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Telling Your Story and Finding Your Voice at the Film Independent Forum

By Tom White

Some of the more vital voices and visionaries in indie doc and feature filmmaking today proffered their words, wisdom and wit at the annual Film Independent Forum  last month, held at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. With a robust directory of case studies and resources to complement the panels, workshops and discussions over the weekend, the forum held its own as an essential educational and informational confab.

One of the Saturday offerings, "Reality Bites: The Perils of the Doc," addressed the challenges and dangers of dealing with difficult documentary subjects—both people and issues. Amy Berg talked about how she handled the subject of her 2006 film Deliver Us from Evil—a pedophile, who talked about how he was successful at abusing children. "It was important to remember that he was abused," Berg noted, emphasizing the importance of staying present and maintaining an emotional distance.

Kelly Duane de la Vega, discussing her and Katie Galloway's film Better This World, talked about how access to one of her subjects, accused domestic terrorist Bradley Crowder, was thwarted by his attorney until his client was sentenced. In the meantime, the filmmakers "got to know parents, girlfriends, the community... As a filmmaker, you have to give a little of yourself. It's like meeting a friend and providing bits of your history." Although Gallaway and Duane de la Vega persuaded FBI agents to discuss the case on camera, presenting themselves honestly about their interest in this case, they lost access to FBI informant Brandon Darby, who backed out and "turned against us and our project." Fortunately the filmmakers tracked down archival footage featuring Darby, as well as a This American Life radio piece, of which he was the subject.  

Galloway and Duane de la Vega sought to represent the conflicting perspectives in their film, as did Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall in their film Call Me Kuchu, which focuses on anti-gay policies in Uganda and a few intrepid gay activists who fight them—and one of whom who lost his life as a consequence. Wright convinced both activists and one homophobic journalist to express their views on camera; she and Zouhali-Worrall were careful about being too direct about their access to individuals on either side of the issue. And as vilely charismatic as the journalist comes across, "We were cautious about having him stand in for the anti-gay community," Wright said.

Berg, in discussing her upcoming film West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three case, made the decision to include executive producer Peter Jackson in her film because, having funded the DNA testing, "He was so intimately involved, he had to be on camera. The story couldn't be told without him." And despite having funded the film, "As filmmakers, [he and partner/executive producer Fran Walsh] were respectful of the process."

The process was in full effect in the subsequent panel, "Developing Story: Documentary Case Studies." Caroline Libresco, senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, shepherded a stimulating discussion with Eddie Schmidt, executive producer of Beauty Is Embarrassing, and Benjamin Murray, co-director of Unfinished Spaces, about following a story over a long period, as well as the aesthetic choices that inform the work itself. Murray and director/producer Alysa Nahmias started making Unfinished Spaces in 2001 and over the next decade, they discovered more and more about Cuba's National Art Schools, what had happened to them, and, most crucially, who the key players were in their founding and development—three of whom became central characters in the film. "Every layer was just as interesting," Murray said. "The story chose us. The architects trusted us, so it was an obligation to finish the film." Murray and Nahmias made a funding trailer early on, which "helped determine what was there." Step by step, grant by grant, he and Nahmias, who was equally focused on her career path as an architect, gradually met the right people who could move their film forward. Murray credited the documentary community in New York City for its generosity and support. He also landed a job in a post-production facility that gave him access to the equipment needed to take the film through its various stages.

Artist Wayne White, the subject of Beauty Is Embarrassing, was initially reluctant to participate in the film, but at director Neil Berkeley's persistence and insistence, he eventually agreed. "As an artist you're moving forward; you're not thinking about your body of work," Schmidt pointed out. "But Neil was like a pesky kid; he pressed on." Berkeley, a graphic designer by calling, "could bring that skill set and channel Wayne's aesthetic."

For Murray and Nahmias, the challenge was, How do you portray buildings? Murray cited Nathanial Kahn's My Architect as an inspiration for capturing both the human side of the story and the texture of the architecture. Murray and Nahmias opted to deploy the best technology they could afford to give the buildings a timeless quality and try to harness what the architects had in mind when they first conceived them,.

In sticking to the work through the long haul, Schmidt advised the audience to think about "What do I want you to take away from this? There's a kernel that drives your work; you take that kernel to production, post and through fundraising."  Both Murray and Schmidt were keen on screening rough cuts. "You have to try to watch your film through fresh eyes," Schmidt noted. "What are people confused about? If three people have the same problem with a scene, you need to fix it."

And when it came time to getting the work out there, the Los Angeles Film Festival premiered Unfinished Spaces, which also screened as part of IDA's DocuWeeks. By this time the filmmakers had also secured funding from Latino Public Broadcasting, which in turn helped to secure a national broadcast on PBS Voces. The film also received a Jameson FIND Your Audience Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which helped secure educational and foreign distribution. Beauty Is Embarrassing premiered at SXSW, which helped land deals with Independent Lens and New Video "We felt like [SXSW] was the right place, and the buyers felt the same way," Schmidt maintained.

"And both films stand on their own as cinema," Libresco concluded.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.