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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg—'The Trials of Darryl Hunt'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work has been represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to conclude this series of conversations, here are Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, directors/producers of The Trials of Darryl Hunt.
Synopsis: North Carolina, 1984. A brutal murder leaves a white woman dead, and a young black man accused. This exclusive portrait of a harrowing wrongful conviction offers a provocative and haunting examination of a community ­and a criminal justice system--subject to racial bias and tainted by fear.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Ricki Stern: In college I studied filmmaking and made my first documentary about a teenager in the Special Olympics. I liked the creative uncertainty of documentary filmmaking and I liked trying to find a story, but having to remain flexible as the story evolved. When I made this film, I didn't know what to expect. How comfortable would she be in front of the camera? What I found then, and through the years, is that people find comfort in processing their lives on film. I am still constantly amazed at how natural and open my interviewees are. I guess there is a mutual trust that we develop with people in our films.

Annie Sundberg: I knew early on that I wanted to be a storyteller of some sort, but I wasn't sure of the form it would take. I have always been compelled and fascinated by cinema and filmmaking as a means of communicating experiences and information, both rational and emotional.

My first job in "film" was as the assistant to a director on an independent feature shooting in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It was a low-budget, Sundance Institute-supported, unique vision of a film, and it was an incredible experience. Coming off that shoot, I was inspired by new channels for this kind of filmmaking, and I arrived in New York convinced I was going to work for a distribution company. I was so excited by the shift in energy behind theatrical releasing; it felt like the early '70s again, with smaller distributors and gutsy, eccentric films coming out to audiences who were ready for them.  I was excited by a mix of dramatic films like Reservoir Dogs, Breaking The Waves, Metropolitan, Before Sunrise, Slackers, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and straight-up documentaries like Ross McElwee's Time Indefinite, Errol Morris' Stairway to Heaven, and the rise of art-house theaters that were willing to show these films.

But when I arrived in New York, there weren't any openings at the distribution companies, so I started script-reading for Miramax, which lead to a story development job with a small feature production group. After many months of developing scripts, I realized I really wanted to learn what it takes to make gutsy, unique films, so I called a mentor from college and she connected me with a series for PBS called The History of American Cinema. I became an associate producer on this ten-part series, and from that job I landed at HBO as a producer on a short-subject documentary (One Survivor Remembers) and into my own documentary filmmaking. Along the way I have also produced a dramatic feature (Tully) and hope to always work in both forms, as they are satisfying in such unique ways. In the end it comes down to the subject; some films are better told as documentaries and some need scripts and actors to be fully realized.

My documentary filmmaking experience became especially valuable when reality television started to hit its stride, as I think any independent filmmaker struggles at times with how to make a living along the way. I was grateful for the chance to use my documentary skills to work with a variety of editors and different voices to create projects with tight turnaround. There's something really satisfying in seeing a television show completed from start to finish in 40 weeks or less. Most of the films I've worked on have been odysseys that take years. It is also satisfying to be able to pay rent.

My first direct experience with filmmaking was at Dartmouth, in Professor Maury Rapf's documentary filmmaking class. It was an incredible experience, especially as I was fortunate to partner with a grad student who was in her 40s and had great life perspective. We made a mocumentary, of sorts, on the practice of dowsing, which is a very common way to source a well in New England. We shot on a combination of 8mm, 16mm and the very progressive super VHS.

The first time we shared our work, I learned that screening a film for an audience is a horrible, nerve-wracking experience. You have made a collective bargain: An entire group has agreed to give your film a certain amount of time and attention, and you better give them something that makes it worth their while. And I started to understand how the film experience can be a catalyst, for both the filmmaker (through the process of making the film and becoming immersed in another life or subject) and the audience.

I was an English major in college, and did some theater along the way. But it was Maury's documentary class that made me realize that filmmaking combined so many things that I love and respond to-it can combine the urgency of good journalism with the emotional honesty in good writing and performance, and then you get to play with music and visual imagery. In documentary, the delicate relationship between filmmaker and subject can teach you a lot about being human and what your personal moral code is when it comes to sharing another person's real life on film.

I was also inspired early on by the use of video documentation when I was working in Nairobi. The World Food Programme was among the first--Witness now bases a lot of its media work around this-to train groups to use video to document and offer evidence of human and civil rights abuses.
IDA: What inspired you to make The Trials of Darryl Hunt ?
RS:   In 1993 a friend who was a private investigator on the case called me in New York City to ask if I would come down with friends to film a court hearing. He believed Darryl Hunt had been wrongly convicted twice and that the hearing he wanted us to shoot would prove Darryl's innocence. Annie Sunberg, William Rexer (DP, producer) and I drove down with borrowed film equipment and donated film stock and stayed at a local Motel 6 for a couple of weeks, shooting the hearing and trying to figure out what the story would be. Honestly, it took a long time to figure out what was going on in Darryl Hunt's case--both sides were very persuasive--but once we examined the facts removed from the emotional appeals and rhetoric, it was clear that the case was flawed and that Darryl Hunt's case deserved attention.
AS: The introduction to Darryl Hunt came from a friend of Ricki's who was working as a private investigator with the defense team on the case in Winston-Salem. The defense team was looking to pull in new media light on the case, which at this point was ten years old. It was 1993, and they were filing motions for exculpatory evidence, or information they believed the prosecution had withheld from the defense during the first two trials. They felt our presence as an outside film crew and as investigative witnesses might compel the prosecution and the courts in Winston-Salem to be clean in their actions and potentially release information to the defense.

We went down thinking, Wow, this case was almost ten years old, and yet there's still an entire community that believes in Darryl Hunt's innocence and there's still palpable tension in Winston-Salem over the crime and Hunt's case. Soon after we got involved in filming in the case, the defense uncovered information about physical evidence that had been misrepresented by the DA, which led to the judge granting the defense's motion for DNA testing in the case. At that point, we knew we were onto a story, and we thought we might very well have the first DNA exoneration on film. With the O.J. Simpson case hanging in the background, Hunt's story felt timely and outrageous all at once. It was 1993 when we began filming, and I don't think any of us were ready to experience the distinct racial separations and imbalance we experienced in Winston-Salem.

We worked hard to stay open-minded in our filming, because it was important to us not to have an agenda with this story. Too many individuals and groups in Winston-Salem already had one, and we needed to stay open to the facts and to the evolving case.

As we became more entrenched in the filmmaking, our relationships with Mark Rabil and Larry Little also served as our motivation and inspiration to continue. They were so committed to exonerating Darryl that we had to do our best to get the film done and out. To feel we had let them down, after the judicial system had failed Darryl, was untenable.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
RS:   Our film team was made up of three college friends and one of our college film professors, who helped record sound. From 1993 to 1995, we drove back and forth between New York and North Carolina with borrowed equipment and donated film stock, documenting a case we believed would draw to a climactic close. In 1994, when the DNA test results were announced excluding Hunt as the rapist, we were shocked by the judge's decision to uphold Hunt's conviction; the case was closed.

We returned to New York, and the film shot that day was put into storage in our DP's freezer, where it remained--exposed but not processed or seen--for ten years. We didn't have enough money to handle the lab costs. Eventually, when the US Supreme Court rejected Darryl Hunt's final appeal and all funding leads dried up, we put the rest of the film and sound into storage and we went on to other films and other jobs.

On Christmas Day in 2003, we learned that Darryl Hunt might be released from prison. Once again, we were back shooting (this time on digital video).

We recovered the forgotten film from our DP's freezer and sent it for processing, hoping that the images were okay and not hurt by years in a freezer. We tried to remember exactly what we had filmed. We put the 16mm film onto an old Steenbeck and with great anticipation, we watched as the silent images started to play from the moment when Mark, Darryl's attorney, tells him through tears that the case has been rejected by the North Carolina State Supreme Court. It was moving, it was in good shape--we were thrilled! But it was silent.

Now that we had the film, where was the 1/4" sound? Our best footage--and we had no sound!!! We searched for over ten months, pulling apart personal storage units, unearthing basement lockers and neighbors' attics where we had stashed old film over the years, and finally we convinced DuArt to organize its vault in search of the missing sound. We remained convinced that the sound was living somewhere in a dark corner on the 10th floor, hidden behind 1981 prints of classic after-school specials.

When nothing turned up, we lost hope and started to work creatively with the silent footage, building dreamlike sequences and visual montages, adding in new interviews from Mark and Larry, trying flashback reflective moments with voiceover. Then William called unexpectedly to say he might have found something. In a mislabeled box in our DP's loft, we located the 1/4" reels--it was the missing sound. Our greatest mishap may have turned out to be a hidden blessing, as it forced us to work creatively with the vérité footage (rather than use it for straightforward storytelling), ultimately influencing our use of visual imagery in the final film.

AS: There were a lot of challenges along the way. Darryl's case itself and his appeals as he battled for a new trial were challenging--emotionally for Darryl and his team, and also for us as filmmakers because everywhere we went for funding there was a "so what?" response. Darryl was serving a life sentence, most people assumed he was guilty, and when his appeals were denied, it cemented possible funders' reactions. Darryl's story wasn't worth pursuing, we were told.

We were also challenged by geography, money and life. We were based in New York City, Darryl and his team were in Winston-Salem. I sometimes wonder if we may have made a different film if we had been based in Winston-Salem, but in the end our distance allowed us to see the case with objectivity and reflective distance. We did our best to stay connected to the story, but over the years we all had to work on other jobs, and we have families and other responsibilities. That geographic distance was hardest when moments would emerge where we had little time to get a crew down to Winston-Salem to cover things like the State's decision on Hunt's appeal in 1996.

Continuity of crew and resources in general are difficult when making a film over so many years. While shooting, we were always close to running out of 16mm (back in 1994-2000), and we resorted to funny frame rates to try to get more out of our 400-foot reels. This footage never quite transferred back to feel like smooth 24fps as we had hoped, but it gives some of the courtroom waiting moments an edginess that in the end works really well.

We also faced the challenges of balancing the film and our day jobs (Ricki was just about to have a baby--a big job--and I was working on a new television series) when this story came back to life at the end of 2003, and documentaries don't wait for you.

We then had almost a year of searching for lost 1/4" sound reels that were crucial to certain scenes. We didn't have the money back in 2000 to even process the exposed negative, much less transfer it, so we had never finished the audio layback at the time. Thankfully we found the sound, and the film survived the deep freeze.

Like most filmmakers, we didn't have any money. It was all about trying to figure out how much we could personally carry in the initial months to get back into the story and cover what we absolutely needed to cover--events like Darryl's release from prison pending the hearing that would potentially exonerate him--and how to convince people to come on board with no promise of pay.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
RS: Our vision changed constantly; this is the difficult part of doc filmmaking--having a preconceived vision of the film you want to make but then allowing the subject's story to take the film in unpredictable directions. In the case of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, every time we went on a shoot we anticipated Darryl being found not guilty and being released from prison, but his case lingered in the courts and so our film never found its final course, or end, until over 10 years into filming.

AS: I think every documentary at a certain point has a life of its own, a voice that emerges that you respect but would never have expected. Unlike a scripted dramatic film, where you can really envision how scenes will play out, you can only hope that an interview will reveal certain kinds of information, or that events will lead you in an anticipated direction. For us with Hunt, the story evolved as our own assumptions of guilt or innocence, of who we could trust as subjects, and what we perceived the truth to be.

When we were editing, there was another shift in vision as we made specific structural decisions: who is the voice of the film; when to introduce Darryl; if we should acknowledge upfront that this was a story of a wrongful conviction.

We always knew this would be a story told in retrospect, with a lot of different visual elements as we assembled archive news footage along the way. What we didn't anticipate was the beauty in our editor's personal rhythm of storytelling, and the music that our composer created for us. With these two elements in the mix, the film became that mix of collaboration where everyone's fingerprints are on the final result; we never could have said that we knew from day one this would be the lasting form.

Unless you are editing your own film, or composing your own music like James Longley did in his amazing Iraq in Fragments, filmmaking will always feel to me like painting through another human being's hands.
IDA: As you've screened The Trials of Darryl Hunt--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
RS: People have been very moved by Darryl's story. Usually much of the audience is in tears after experiencing Darryl's 20-year struggle. I think we were surprised at how so many different types of people [from] all walks of life could connect with Darryl's struggle. People personalize [it] in their own experience. I have been somewhat surprised by the audience's angry response--people have been outraged. I didn't expect people to feel so deeply moved and frustrated. We have also been struck by people's spiritual reaction to the film. Audiences connect to the idea of faith in the film, which is really the quiet subtext and something we never even realized was so powerful until we started screening the film.

The screenings have also been cathartic and rewarding for Darryl Hunt and Mark Rabil, his attorney for 20 years. Most unexpected from the experience of screening the film is how close we, the filmmakers, have come to be with the people in our film. We've been traveling with them for a year, and while we always had great respect and admiration for them, they have now become real friends--and that in itself has been extremely rewarding.
AS: We have been astounded and thankful for the audience reactions to date, especially at screenings where we have our film's subjects--Darryl, Mark (Rabil) and Larry (Little)--present for Q&A. I know that when the lights come up and audiences realize that Darryl is there, they immediately are moved to standing ovations-for him and the defense team and what they endured and realized after so many years. It's been incredibly satisfying to see diverse audiences connect and respond to Darryl's story. Like Ricki, I am also amazed by the feelings of anger and outrage that some audience members share after the screenings. People have been crying and are so shaken after the screenings, and their energy is palpable; hopefully they are able to take that energy and spread the word about Darryl's experience and what he's doing now in his life outside of prison.

I've also been struck at how spiritual the screenings have felt. Several times we have had questions from the audience about Darryl's faith and about religion in general. On a more abstract level, I think audiences are responding to a sense of the divine in how Darryl has never allowed bitterness or anger to take hold in him, and that lingers in many audiences after the screenings.

The festivals have meant a great deal to Darryl, Mark and Larry. The Q&As are often a very similar mix of comments of outrage at how the case evolved, with many questions about culpability, apologies and restitution, and an equal amount of comments and praise for Darryl and the defense team. At most screenings there's a comment or question about Darryl's refusal to take the plea bargain; I hope this means that people are internalizing Darryl's experience and wondering if they could have done the same.

Darryl often talks about how the film has been a "voice" for him after 20 years of not having a public presence, and has helped to give meaning to his experience as he is now able to educate audiences on how they can help prevent other wrongful convictions, and support those who are going through re-entry into society.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
RS: Hmm, this is tough. I am inspired by all types of films from the vérité filmmakers of '60s and '70s to the dada and surrealist films of Luis Bunuel. I have been inspired by filmmakers who can capture subtle character nuances and contractions. Some filmmakers I admire are Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, the films of James Ivory and John Cleese and Monty Python, to name a few. These filmmakers in many ways have contradictory styles of storytelling, but for me it can be straight-forward or experimental or comical; as long as I can relate to the character and his/her motivation, I am inspired. An inspiring doc is Errol Morris'  Stairway to Heaven, about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman. In this film, Morris taps into Grandin's internal pacing and rhythm to create a visually compelling portrait. His skill lies in being able to take ordinary people and expose their extraordinary nature.
AS: I'm inspired every year by so many of the documentaries that are coming out-and the stories behind the filmmaking--and I have my handful of long-standing American favorites (see list at the end of this).

I really respect the dedication Ondi Timoner put into Dig, and it was amazingly well edited. I love how Errol Morris can get down to the bones of his subjects and isn't afraid to let the person be enough on camera. I fully enjoyed the humor and humanity of Chris Smith and Sarah Price's American Movie; they allowed Mark Borchardt to be himself and they captured what that was, and I am so thankful. I am always moved by the quiet revelations of the Maysles' Salesman and wish that we as filmmakers could be at a place again where subjects can be innocent of their relationship to the camera and how film can change a life by making it public. Marjoe is incredible, both in the access they had at the time and how prescient the subject is, as we are in the midst of a potent rise in Evangelical Christianity in the US. The upcoming Jonestown is a fascinating weave of personal history and incredible archive footage, and it's the closest I can come to hearing Jones preach and feeling his ability to draw people to him.

I love political films that can engage audiences in issues by finding the emotional hook to the story that leaves an imprint and engenders compassion--Night and Fog, The Sorrow and the PityHearts and Minds.

I love films that open up mysteries, that bring out the most intimate sides of human beings, that take me emotionally and psychologically into another culture or time--Dont Look Back, Grizzly ManThe Devil and Daniel Johnston, Gates of Heaven, Paris is Burning.

I also love documentaries that are simply beautifully crafted films. Winged Migration was an unbelievable film in terms of technical craft--all the means they used to film those birds! And visual poetry. And while I have equal feelings of ambivalence and trepidation in writing this, I have to admit that I find Leni Riefenstahl's The Olympiad hauntingly beautiful in its celebration of human form, even if it is propaganda.

Which raises the question of the filmmaker's responsibility to subject and to audience. It is accepted that one deceives in fiction, as there is no requirement of truth beyond emotional honesty. But in documentaries, we are required to bring forth the facts, shaped artfully, and that is a burden every time we make choices about point of view, about voices included in the edit and those that are omitted, and by context, editing, music and emotional pacing. In the end, we are sharing our truths as filmmakers, what we believe the heart of the story to be, and as humans, we aren't always reliable. I'm not sure that we have to be, unless we are claiming to be the arbiters of the perception of events in history. And in the demise of network news, perhaps we as documentary filmmakers need to be taking up the mantle of recording the truths of our societies. Documentary films have the power to be catalysts to social change.

Specific longtime favorites are a mix of documentary and dramatic:  Salesman, Gimme Shelter, The Year of Living Dangerously, Errol Morris' Stairway to Heaven, Badlands, The Apartment, Coal Miner's Daughter, All The President's Men, Harold and Maude, Nashville, The Celebration, The Battle of Algiers, Black Narcissus.

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