A question I get a lot about my cinema-verite documentaries is “How is it that the people in your films aren’t self-conscious?” I think the answer is that I make films about hard-hit people trying to change or—without being hyperbolic—in many cases, save their lives. Longtime crack and heroin addicts trying to stay clean in “Finding Normal”; inmate moms trying to have relationships with their children in “Mothering Inside.” The stakes are high, and the participants have a goal they are trying to attain with every fiber of their being. They have something bigger and better to focus on than me and my camera. As a recovering drug addict trying to rebuild his life and be a better father to his daughter told me during the making of “Finding Normal,” “Dude, you’re the least of my problems.”
The other element of creating an atmosphere where people can be themselves in front of the camera, can let their souls emerge if you will, is the relationship that develops between me and the people in my films. I feel a large part of my role is that of witness. Witness to their full humanity, their joy, sorrow and pain as well as their strength. The audience needs to understand the pain so they can fully grasp the strength. I’ve found that by approaching people in an open-hearted way and without judgment or assumptions—meaning that we are on equal ground here as people searching for something true and maybe even beautiful in this particular journey that is unfolding in front of the camera—that they open up to me because they feel understood and respected. And for many if not most, these are not familiar feelings.
Cinema-verite is French for “talk is cheap.” No, it isn’t, but one of the many things that draws me to cinema-verite is the form’s unique ability to allow character to reveal itself through action and over time. It is the cinematic equivalent to what someone said about baseball: “It offers the athlete more space and time in which to define themselves than any other sport.” The sheer amount of time spent together filming (and not filming) is an opportunity to build an intimacy between participant and filmmaker that (one hopes) fosters trust. It is that trust that lays a groundwork that at least allows for the possibility of revelation.
Because I feel my main role is that of witness, I seldom feel discouraged by a day’s shooting where I know that none of the footage will make it into the final film. The day was already useful because I witnessed. By my simple presence I communicated to the person “your life matters.” And I try not to think about editing while I’m shooting anyway because I find it takes me out of the moment, diminishes somewhat the quality of the attention I can pay to what is going on in front of me, to the person revealing themself in front of me. One can’t be a judge and witness at the same time.
Except that one must—especially if you shoot your own cinema verite documentaries. In “Mothering Inside” when the kids visit their moms in prison, by choosing to film one mother and child at any given moment I am, of course, precluding all the other moms and kids from even the possibility of being included in that particular moment in the film. In such potentially crazy-making situations, I find it helpful to try to be in the moment with whatever is unfolding in front of me and let that lead me, keeping in mind that I need to make myself small so the story can be big. And implied in that approach is the obvious fact that the story changes every day and maybe even more frequently than that, and if it didn’t what would be the use of telling it?
This hit home for me when in the midst of making “Mothering Inside,” the Oregon Dept. of Corrections decided to eliminate the program I was featuring, the Family Preservation Project. Suddenly, the film was not solely about inmate mothers and kids trying to use love to penetrate prison walls, it was about a grassroots effort to save this vital program that has a recidivism rate of zero. Four of the women profiled in the film have since been released from prison, becoming skilled advocates in the press and in meetings with state legislators and Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Their advocacy worked. Governor Brown signed bill 5507, and in October the Family Preservation Project will resume visits between inmate moms and their children.
“Mothering Inside” will screen alongside “Finding Normal” on Tuesday, August 11, 2015 at the Northwest Film Center with Brian Lindstrom in attendance. “Finding Normal” is also an official selection of The Portland Film Festival. Find out more here.