The Feedback: 'True Conviction'
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, four DocuClub alums have premiered their works on the festival circuit over the past few months. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reached out to the filmmakers as they were winding their way through the festival circuit.
Following their DocuClub screening last fall, Jamie Meltzer premiered his film True Conviction at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it earned a Special Jury Mention for Documentary Feature. The film later screened at SF Docfest, where it won the Nonfiction Vanguard Award.
Synopsis: There's a new detective agency in Dallas Texas, started by three exonerated men, with decades in prison served among them, who look to free innocent people behind bars. True Conviction follows these change-makers as they not only try to rebuild their lives and families, but also attempt to fix the criminal justice system. Director Jamie Meltzer takes viewers into the real-life crime drama that surrounds these freedom fighters on their quest for justice. Brought together through the painful experiences of serving time in jail for crimes they didn't commit, these brave men embark on a journey of a lifetime to free those wrongly accused and still behind bars. As the drama unfolds, we are given privileged access and insight not only into the personal lives and struggles of the detectives, but also to the difficulties they face in the pursuit of justice. True Conviction is an incredible portrait of those who are able to overcome their past and use the knowledge and lessons from the journey to help others and effect real change.
What were your expectations going into the DocuClub screening?
Jamie Meltzer: I had done several rough cut screenings with close friends and filmmaking colleagues prior to the DocuClub screening, but I was looking forward to showing the rough cut to an audience that had no preconceptions or knowledge of the film - an audience that more closely matched a film festival or broadcast audience in some way.
Was DocuClub your first public screening?
Yes, aside from private screenings at the Sundance Edit Lab, and a few private rough cut screenings to friends and colleagues, this was my first chance to show the film to an audience of strangers.
What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?
The main editing challenges were balancing all the storylines in the film, getting the set-up of the film right, and weaving together all the active investigations of the amateur detectives, their backstories and how the detectives were themselves wrongfully convicted, as well as their present-day struggles, post-exoneration. The film has a lot of intersecting and parallel storylines; finding the right balance was a challenge, but it was key to crafting a film that had narrative momentum, wasn't bogged down in information, and carried an emotional arc as well.
What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
I think these kinds of screenings give you a "read" or sense of the room. Even before anything is said, you have a sense of how people react to the scenes and the overall film; you really feel it in your gut. I got some specific feedback and consensus that a really powerful scene that worked on its own merits [a scene where the main subject confronts the man who actually committed the crime he was sent to prison for] was not working in terms of where it was placed in the film, which led me to cut the scene - a difficult decision because it was one of my favorite scenes, but I could tell from the feedback that, even though people liked the scene in and of itself, and even if they had different intellectual reasons why they felt it wasn't quite working, the film would be stronger without it. Sometimes these feedback screenings are best at identifying problems, versus providing solutions.
What observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?
We had just shot and included a really powerful scene of a man being released from prison that concluded one of the investigative threads of the film. I hadn't had a chance to see the whole film with this scene included, and I was really encouraged by how the addition of one key scene really changed the way people reacted emotionally to the entire film. It was made even more satisfying for me because we had been waiting a whole year for this moment to happen, essentially halting the editing process and leaving a space for this scene.
When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
I cut an entire scene from the film, a scene that I loved, but that was clearly not working within the structure of the film. I had a sense of this as a problem before, but the thoughts and reactions of the audience at DocuClub really pushed me to have the confidence to cut out the scene. I also made more minor changes - minimizing VO where it wasn't needed, and changes to the music cues as well.
What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for the premiere?
Having a deadline is so useful. I think I could have kept cutting for an additional few weeks, but having to send it off to the festival really pushed me to make some hard choices. I really believe in that saying, "A film is never finished, only abandoned."
When you screened your film at Tribeca, what were some of the reactions, questions and observations that you found most surprising and unexpected?
The emotional impact of the film on audiences really surprised and excited me. I had all the main subjects in attendance and that just added another layer to the experience. Even without that, a festival screening has such great energy and excitement; this was the first time I was showing a finished cut to an audience, and it was really satisfying to have all the final elements in place - the graphics, the sound design and music, all polished.
Did you go back to edit the film after your premiere at Tribeca?
Yes! I actually took notes in each screening and went back and refined some of the sound design, making changes to the sound mix, but no changes to the edit overall.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine and documentary.org.