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What It’s Like to Be the Subject of a Documentary Film

What It's Like to Be the Subject of a Documentary Film

Documentary films can, of course, be about a variety of subjects, including social justice, environmental causes or traumatic events. But what if the documentary is about you? Your life. Your family. Your job. Your love. Your story.

READ MORE: The Best Documentaries of 2014 So Far: ‘The Overnighters’ and ‘Art and Craft’ Join the List

This week at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, Indiewire spoke with a number of documentary film subjects on what it’s like to be the focus of a film, how the cameras might invade their lives (or not) and the reactions once the film is complete. The responses, as one could guess, are as varied as the subjects. So what is it like to be the focus of a documentary film? As it turns out, it’s not that different from real life.

From Nobody to Somebody

Meet the Patels” tells the story of Ravi Patel who, after breaking up with his white, Connecticut-born girlfriend, agrees to allow his traditional Indian parents to set him up in a semi-arranged marriage. Shot by his sister Geeta Patel, the film follows Ravi on dates with Indian match-ups and includes many heated (and often hilarious) conversations with his parents, as well as some intimate confessionals from Ravi himself.

Ravi’s parents, Champa and Vasant Patel, have become minor celebrities on the festival circuit where the film has screened (including Hot Docs and LAFF), and they’re really just getting started. 

“I don’t know if it’s hit us yet, but we are definitely enjoying it,” said Mr. Patel. “And everywhere we go people recognize us. We didn’t plan this,” he added, noting that his kids didn’t originally plan to make a film, just document Ravi’s matchmaking. “If I had known I would have worn better clothes!”

“I am wearing pajamas the whole time!” said Mrs. Patel.
Though the subject of marriage can be quite a personal matter, the Patels said that they don’t feel like any of their privacy was exposed in the film. “I don’t think that there is so much there that is too personal,” said Mrs. Patel. “Our culture is our culture and that’s how we are.”

But there was one encounter in the film that Ravi chose not to film, thinking that it would be too personal and emotional for his parents. Co-directors Geeta and Ravi used animation sequences to reenact the scene, but Mrs. Patel believes it would still have played out the same way had the cameras been in the room.

“I was upset and was crying, which he pretty much showed,” she said. “We have grown a lot because of this whole episode.”

“When the movie was completed and the children said, ‘Daddy come and sit down in the living room and see the film.’ They were very concerned about how we would react,” said Mr. Patel. “And we were fine!”

The Patels have a very natural ability to open up and share their story. But how does being a documentary subject work for someone who may be more reclusive?

Vietnam veteran and biker Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is the subject of “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik’s documentary debut “Stray Dog,” which follows Hall’s bike club on a journey to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Hall referred to his struggle with PTSD as, “coming back from being an animal to a human being.” But being filmed, he said, didn’t bother him at all.

“I ignored the camera,” Hall said. “People say well maybe it’s strange, it’s stressful, but I tell ya, my point of view is it’s not a problem.”

The film features a few vulnerable moments wherein Hall or another biker with a seemingly tough exterior would suddenly break into tears recalling their experiences in the Vietnam War. But according to Hall, most of the vets have gotten so used to it and accepting of their shared struggle that no element of embarrassment was ever present.

“I don’t feel vulnerable. It’s just real is what it is,” he said. “People have problems getting up in front of a crowd talking, I’ve come to a point in my life where I just be the best man I can be.”

Already Famous

The experience of being in a documentary film might be quite different for someone who is relatively used to already being in the public eye. If you’re somewhat famous already, is it any different having cameras follow you around for a movie?

Olympic diver Greg Louganis has been a celebrity for years, so when it came to shooting the documentary “Back on Board,” he was already used to the idea of letting a camera into his life.

“That was one thing that I learned when they made (1997 TV movie) ‘Breaking the Surface.’ I signed over creative control,” he said. “I knew that I didn’t have control, and I’m ok with that.”

Though Louganis himself didn’t have any expectations of what director Cheryl Furjanic would shoot or include, he did have reservations about who else might be caught in the shot.

“I’m protective of my friends, so I would always ask them, ‘Is this ok?’ Even my husband, he wasn’t really used to that, I’d ask, ‘Is this ok? Are you sure? You don’t have to.’ I think I was more concerned about them than I was myself.”

Country music singer Glen Campbell’s wife Kim and children Ashley and Shannon all know all about being in the spotlight, but when it came to being in a documentary about Campbell’s experiences with Alzheimer’s Disease, they knew they had to do it.

“Honestly when we started doing the documentary, I just felt like, maybe this is boring. Maybe no one’s going to be interested,” said Glen’s wife Kim. “You’re very self conscious being filmed.”

That self-consciousness became even more evident to her as Glen’s disease progressed. The resulting documentary, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” includes a handful of heavy scenes of the musician forgetting his family or where he is. But Campbell and his family knew they wanted to help increase Alzheimer’s awareness. “It’s a lot easier to be the subject when knowing that having the spotlight put on you could help other people,” said Glen’s daughter Ashley.

“But it never felt like we were in the spotlight,” added son Shannon. “We were just helping aim it.”

But even if the subject is a celebrity, documentaries can sometimes hit a snag. When “An Honest Liar” directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein approached famous magician James Randi (who appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” 32 times), he gave them one caveat: the film had to show everything, “warts and all.”

“There’s a bit of a surprise in the film that comes that made me wonder if I should have said warts and all,” Randi said. Indeed, one major twist in the film even includes a scene with Randi requesting the incident be excluded. Mere hours later, after a good night’s sleep, he changed his mind.

“As a magician I’m not always honest with my viewers,” he said. “But it was the honorable thing to do. I said wait a minute, I made an agreement, so let’s do it.”

But agreements between directors and subjects can go many different ways. Randi and his team decided on warts and all, but for others it’s an organic and ever growing process. That’s how it was for “Songs for Alexis” director Elivra Lind and her subject, transgender musician Ryan Cassata.

“All along the way there was conversation,” Lind said. “We spoke about what were the boundaries. I’m sensitive to when is too much, when do you need a brake. And I have to know before they know that they need a break.” 

“Songs for Alexis” chronicles Cassata’s budding music career as well as his relationship with a fellow teenager named Alexis. Also included in the film is Ryan’s mom Fran Cassata, who put her trust in both Ryan and Lind to decide what was too far.

“We talked about this, this moment of ‘When do you stop filming?’ It’s such a difficult thing,” Lind said. Luckily she seems to not have stepped overboard.

“I did not feel intruded upon,” Ryan said confidently.

“Never at any time did I say, ‘Ugh I wish I never got myself into this!'” Fran added. “That never happened, because we were allowed our space.”

In every scenario, be a subject an average person or a household name or a nobody about to become a somebody, the fact remains that documentary filmmakers have to dig, sometimes deep, into personal and uncomfortable places of their subjects’ lives in order to make their film. For the subjects of many of Hot Springs’ best docs, there was never any doubt that they would let the cameras capture their highs as well as their lows. They had made an agreement, as James Randi said. Warts and all.

READ MORE: Here’s How to Make a Career in Documentary Filmmaking

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