December 1, 2000

Fox on the Run: A Crash Course in Documentary Filmmaking

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox. Photo: Zohe Films

“We spend 12 years in school learning the language of the written word, but no time on the language of the visual image,” filmmaker Jennifer Fox noted in her recent Documentary Master Class, held at New York’s New School and co-sponsored by IDA, Film/Video Arts and Women Make Movies.  “We’re just expected to ‘get’ it.” 

Fox seems to have “gotten” it for herself while building a reputation as a powerful chronicler of private lives.  Her first film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie, took top honors at Sundance in 1988, while An American Love Story, her 10-part series about an interracial family, aired last year on PBS’ American Playhouse

Over the course of two October weekends, Fox managed to captivate a class of about 30 with her detailed deconstruction of the seemingly mysterious artistic process.  Level I, which ran for about 15 hours over one weekend, was a step-by-step review of the process of directing a documentary. Emphasis was on the conceptual side of filmmaking—how to think about making a film,and making the creative and artistic decisions along the way. The class had a chance to watch snippets from classic documentaries, including Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven and Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, and analyze, in a refreshingly non-academic manner, why these films work as well as they do. 

Level II, which continued the following weekend, gave those already making documentaries the chance to scrutinize and analyze Fox’s own films. Randomly selected class members received feedback on their rough cuts and works-in-progress. When asked to describe their film in a single sentence and articulate their personal goal in making the film in another sentence, many participants had trouble.  This underscored one of Fox’s central tenets: the importance of having a clear, expressible vision of one’s mission. 

She also stressed the usefulness of a traditional narrative structure; as “homework,” participants wrote out their stories in three acts. Class members seemed to find especially useful the opportunity to hear how Fox resolved in her work such common problems as how much to reveal about subjects’ private lives, what constitutes being manipulative and what to do when crucial footage is missing. 

Following are some of the useful tips which emerged from the course: 

  • Every film should have a central hypothesis, even if it is not readily obvious to the audience. 
  • “Casting” is crucial. If the subject of the film is just not that compelling, no worthy intent or technique is likely to overcome that. 
  • Be extremely methodical. A detailed plan is not enough; if you skip steps, you guarantee disaster. 
  • Razzle-dazzle isn’t everything. Errol Morris’ straight-on, deadpan delivery interview scenes are some of the most powerful of anything out there. 
  • There are “thin” story lines and “thick” ones. Thick ones—what Fox calls “multi-layer cakes”—have things happening on several levels, emotionally and psychologically, and can assure powerful filmmaking even when there is little overt action.
  • Decide early and keep focused on the type of story you are telling (is it driven by archival material, cinéma vérité, interviews or a combination?), and who is driving the action?
  • Good filmmaking has parallels with meditative practices; cultivate being in the present, and strive for an aura of calm and neutrality. 
  • For riveting storytelling, it’s crucial to constantly re-evaluate the best order for presenting material. 
  • The importance of interviewing techniques cannot be overstated. It is worth learning about Neuro-Linguistic Programming -- the use of language (and body language) to establish rapport. 
  • Document the transformation of your subject. Vérité is not obligatory for this purpose; interviews can capture this transformation, too. 
  • Watching cartoons is excellent preparation for directing because the disciplined use of pictures serve to advance a story. In a good cartoon, no image is wasted. 
  • Stories—and action—must come out of a character’s needs and desires. 
  • Most good scenes happen when the camera isn’t on. One has to think about how to reconstruct these seminal events, often through retelling. 
  • Build interview strands, systematically linking them to tell a story. Then, interweave multiple strands for a richly textured chronicle.  
  • A good film has at least one character who is willing to reveal him/herself emotionally. 
  • Keep a strong sense of a ticking clock: lay out your challenge early on and repeatedly underline that a drama is in the process of unfolding.  
  • Avoid one-sided storytelling: point of view is fine, but fairly representing both sides ultimately strengthens your credibility and your conclusions. 
  • A film with music is 10 times more likely to be successful than one without.

 

Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire and The Nation. He is making his first documentary.

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