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Here's Why Empathy is The Key to Good Storytelling

By Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling | Indiewire July 30, 2014 at 12:36PM

In this guest post, the filmmakers of the forthcoming feature documentary, "My Country, No More" explain the importance of empathy in the storytelling process.
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"My Country, No More"
Endless Eye "My Country, No More"

1. Storytelling is about shared experience.

The best stories transport us into someone else's life, if only for a moment. But we won't go along for the ride unless we empathize with the characters. Empathy doesn't just drive a good story, it is storytelling. 

As other documentary filmmakers can attest, telling a compelling true story is a unique challenge. Our upcoming feature documentary "My Country, No More" bears witness to the dramatic industrialization of a North Dakota farming community on the frontier of the fastest growing oil boom in U.S history. The film follows several different people involved with the proposal of a new diesel refinery in an agricultural area. Neighbors that farmed side-by-side for generations turned against one another quickly in the pursuit of progress, leaving the community broken. While many were poised to lose their homes and ways of life, others stood to make fortunes. 

Though the film deals with the dangers of fracking, it was important for us to not make another "Gasland." We wanted the story to be character-driven and that meant being open to showing how the industry also benefited a lot of people in the region. As filmmakers, our goal was to maintain that there were no easy answers, only different perspectives.

READ MORE: Here's How to Do Immersive Storytelling

2. Empathy is not sympathy.

"My Country, No More"
"My Country, No More"

If empathy is feeling with someone, sympathy is feeling for them. Sympathetic storytelling lets sentimentality get in the way of a good story. In the film "Into the Abyss," Werner Herzog declares to a death row inmate, "I don't have to like you, but you are a human being."

Just because we dislike someone does not mean they don't have a story worth sharing. How many TV shows out right now are about putting yourself in the headspace of a mad man? Empathy fuels our curiosity and reveals a more nuanced way of looking at the world. To approach situations empathetically is to keep an open mind. 

3. Empathy is difficult.


In the summer of 2013 we filmed "License To Operate," a feature documentary about former gang members in South Central Los Angeles trying to save the communities they once destroyed. We followed these men and women through the most notoriously violent neighborhoods in L.A. and witnessed them risk their lives to change the hearts and minds of a new generation of gang affiliated youth.

Empathy teaches us to not give up on one another, to embrace our flaws. It expands our ideas of who we are and who we're capable of becoming. We don't need it to be explained, we just need to experience it. Joseph Campbell put it this way: "I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive."

4. Empathy leaves us with a feeling instead of telling us what to feel.


The late Tim Hetherington changed the public image of American men at war with his experimental short documentary "Sleeping Soldiers." Hetherington realized that by juxtaposing footage of soldiers in wartime with their peaceful expressions while they slept the viewer would experience something quite different from a typical vision of war. These men appear to us as peaceful and vulnerable. Hetherington operates from a place of great empathy for these young men and as a result we are left with a strong feeling. We no longer see these men as American soldiers, we see them only as human beings.

As documentary filmmakers, we are drawn to those experiences that connect and inspire us as human beings. Our company name Endless Eye comes from a passage in the Upanishads that says, "Not what the eye sees but that which makes the eye see, that is the endless eye." It is only possible for us to recognize ourselves when we see ourselves through each other's eyes.

Endless Eye is a creative collaboration between filmmakers Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling. Their forthcoming feature documentary, "My Country, No More" received the June 2014 grant from Creative District. The film is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2014. 

This article is related to: Creative District, Documentary Film, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries