AND THEN WHAT? pt2

vlcsnap-2010-02-22-23h05m30s151

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?

AND THEN WHAT?.. pt1

05

A fellow editor and I had a prolonged discussion over lunch today about ethics in filmmaking. (Vietnamese joint: I had tofu, he had chicken). Naturally, between us, we solved all the problems around that question. We can’t share those solutions with you, but let’s discuss.

What do you do when your character is suicide prone?

How quickly do you pick up the camera to record the fallout from a tragedy?

How do you balance a subjective point of view with actual events?

We’re filmmakers, this other editor and I, and if there’s one certainty in documentary that we both agree on it’s that sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.

If you want an event to have the impact it deserves in a film, odds are that you’ve had to recontextualize that event within the narrative arc. You might have exaggerated a person or thing via production or post production choices. You might have removed someone entirely from a scene because they didn’t further the story or your agenda.

If we accept that documentary is subjective then it follows that we manipulate material to reflect whatever point of view it is we want to get across. So where do you draw the line?

There are some I know who’ll be pissed off with the question, since it implies that there actually is a line to be drawn in the first place. Censoring oneself, it could be argued, puts an instant barrier between you and the truth. If you’re making a film, say, about poverty, violence, racism, whatever, in the hope of having some sort of impact on the problem you’re discussing, then shouldn’t one use all the tools at hand to get it done? Is morality just something that gets in the way of change?

A friend of mine made a doc that follows their character through disease right up to their eventual death. The experience, I’m told, continues to haunt at least one conscience. I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing the same. It would mean crossing that invisible line, which I take very seriously.

What I do know is that if I were to do it, if I were really sure that it would make some sort of difference, I’d make damn sure to answer the question “and then what?” I’d partner up with folks on the front lines of whatever topic I was covering and make sure that whatever film we’d crafted be used as a tool to further the campaign’s goals: awareness, fund raising, whatever makes the most sense.

I want to believe that that desire is more than hubris and tied to the wish of making a film that goes beyond entertainment or information, maybe acting as a catalyst, a trigger, a call to action.

Alright. So there’s some hubris in there. Gimme some slack while I work on my ethics.

CREATIVE HANGOVER

IMG_1062

I love the first run after a pitching workshop. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a distillation process that brings folks back to why they wanted to do a project in the first place.

This is a business, doc or fiction, feature or short, screens or the web. If you’re not looking for a return on your work then you’re presumably hoping for somebody to go and see it, y’know, above and beyond family, friends and the already converted. You need resources, funding, and collaborators to get your message out there, and that’s the bottom line.

At least, it’s one of the bottom lines. The other is staying true to what it is you want to say and how you want to say it.

One project we worked with in Lisbon made me think of Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s beautiful 2013 feature. It’s got nothing to do with the content, but the feel of it stuck with me, like some sort of descendent of Tarkovsky. Upstream Color is a ponderous journey that answers very few of the questions it raises, at least directly. It unapologetically lives in the imagery and structure of dream, and I know I’m not the only one who walked away from it and found it walking along with me. It’s hard to imagine what would have been the film’s pitch, or even its screenplay or treatment, and that I think gives it a personal stamp that might piss you off, but which you can’t ignore.

The Lisbon doc had a similar feel, gorgeous and without a traditional narrative structure. Watching the trailer I couldn’t connect dots in a literal way, but I got it from a place that keeps that imagery, that story, in my mind.

As I watched the pitch, listening to the filmmaker describe the film in industry language, it suddenly made the project feel more… common. Not because the filmmaker had nothing original to say; on the contrary it’s a sublimely original project. But trying to package the language into what’s immediately understood I felt as though the project was given a disservice.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s all fine and dandy to get up in front of a room of decision makers and tell them what they want to hear, and get them to back your project, but ultimately if you coherently but balls out pitch your vision, abstract though it may be, you might just connect with partners who plainly see that you mean what you say. There’s no recipe (I’m aware of) on how to pitch an unorthodox project in a conventional setting, but I figure it’s got something to do with pitching it in terms that mirror the kind of feeling you’re trying to convey, especially when the project springs from someplace beyond the rational and closer to your own core.

Part of this is probably wishful thinking, but not completely. There’s a place for personal visions, even when money rests at the heart of a lot of the process.

Storysmithing

29 b+wThe business side of Doc occasionally gets the unfair rap of being a necessary evil.”It sucks to sacrifice the complexity of an idea and context to concision.”

I’m unconvinced.

7 minutes is a very short time in which to make your case. You have to introduce a context, a story, players, visual style, narrative approach, partners and budget, projected delivery dates, etc, in the same amount of time it takes to listen to a song. Ok, a longish song, but even so.

If you flip it though, if you instead interpret the challenge as a way to use all of the bullet points as opportunities to exploit, to the end of saying what each of those points means, then you’re well on the way to crafting a great pitch that convinces them of at least one thing: you know how to tell a story.

Who are your partners? What does having those partners say about you? What is the visual style you chose? Can the description of that style replace part of your description of the story? Can you paint a portrait of your character by describing what they do instead of describing what kind of person they are, to help us understand what we’ll be seeing on the screen? Can you tap into your passion convince us that you are the person to do this film?

The artificiality of making films is inescapable, as are the realities of treating it as a business with money and careers at stake. I view it as another chance to prove myself, to show that I’m capable of not only making a film and decompressing information, but also of running with what’s available and turning it to my advantage.

Just look at Lars Von Trier’s the 5 Obstructions. 5 interpretations of the same idea, 5 conditions to challenge the storytelling, 5 inspired solutions that elevate the films beyond their more obvious beginnings.

Shake your head, curse under your breath and get on with the task of blowing people’s minds.

LISBON DOCS, 2014

2014-10-17 12.13.18

Altogether the creators and I spent our time analyzing their trailers, how they worked and how they fit into the pitch. As always, the reflex for most people is to build trailers that either tell as much of the story as possible, or resemble a high tempo theatrical piece. The strategy here has been to say “whoah Nellie!”, and reign in a bit of that brand of enthusiasm.

“What are you using your trailer to prove?” is my go-to question. And I love this process. Seeing how far creators take their projects, and helping them to get there is amazing.

Portuguese productions like Tiago Cravidao and Henrique Loff’s Expedition 81 and Pedro Magano’s Mourning at Sea tackle the tradition of cod fishing, from totally different angles. Expedition is an endurance test, putting the filmmakers on a ship with 30 fishermen on a 5 month trip to the North Atlantic. Strange things happen when folks are deprived of civilization, and while a solid narrative thread is still lacking, we’ll at least be treated to a kind of Iron John on the sea type story. It’s aesthetically strong, and a film I look forward to seeing finished.

A little closer to my heart isAlbina Grinkle’s Paradise Gowns, a Lithuanian documentary that takes a B+W, pseudo-experimental style, and presents a gorgeous, meditative picture of the Finnish archipelago. I love it when a narrative is unapologetically personal, and Gowns takes its time, creating connections using texture and mood. It’s the kind of project I’d love to cut (though a salary might be a long shot…)

The revolutionary tone of the times is represented. Gill Golan’s film Veganarchy (have fun pronouncing it), is an Israeli production exploring the explosion of Vegan-militant-activists in Israel, and their radical anti-meat protest tactics. Pinned against the harsher attitude towards 2,000,000 Palestinians denied their rights in the region, the built in moral dilemma is an interesting one, even as Gill moves along to find his narrative thread.

The final pitches are today and tomorrow. Today’s batched did a great job and are deep in one-on-ones this afternoon. So now, while the second batch preps their pitches for tomorrow… Lisbon here I come!