AND THEN WHAT? pt2

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In which two documentary editors continue their discussion (the ethical bit), and enjoy very tasty Vietnamese salads. (I immediately remember that in Montreal, Vietnamese would be my go-to lunch when I’d be eyeball deep in a project. I don’t know why that is. Anyone who does and shares it here… I owe you one Vietnamese lunch.)

There’s an interview in the film I’m making with my partner right now, where one of the main characters meets an official from the sanitation ministry of Kenya. They’re talking about the slum of Kibera, and how projects always concentrate on one small area of the slum: “It’s a culture. They come and go, come and go.” Makes sense based on what I’ve seen: got something to test out? Bring it to the most disposable people on the planet. If you’ve seen the film the Constant Gardener, a fictionalized but not by much account of some of what goes on in Kibera, you get a sense of it with locals being guinea pigs for anti TB medication, anticipating a worldwide epidemic around the corner (Are they testing Ebola stuff right now I wonder).

So what’s the difference when it comes to filmmakers? You’ve got a story to tell, you go in, befriend them, spend time with them, and somewhere in them give them some sliver of hope: someone’s interested in my story! Something might happen! Then you’re gone.

I know the drill: we’ve got our own lives and taking on someone else’s problems above and beyond the context of your film is more than a little daunting. You can hope that it will somehow help the people in it, but above and beyond that, how do you determine where your responsibility rests?

The great Steve James did the Good Pitch with his film the Interrupters (see it now if you haven’t already!), at the same time as we were pitching our project, and he brought his lead character in from Chicago to Silver Springs to boost the level of the pitch and help get the film finished and, more importantly, out there. Clear example of using what you’ve got to get a film done, including the characters.

But not only did James partner up with a mass of anti-violence groups, youth groups, etc, but when that same character grew ill later down the line, James was able to successfully raise funds to battle her disease.

I’m not saying marry your characters, and hell, not every character is necessarily going to be folks you want to hang out with, but I can’t help but feel there’s a certain responsibility at play when you open a wound, to figure out what conclusion you have to bring your part in the story to, then do it.

The other editor, between bites of Mango salad, discussed how the scale of the projects he works on can vary, but since becoming a dad he tends to stick to slightly less dark material. I have to say, it does get harder to watch the horrific bits of humanity play out on screen when you picture your kids in your mind’s eye all the time.

The stakes are different when the story’s scale is more intimate. Then I think the ethical considerations have to be more about honesty. As we said in part 1, sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth. Maybe you alter the timeline of events slightly for dramatic effect. Or exaggerate a character’s qualities to either get the point across or make them cinematically as interesting as you found them in the first place.

My background was fiction, so I play perhaps a little more fast and loose with the literal “reality” of a story. But I think that’s the difference between journalism and storytelling. I’m a firm believer that if changing some of the details help the deeper truths of a story to come out, then that’s good. It’s all subjective anyway, and the voice you have comes out in developing a film whether you want it to or not. Might as well play it for its strengths.

I’m stretching away from the actual lunchtime conversation a bit, but this is the gist of it. And isn’t that kind of the point?

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