Independent Film Week - Working with Doc Subjects - Sept. 18, 2008
Independent Film Week
Working with Doc Subjects
September 18, 2008
Again, this panel was composed of all Femmes who each provided clips exhibiting their wonderful films. In each, it was clear that they had to make their subjects a part of the film to accomplish it. Ethics is in the bloodstream of a filmmaker.
Most of Nina Davenport’s previous films have been personal. She wanted to make her latest, Operation: Filmmaker, universal, so she approached it with an eagerness to be on the outside. She did shoot some scenes with her providing her subject with filmmaking advice, and was especially compelled to let him know when he was alienating people. Then she shot the scenes with her not in them. But over time, when he needed visa, money, credit for directing the film, etc. she grew tired of his manipulation and keep their interactions in the film. It then ended up being about their relationship.
Tia Lessin, co-director of Trouble the Water, says it’s not entirely possible to be objective. Filmmakers inevitably inject passion, outrage, anger, hope, and ultimately a point of view. She aimed to not make her film about victims or criminals, but the survivors of Katrina. The subjects were residents of New Orleans, who shot a lot of the original footage that inspired the film. These residents couldn’t gain access back unless they were attached to media, so it comes across that there was aggression on the ground against the people. The footage from the subjects painted the film.
Lucia Small is also of personal documentary background. For The Axe in the Attic, she conducted hundreds of interviews. She narrowed the bunch down to 32 and struggled a bit with structure due to the many characters. She strived to get a variety of people: white, black etc. The filmmakers flagged people along the way who were more than eager to tell their stories, but they also were avoided as they appeared to be carpetbaggers. Characters in her film were generous, but trust was a serious issue, especially in the context of New Orleans at the time. A filmmaker can never be totally objective despite efforts to abide by a journalist code. The camera is a link for the filmmaker to witness a story. In the case of Lucia’s film, the challenge was to gain their trust, sometimes in mere.
Cynthia Wade wanted to carve out narrative arc in theme which came naturally in Freeheld, which had a subject who had limited lifespan and had particular goal. Her physical condition was visibly different from one shoot to the next. In this case, the story dictated that it had to be chronological. Also, because it was a short film, it was liberating to not push for coverage that a feature requires. There was pressure in interviewing the main character. Cynthia had to rack her brain for every little idea and question because there was no way to go back. She gave her subject cameras because it alleviated her guilt to be in their house and in their face doing it herself. It was a sentimental and emotional thing to shoot.
The entire panel felt that subjects should not necessarily be compensated. It is exploitative although in the case of Tia’s film, they expanded their relationship by licensing the footage from her subject. Geraldo seemed to have ruined that mantra for journalists. It all seemed to change with his coup of subjects getting compensated, but in the field you worry about that truth in depicting story. It does get complicated in this economy and with the exchange rate in third world, but the consensus was, do not put money between the filmmaker and the subject.