When Nick Ballón first heard the low whistles of alphorns blowing through the valleys of the Black Forest, he was captivated. “We were on another hill in a different valley, but like the pied piper, we followed the sound,” says Ballón. What the photographer found, in a clearing on a hillside that looks over rows of soaring pine trees, were four elderly men with white hair, blowing a tremendous sound through long, wooden horns.
Ballón had been travelling to the mountain range in southwest Germany for several years to visit his partner’s family. And a year later, he returned with Finnish composer Viljam Nybacka and cinematographer Jorge Luis Dieguez, to produce The Forest Sings, his latest short film commissioned by Channel 4’s Random Acts.
“At the time I didn’t think of it as a film, but I knew there was a story there,” says Ballón, who has made a name for himself as a documentary photographer, but has more recently been experimenting with moving image, creating several short films for digital video platform NOWNESSS. “I’m using film as an experimental place to develop stories and work collaboratively,” he says.
Ballón’s four-minute film follows four retired friends as they journey up to a prime spot in the hills to play their instruments. But that is not the whole story. Threads of other fictions and quirks, gathered through Ballón’s many visits to the Black Forest, are woven into the central narrative.
“I wanted to give a sense of the landscape as much as the music, which is important, but I also wanted to discover the quarry, the 200-metre-tall turbines that make this incredible noise, and the cattle that roam free in the hills until they are called down to be milked each afternoon,” he says.
The sounds of the landscape was also an important part of the film and process. The final alphorn piece was composed by Viljam Nybacka, who gathered recordings from the landscape, adding to this idea of experiencing and responding to the environment. “It was a brilliant but slightly weird, off-centre idea of combining these strange noises. I wanted you as a viewer to feel slightly uneasy and not quite understand it,” says Ballón. “Music is such a large component in driving different emotions in film. For me it was fascinating to watch someone else be inspired by the environment we are working in.”
Ballón approached the filmmaking process practically unscripted, with a minimal production and team. I really want to keep the essence of my filmmaking in line with the way I find stories as a photographer,” he says. “We got so much out of the four days we spent in spring together. It’s that real sense of finding something and telling that story collaboratively. That’s where you really get the most joy out of it.”