The marginalized, the poverty-stricken, the disenfranchised — these are the subjects of many documentaries, both past and present.
But there’s always a risk to such depictions, whether in over-romanticizing their subjects’ difficult experiences, or indulging in their difference for the viewers’ entertainment.
Albert Maysles once said his strategy for avoiding such nonfiction traps is to “love your subjects.” But while that’s good practice in theory, it’s also a little naive. Many documentary filmmakers agree that the best way to approach their subjects is with “compassion,” “respect” and “humanity,” but the realities both on the ground and in post-production demand a greater awareness for the complex relationship that exists between filmmaker and subject, particularly when that subject has been historically mischaracterized, stereotyped or deprived a voice by the mainstream media.
Examples of films grappling with this dynamic are everywhere these days. They make up several of this year’s Oscar short-listed docs (Jesse Moss’ chronicle of itinerate workers in “The Overnighters”; Nick Broomfield’s interviews with ex-prostitutes in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”); they’re in movie theaters and on VOD (Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert’s mosaic of Appalachian residents seeking healthcare in “Remote Area Medical”; Margaret Brown’s look at those along the Gulf Coast affected by the BP oil spill) and they’re traveling the film festival circuit (Debra Granick’s profile of a Vietnam veteran biker “Stray Dog”; Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s portrait of an outsider artist, “Almost There”), to name just a few.
In many of these cases, the filmmakers are coming from urban metropolises (New York, San Francisco) and traveling to more rural areas of America (Tennessee, Missouri) to document their stories. And no matter how sympathetic these filmmakers may be, they will always remain outsiders, looking in.
When Reichert and Zaman hit the ground in Tennessee for the making of “Remote Area Medical,” it was obvious that they were out-of-towners, and residents eyed them suspiciously. “People would ask, ‘Are you the news? What do you want?’” recalled Zaman.
But filmmakers shouldn’t “want” something from their subjects, according to Zaman. “It might sound simplistic,” she said, “but you don’t go up to people with a camera and approach them like you want something from them. You should talk to people like they’re people.”
Many documentary filmmakers feel it’s important to spend time with people before the camera is rolling. Though Reichert and Zaman only spent a few weeks getting to know their subjects (or only a few hours, in some cases, during the shooting of the Remote Area Medical set-up, in which citizens receive free medical care), they still made sure to take a patient approach.
“It was about letting them shape the conversation as much I was,” said Reichert, “and not rushing through a checklist of questions.”
Echoing many of Reichert and Zaman’s practices, Tracy Droz Tragos, co-director of Sundance 2014 Grand Jury Prize winner Rich Hill, said, “It’s a lot about leaving all judgment at the door.”
Tragos acknowledged that her life is different from the economically deprived subjects she chronicles in a rural Missouri town, but she looked for points of contact. “Our conversations often started with things we had in common, like our experience of motherhood,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily strategic, but that was one key to our access.”
Tragos also benefited from the fact that her father’s family was from the town, so she had a grasp of the culture and the way people talk. (“People don’t say directly, ‘Would you please pass the salt and pepper?’ They have a way of talking around things,” she said.)
Staying a truly scrappy low-budget production also helped the filmmakers’ relationship with the locals, according to Tragos. “It might have been different if HBO was attached from the get go,” she said.
Perceptions are important. Even if the filmmakers come from more privileged or extremely different backgrounds, they are wise to acknowledge that difference, but not to flaunt it. When the kids in Rich Hill smoked around Tragos, for example, she felt she had to say something. “I didn’t pretend that I was down with that,” she said. But she kept quiet when the mothers smoked around her.
Andrea B. Scott, the Brooklyn-based director of “Florence, Arizona,” a look at a small-town with a massive prison-industrial complex, had spent little time in the Southwest before making her film. But she used that to her advantage. “We came in with big smiles and were very open to talking to whomever we could talk to,” she said. It also helped that she and her producer were young women (“I think that young female filmmakers are non-threatening,” she added.)
Scott also embraced her inner cowboy. In the process of making the film, she “became something of an urban cowgirl,” she said. “And we weren’t afraid to don a cowboy hat or cowboy boots and go two-stepping at the local bar.”
If the interviewing and production process is vital to the way these films are made, the editing process is just as crucial.
For instance, when Zaman and Reichert began making “Remote Area Medical,” they shot several talking-head interviews that they never intended to include in what they expected to be a largely verite film. But during post-production, they decided these voices were necessary. “It felt a little heartless,” admitted Reichert. “The interviews allowed them to air their grievances and build intimacy.”
With “Florence, Arizona,” Scott structured the edit with the explicit intent of “upending the stereotypes and prejudices that we all form when meeting someone,” she said. Interestingly, the film never explicitly goes inside the prison to talk to the inmates, who appear mostly as vague nonentities — much like they do in the local citizens’ everyday lives. But in a clever conclusion, the film ultimately breaks down this difference, and there is a blurring of the “the stark boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside,’” as Scott explained.
Another film on the festival circuit that expressly takes on these questions is “Almost There,” Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s profile of Peter Anton. An elderly man, living in squalor, Anton is also a veritable “outsider artist,” and the filmmakers help him put on his own art show. Anton could have easily been represented as an eccentric freak. But the filmmakers attempt to avoid that trap by including themselves in the film. In this way, Rybicky, as other filmmakers have done before him (Steve James in “Stevie,” Nina Davenport in “Operation Filmmaker”), also becomes the subject.
“It was important for us not to just turn the camera on Peter, but to scrutinize us as well,” said Rybicky. “In our film, you also see me and my family and what motivates our connection to Peter.”
Every facet of “Almost There” is also infused with Anton’s point of view. “In having him do the narration, and working with our graphics person, and making the film about our process,” the film is as much about Anton’s version of his own story, as much as the filmmakers’ version, according to Rybicky.
When Anton fights back at one point — “I’m not a project,” he tells Rybicky — he, indeed, becomes more than a film character, but a human being whose life is significantly changed by the documentary that he takes part in.
In many of these films, in fact, the documentarians cede some power and agency to the people they are chronicling, and in that way, their partnership is more equitable.
As Anton says in “Almost There,” “You are serving me; I am serving you; we are both serving each other.”