Saieh would work fast and furiously while discussing with Rosita about where she felt the story was going and how to steer his writing in this direction.

There was no time to rest for Roberto after filming had wrapped as he then sat down to completely transcribe all twelve hours of footage. For him, it was a necessary part of the process. Roberto describes, “In order to tell the story properly it has to be clear. The director and editor cannot do their job properly until the cohesive idea is evident and complete. The footage was far from nebulous but it had to be defined. My transcript wasn’t just a long word document. I transcribed everything to excel, separating the dialogue by topics. This meant that even if the subject was speaking non-stop for five minutes, in my file, their dialogue would be separated according to what they were talking about."

“I arranged every interview and topic into distinct categories. Additionally, I would note the time-code of each dialogue so that our editor knew where to find it. Taking the new script I had written after production wrapped, I started looking at the dialogue I had transcribed and ‘wrote’ each part of the script with the words I had been given. This resulted in a master document that actually told the story we wanted to tell using the footage we had.”

The interest in and the greater proliferation of documentaries lately is greatly due to streaming services like Netflix. The days when documentaries were seldom seen niche films are gone as they have found a voracious audience. Writers have found greater opportunities as a result of the popularity of modern day documentaries. Signs of this are very evident in the industry. A decade ago, most screenwriting competitions were only asking for TV specs (spec scripts of existing shows) but the variety of programming available in the modern marketplace has resulted in many varied styles and forms, most notably pilots. One needs only to look at the suggestions and offerings on services like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services (not to mention HBO, Showtime, and other cable services) with a plethora of documentaries to be convinced of their presence in the entertainment world. Roberto Saieh’s writing talent will be among these…as well as the films and other productions for which this skilled and diverse writer has listed to his credentials.

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