February 1, 2002

Got Plans this Summer? Why Not Do a DoubleTake?

If you’re thinking now about how to spend your summer, consider the DoubleTake Documentary Summer Institute. When I read the line-up of luminaries for the 2001 Institute, I knew I had to get there. These were some of my heroes—Frederick Wiseman, Ken Burns, Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson, among others. Not only would they hold master classes on the stories behind storytelling, but I could actually ask them questions one-on-one.

As a documentary filmmaker for public television, I wanted answers to the typical queries: “What’s your budget?” “How much time did you spend in edting?” But this was not a week for issues of time and money, but rather a time to explore the art and philosophy of documentary across many disciplines—not just filmmaking, but still photography, writing, poetry and radio production.

The participants talked about creating “moments” from their different material. Ira Glass of Public Radio International’s This American Life recreates the active dialogue that occurs during an event by asking, “What did he say? What did you say back?” This approach helps the interviewee and the listener relive the moment as if it’s just happened. Burns uses still photographs to create scenes by breaking the picture down, shooting pieces of it, then cutting those pieces together to create an active moment. Wiseman and still photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Thomas Roma and Peter Turnley all emphasized the importance of preparation—always having your camera ready to capture a moment that speaks to you.

For me, the one-on-one session with Wiseman was the highlight of the Institute. When I asked how to become a better filmmaker and make a living doing it, he replied, “Read a lot … and not a lot about making films…and it doesn’t hurt if you don’t need a lot of sleep.”

Passion, persistence and sacrifice were part of everyone’s story. Burns told us he “took a vow of abject poverty and humility to make documentary films.” Knowing that even the most respected and successful creators in the business had to risk everything to pursue their own voice and vision was a redefining moment for me.

In 1999, Burns approached Doubletake magazine founder and editor Robert Coles about his idea for the institute, which drew from his experience one summer as a Hampshire College student interested in filmmaking. That experience, and the influence of a film professor, gave him the courage to connect photographs and words to make films. More than 20 years later, Burns and Coles hoped to create a similar experience for the next generation of storytellers. Burns envisioned a place where fellow documentarians could come together and “share our loneliness.”

A community was born. Nearly 100 participants applied through Doubletake magazine to spend a busy and structured week in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The participants turned out to be as interesting, inspiring and diverse as the program itself. There were teachers from the kindergarten to college levels, community activists, independent film and radio producers from as close as Boston to as far away as Peru, a train conductor from Minnesota, a high school Spanish teacher from Tennessee, an Oregon kitchen store manager writing about the effects of displacement in his neighborhood, a Los Angeles-based animation executive making environmental films on the side, and Kentucky's Director on the Commission for Women, who was documenting women’s oral histories.

In one session, we were treated to screenings of Froemke’s, Dickson’s and Albert Maysles’ HBO film, Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, and Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. Wiseman would later ask participants to dissect scenes from his other classics, including Welfare, Law and Order and Basic Training, pushing us to think about how to read his films and understand the choices he made. He would often answer a question with a question, probing us to go beyond the literal. Wiseman said he doesn’t find his real story until the editing stage, which he usually does by himself for about a year after filming. "Editing a movie is like talking to yourself," he maintains.

Coles, a professor of psychology at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, finds his stories in a different way. In his book The Call of Stories, he maintains that readers connect writers’ stories “to memories of theirs, to experiences they were having right then and there in their lives.” He created Doubletake magazine to “celebrate, curate, and archive the extraordinary moments in ordinary lives.” The conversation turned to humor after Glass told Coles, “I have a problem with Doubletake. In person you’re much funnier and sexier than the magazine,” adding, “Americans are a very funny people.” Wiseman cautioned, “Everyone’s idea of entertainment is different.” Many participants agreed, debating over how far to take humor. If a story is too light, one said, “You run the risk of losing its soul.” Yet, the group acknowledged that in a heavily saturated entertainment environment, Glass’ challenge was necessary for the 21st century documentary storyteller to compete.

Glass believes Doubletake magazine and many other forms of documentary don’t entertain enough. “It’s like something I’m supposed to watch because it’s good for me,” he observed, making no apologies for encouraging a little “show biz” element in all forms of documentary. He revels in finding the pleasure in every story he tells. “Be willing to make a fool of yourself,” he urged, saying it’s unnatural to eliminate yourself from the process because anyone listening knows you’re there.

As quirky and offbeat as his show can be, he and his staff have a surprisingly systematic approach to making radio documentaries. “People are responding to our curiosity,” he said. “We choose stories based on what engages us the most.”

"I make films for myself. I never have an audience in mind,” Burns stated, concurring with Glass. He wasn't as interested in answering the “how to” questions as much as pushing the audience to discover their own “how come” reasons. Burns encouraged us to find our own voice, admitting he’s still finding his. “I don't know enough about myself yet,” he admitted. “I learn more with each film I make.” He challenged us to create work that makes us “only rejoice,” as Emerson once said.

When asked why he made films, Burns paused a moment and then went back to his childhood, when his mother was seriously ill for two to three years before dying. He realized that a constant theme in his work was the desire to keep the dead alive, perhaps the way he so desperately tried to keep his mother alive as a child.

So, as Glass would ask, “What do you make of all this?” I never did find out about budgets or post-production schedules, but I did learn something perhaps much more valuable to my work. I learned to trust my instincts and use my own voice and vision to tell a story.

For more information on the 2002 DoubleTake Documentary Summer Institute, go to www.doubletakemagazine.org.

 

Kathy Conkright is a documentary filmmaker at Nashville Public Television in Nashville, Tenn. Her film Friends Seen and Unseen earned Best Documentary honors at the 2001 Nashville Independent Film Festival.

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