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Power Struggles: Sundance Documentarians Tell Us What It Means to Collaborate With Their Subjects

The nonfiction filmmakers behind this year's Sundance films tell IndieWire what understanding they established with their subjects.



Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Relationships between documentary filmmakers and their subjects must balance access and editorial control, which leaves them walking a line between establishing trust and respecting boundaries. It’s a tricky business.

IndieWire recently asked nonfiction filmmakers behind this year’s Sundance documentary features about the understandings they established with their subjects before they started shooting, and if they considered their stars to be collaborators.

READ MORE: Fox Searchlight Buys Documentary ‘Step’ For More Than $4 Million — Sundance 2017



Courtesy of Sundance

Amanda Lipitz “Step” The process started with discussing the idea with the families, especially the mothers of the young women on the step team. We set up a meeting after school one day and all the parents/guardians were invited to attend. I explained my vision of the story, with the emphasis on wanting to tell a positive story about Baltimore, these young women, and what they were trying to accomplish. I absolutely consider them collaborators. It was their story to tell, and they were laying the roadmap of where we would go. The girls’ artistic influence on the film is everywhere! I was inspired by the music they listened to (some of which made it into the movie) and their style.

Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, “Trophy” Developing trust and friendship with our characters led to greater collaboration. The more respect we had for each other, the more we became involved in their lives. John and Philip would call when something significant was happening for them, and invite us to film. In return, we did the same. We would reach out when we felt there was significant news about conservation, breeding, and hunting and to find a way to incorpora​te those global events into their story arcs and the subject in general. With that said, there comes a point — for us, it was during the edit ​— where you want to make sure you are telling the story in an objective way.

Pascale Lamche,”Winnie” We had to slowly build trust with Winnie Madikizela Mandela [wife of Nelson], and began by building a relationship with her daughter Zindzi, who also becomes a major storyteller in the film. The understanding at the beginning of the film was that I was interested in focusing on the untold story of Winnie’s activities in the military wing of the African National Congress, and on her role as a Commander of a guerrilla army. I do consider her a collaborator, insofar as she was willing to open up to me and speak truthfully about the many distressing and violent aspects of her past, as well as her political triumphs and struggles. But I did not screen work in progress, or anything of that nature.

Winnie Movie


Yance Ford, “Strong Island” I told each person involved in Strong Island that I wanted them to tell me everything they remembered [about the murder for Ford’s brother], and that I wasn’t administering a test. That it was ok to say, “I don’t remember.” Those conversations, which took place over 10 years, and which required great patience from everyone, resulted in each person taking incredible risks in their own way. Their honesty is what ultimately makes “Strong Island” the film that it is. When it came to interviews with me, I felt I had to abide by the same terms, and match that honesty.

Kyoko Miyake, “Tokyo Idols” We needed to see the idols off stage, without makeup, with their family and friends. I consider them collaborators. The trust from my subject is the foundation of my filmmaking, and I’m constantly asking them to update/educate me on what’s happening.

Jonathan Olshefski, “Quest” The film developed very incrementally over the course of more than 10 years. It started off as a one-day photo shoot of the Rainey family’s home studio. After spending many days on this project and sleeping over at the house, I felt that the medium of still photography might not be the best to tell this story. I wanted to include the voices of the Rainey family, the music from the studio, the way light moved during early morning hours working a paper route. They are absolutely collaborators. Without their invitation into these moments, we would not have the film that we have. Before it is a film, it is a relationship. Both the Raineys and I felt that their story was important, and could be used to do good things in the world. This shared vision is what drove us.

READ MORE: ‘Quest’: How a Photo Essay Turned into a Documentary About 8 Years in the Life of a North Philly Family

Jiuliang Wang, Plastic China” Before I started shooting, I was trying to discover how foreign plastic waste has been dealt with in China, and to reveal the unknown secrets of that industry. After about half a year of shooting, having gotten what we wanted about the industry, I had new ideas about what this movie will convey. If our movie initially was trying to answer ‘what plastic recycling industry is like’, then later on we were trying to answer ‘why the industry is like this.’ Therefore, the content has changed to the stories told by people in this industry.

"Workers Cup"

“Workers Cup”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Adam Sobel, “The Workers Cup” We received access to make this film mere hours before the “workers welfare” soccer tournament at the center of [the film] kicked off, so we didn’t have time to ease into the story. We spent a lot of time gaining the trust of the subjects and building a relationship by talking about our families at home, our reasons for coming to Qatar, and, of course, soccer. They are absolutely collaborators. From the beginning, my goal was to make a film that the characters would be proud of. I’d seen a considerable amount of media around this subject that make migrant workers appear only as victims, and I knew that for our film to have real meaning, the characters themselves had to be empowered. So I tried to approach the story on their terms.

Rory Kennedy, “TAKE EVERY WAVE: The Life Of Laird Hamilton” When Laird and I initially discussed the film, I made it clear that I was not interested in making a typical surf film. I wanted to make a film that helped us understand why Laird surfed avalanches. What drew me to Laird – and indicated to me from the get-go that there may be a different kind of surf movie here – was how to unlock the secret of what motivated him throughout his life. Laird understood this and he was game. He was absolutely a collaborator. It’s hard to make an honest film that centers around the life of one person, without that person acting as a collaborator throughout the process.

Austin Peters, “Give Me Future” From the beginning, we wanted to make a different kind of a concert documentary. We wanted the concert to be as much about the people in the audience as it is about the people on stage, and from that decision everything else followed suit. Absolutely, the subjects are collaborators. Across the board, it was about earning trust with everyone who is in the film, from the guys in the band to the Cuban subjects, and that was something that took time with all of them and got better as we continued making the film.

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: Here Are the Cameras Used to Shoot This Year’s Acclaimed Films

Joe Piscatella, “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” The subjects of “Joshua” were not collaborators. They agreed to let me make a documentary film about them and their exploits to keep the Communist Party of China at bay in Hong Kong. They were not fully aware of the entire story we were telling, and which events we were using in the film. While the subjects of “Joshua” were usually gracious in continuing to give us access, as the story evolved to arrests, trials, potential jail time, etc., I’m sure that there were times they when wished that the scope of the film would stop shifting. Where Joshua Wong (the star of the film) and his friends were helpful was in helping us locate footage from their own archives of events where we did not have our own cameras on the ground. As we discovered (to our delight), teenagers always have their cell phones and if something happened, someone probably filmed it.

Dina Sundance 2017 autism documentary


Dan Sickles, “Dina” Dina has always been part of my extended family. She’s known me since I was in the womb, and we’ve always had a deeply trusting dynamic. There wasn’t ever a point during production where we suggested that we knew what the film was about, as our process lends itself to discovering the film in the editing room. Not knowing, and not projecting, allowed us to work in a way that kept us free from expectation and encouraged her to live in front of our camera as opposed to perform. Our only ask of her was that we share space, and our primary promise to her was that we would listen and treat her with dignity. Dina is a collaborator on our film. She’s our star, and we’re her crew. In the film, Dina is showing us what she wants to reveal about herself, and she’s upending assumptions about femininity, aging, and neurodiversity by virtue of living on screen. She personally screened several cuts and gave us feedback. She owns this film more than anyone, and together we’re using it to accomplish new dreams she has for herself.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

Ramona S. Diaz, “Motherland” I filmed in a maternity hospital wherein I chose to focus on the mothers as opposed to the staff. This was tricky because, basically, I chose which participants to follow (assuming they’d agree) as we were shooting. Unlike previous films I’d done, where I had the luxury of getting to know the participants before shooting, this was like speed dating. Mothers arrived at the hospital in the midst of labor and I’d sort of tell them what we were doing, but made a deal to not use whatever we shot if, after they had given birth and had time to think clearly, they were not comfortable with it. Some were okay with it, some were not.

The ones who agreed to participate fully, I got to know as we were filming them. It was an amazing way to work. They were a revelation as their lives unfolded in front of the camera. I now realize how boring it is to know in advance what you’re going to get — might as well be doing fiction. It’s a nerve-wracking way to work, for sure. But it so satisfying. I suppose they are collaborators, but only to a degree.

The fact is that it is an unequal relationship. Whoever has the camera is the more powerful one in the relationship, no matter who it is one is filming — be it a former first lady, rock stars, teachers, dissidents, or impoverished pregnant women. They are collaborators in that they are sharing their lives with you, giving you a glimpse into their interior landscape. But like actors who are wrapped after the shoot, so are they after the filming is done. They’re not with us in the editing room. We’re not asking their opinions on cuts. I think it makes me feel better to think of them as collaborators because, unlike actors whose presence is based on a clear, transactional relationship, participants in a documentary don’t really have that. We take their stories, but what do they get? Perhaps sharing their cautionary tales help others in avoiding the same mistakes, in righting a wrong, in shedding light on a problem? Maybe. But is that enough? I’m not sure. It’s something I struggle with every time I make a film.

Susan Froemke & John Hoffman, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” The question is a leading one. Of course, they are collaborators, through the simple act of agreeing to be filmed. But part of that implicit contract is their understanding that we will have final editorial control. So, really, the question is what does it mean to collaborate?

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