Telling It Like It Is at GETTING REAL
This year’s GETTING REAL conference fell at an introspective and ripe time in my life as a documentary filmmaker. For most of my career, I have felt decidedly on the outside looking in at those special folks who visit war zones, interview presidents, whistle-blowers and celebrities, get the big grants and commercial work, and generally manage to make a living at filmmaking. I have envied those who, as Sundance Documentary Film Program Director Tabitha Jackson describes it, are "Curators of Outrage." Especially during my hiatus for motherhood, I was a complete outsider—in a world of diapers, parenting books and nap schedules. The only outrage I felt was in my own choices and how desperately I longed to return to filmmaking, without a roadmap for how I might get there one day.
More and more, my outsider status has crumbled. In 2014, my film Rich Hill got accepted to Sundance—and, even more incredibly, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Rich Hill was released theatrically in 100 markets and will have an Independent Lens broadcast on January 5, 2015. Yes, one of my bucket-list dreams came true. Most importantly, I got to express a little love for kids growing up in my family’s hometown, and a bit of outrage at their circumstances.
So this past fall, I was in an especially wrought place—reacting to the bounty of the past nine months, but with a measure of uncertainly about how to approach what is next. It was time to wean myself off the festival circuit and theatrical tour—but not to take time off, as much as some part of me craved doing that. I wanted to be strategic. I wanted to seize the momentum coming off of Rich Hill and work super hard to get new projects off the ground.
Filmmaker Dawn Porter asked me to speak with her during her keynote address at GETTING REAL and, true to theme, the request was for me to tell it like it is. Some of what I shared with her and the audience was excruciating to reveal. I had been in a cycle of promotion, which meant a mantra of "everything is great." I didn’t want to complain—and I didn’t want to be weak. But there were some real struggles I was facing: with work/life balance, trying to make more money than my children’s babysitter, and how to transition from the success of Rich Hill and the work that still surrounded it to the work of my own career as a filmmaker and creator.
So what does GETTING REAL look like for me? Here’s my list of takeaways from this year’s conference.
1) Sexism and Racism Exist
Porter acknowledged in her keynote that we are all a little bit racist and sexist. She was willing to cut a scene that she felt should have stayed in Gideon’s Army, losing an opportunity to show the loving, caring side of a young black man. I was willing to focus on the experience of boys in Rich Hill, even when I was drawn to some of the girls. We’ve all been a part of it, and we’ve all experienced it. Darius Clark Monroe spoke of rejection from mainstream documentary festivals with Evolution of a Criminal Mind. And I spoke about my young, handsome male co-director, and the attention he got at Sundance from agents and managers, when I got none. For the most part, I choose not to dwell on this kind of small-mindedness. It’s important to call it when I see it, and then to move on. And despite the risk in talking about it, those in the audience seemed to appreciate our candor and how hard it is to keep your strength while acknowledging inequality.
Ultimately, it felt good to tell the truth about my struggles with sexism—because, lo and behold, I am not the only one having them. And since the conference, I have thought about my own role in the face of discrimination and male dominance. Therefore, I have approached every hiring decision in a different way, working almost exclusively with female DPs and soundwomen. I also continue to think about my lens, and the stories that I am in a unique position to tell. I am now squarely focused on issues facing women.
2) Money Is Important
Money was a big topic at the conference. It’s an endless challenge to raise funds for our projects—and for ourselves. Conversations were started about “minimum” standards for the work we do, and about how funders need to accept line items that don’t just include below-the-line salaries but also salaries for the filmmaker. For me, I am building into my budget both a salary and a line item for my company—for the overhead of my office rent, Internet and insurance, and for renting back equipment that I own. These are all things that I’ve sacrificed in the past—or had been too insecure to include. Only by valuing ourselves can we even begin to achieve a sustainable career.
3) Have More Than One Project Going at Any Given Time
Another key to sustainability is having more than one film in the works, even when that feels scary and overwhelming, because not all films that get developed deserve to be made. Of course, it’s hard to have multiple films simultaneously in production; ideally, films are at different stages with staggered timelines. But the notion of thinking only about what’s next when you fully wrap a project means too much unpaid downtime and insecurity.
4) Don’t Get Stuck in Grantland—Remember Artistry and Filmmaking
It is important that I see myself not only as a producer, grant-writer and cup-rattler, but also as someone who has a vision for storytelling that has value. Sustainability means paying close attention to that inner voice or critic or inspiration or source of creativity or all of the above. Sometimes that voice knows what it’s talking about—and it’s important to listen, to respond to creative impulses, to have some padding in your personal infrastructure to explore a notion, to film an afternoon on your own steam—without anyone else giving permission. It’s also important to be wise enough to turn things down and pull the plug when your gut says the story isn’t there.
5) Keep Learning
I like my own ideas, but I also love to hear the ideas of others. Learning means partnering with respected collaborators—and listening to them. Learning also means continuing to do the work and exploring new forms, even when what may come of it is unclear. I recently booked a studio day for a direct-to-camera series of interviews and used equipment I’d never used before. I hated it! But I’m a better filmmaker for having had that experience and having a clearer sense of what works and what doesn’t work for me. It’s important to reflect on mistakes; they are opportunities to learn.
6) Art and Social Issues Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Art in filmmaking matters, for putting the whistles and bells on that “empathy machine,” and really making it zing. One of my favorite films of the year is Robert Greene’s Actress. I love the way Greene blurs lines of narrative and documentary and performance and authenticity. But I also loved the film because it feels like my life. Just like Brandy Burre, I often find I’m pretending and posturing to make it through the day. Sorta mother. Sorta filmmaker. Sorta, sometimes wife. This film was perhaps more art than social issue—but it is a powerful statement about femininity and the roles women play.
For me, if I don’t feel a strong measure of outrage, curiosity and compassion, it’s hard to find my way through a film in the lean times. The things I care about are deeply intertwined in my work. Social issues are important, but that doesn’t mean they have to be overt. We don’t always have to come up with solutions in our films. Sometimes they are simply a statement of “what is.”
Bottom line, I hope we are at a time when “documentary” itself is not a genre, and filmmakers continue to explore not only themes and issues, but also form itself.
7) Community Matters
Newsflash: I am not the only harried parent who considers herself a filmmaker. Writing this from a hotel room while I am missing yet another milestone (my younger daughter’s kindergarten recital—and she’s got lines!), it’s easy to imagine that I am the only one who has to sacrifice my home life for my films and sometimes feels like crap because of it. “Getting Real” means hanging out with other folks who know exactly what I’m talking about and are navigating similar work-life issues.
8) Make Yourself an Insider
Even though most of us probably got into this because we feel like perpetual outsiders, it is the responsibility of all filmmakers to establish themselves as “insiders.” It’s like waiting for permission to make a film—don’t do it. It may seem like there’s a clique only for special people who wear bulletproof vests, but the community is broader and more varied than that. There are so many organizations just waiting to introduce you to the community.
Still, to be honest, this year is the first—out of the roughly seven years that I’ve been making films—that I can actually say that I feel like an “insider.” What’s next for me? I signed with a commercial production company. I have been commissioned to develop a new film. I am taking my own advice and am embarking on two new independent films. I guess it really is time to drop the “cloak of desperation,” as one of my heroines, Ava DuVernay, once described it, and get back to work.
Tracy Droz Tragos is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who produced and directed Be Good, Smile Pretty and, with Andrew Droz Palermo, the 2014 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Rich Hill, which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens in January 2015.