February 12, 2014

The Truth about Park City: Reflections on Sundance and Slamdance

The idea of truth is problematic on many different levels. What we "see" depends on our perspective. What we understand is based on information we gather after it is processed through our predetermined biases. Truth in a court of law is one thing, and truth in the court of public opinion is another. In the world of documentary, these two truths often meet somewhere in the middle. 

We rely on documentaries to deliver "truth" to us. We want to know what a filmmaker thinks and we want to feel settled in a cocoon of conclusive truth when we leave the theater. Unfortunately, reality doesn't always provide the clarity we crave. An omniscient narrator can deliver an unassailable truth, but in documentary that kind of omniscience is not possible to achieve. In fact, one might argue that all truth is fiction, which in itself raises questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking. What right do filmmakers have to decide "the truth," and what responsibility do they have to the subjects of their stories? After I view nearly two-dozen documentaries spread across both Sundance and Slamdance, these questions remain unanswered.

The idea of truth in documentary was tackled head on in one of the panels at Sundance which asked, "How do Jeremiah Zagar (CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters), Todd Miller (Dinosaur 13) and Nadav Schirman (The Green Prince) view the Holy Grail of truth?"

In referring to the interview process, Schirman stated, "In reality we face an evolving truth. We interview and do research. We try not to do direct research, but instead research around it, the thing we are trying to understand." He continued by explaining that he wanted to know enough to ask the right questions, but not so much information from someone else's perspective that it would make it difficult for the truth to emerge when questioning someone. "It's an instinct in the edit room to hear something that doesn't ring true," he explained. "If it's not true, are you going to use it? You need to point out that he's lying if you do."

This theme, of trying to get to the truth by using materials at hand without relying on them too much, was also important to Miller, whose Dinosaur 13 examines a story that had been covered in two books and countless articles, but he felt there was more truth to be unearthed. "We tend to spend a lot of time with our interview subjects, getting through a barrier," he noted. "We felt a responsibility to get it right because others had gotten it wrong."

 

From Todd Miller's Dinosaur 13. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

 

However, the truth is slippery and sometimes filmmakers don't have a lot of time with their subjects. After speaking with Pamela Smart on the phone several times a week for years, Zagar had only a couple of hours of on-camera interview time with her. Smart's ripped-from-the-headlines story has been told dozens of times—in feature films, movies of the week, tabloid TV and novels. However, as Zagar pointed out, all of these stories were based on a process of "fictionalization...Emotional truth is separate from the factual truth," he maintained. "We were guided by this idea. Pam's emotional truth had not been heard"

Zagar and his team focused on editing as they filmed. This gave them insight into the characters and the story as they moved forward, allowing them to shape their questions and their goals as they worked. Ultimately they focused not only the truth of their subject's story, but also the very idea of truth, and how we as a culture intersect and interact with it in the age of soundbite media.

Jesse Moss knew that there was a deeper truth to uncover as he peeked behind the headlines of the North Dakota gas boom. When he found his character, the pastor of a church that allowed those seeking work to sleep in his church, he knew right away that he had a complex story. "The pastor said, 'This is an act of Christian charity,' but he admitted that he didn't have pure motives." It took over a dozen trips to North Dakota to unpack that idea.

"He was the pastor to these men and I became the pastor to the pastor," Moss related. "It became interesting when the truth went to a difficult place—and the truth of the film becomes difficult for the subject.

"It's a negotiation," Moss continued. "I had to feel my way down that path. There were junctures where I wondered if I push too far and the relationship is severed. It's not always the truth your subjects want to hear. The distance between legal and moral right is difficult. I think we all have places where we draw the line individually; with the trust that we ask for comes a moral obligation."

 

From Jesse Moss' The Overnighters. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

 

In reference to The Green Prince, about a Palestinian who was recruited by Israeli forces to spy on his own people, Schirman stated, "I was faced with the same decision. I knew that putting this in the film could change this person's life, but it is also important for the film. I chose the film. I don't know what this says about me, but I chose the film."

Fed Up, Stephanie Soechtig's documentary about the dangers of sugar, takes a much more direct approach to the truth. Fitting firmly in the doc-as-news category, the film uses its journalistic bona fides to slam home the point that the way many of us eat is not only dangerous, but also quite possibly deadly. Sometimes we need the intellectual heft of a feature doc to get the media, and the culture at large, to embrace truths that those in positions of power have tried to obscure.

Sometimes a film is less about truth than it is about honesty. Jeffrey Radice's No No: A Dockumentary takes a thoughtful, funny and oddly complex look at the career of baseball pitcher Doc Ellis, who was most famous for pitching a no-hitter while tripping on LSD. While the film deals with that episode, it also allows Ellis and his teammates to illuminate the realities of race and culture that they had to deal with during the turbulent late '60s and '70s. The pressure to not only deliver as a ballplayer, but also to conform to uncomfortable norms seemingly led to some of Ellis' substance abuse problems. While control of his pitches was sometimes a problem, truth is one thing that the pitcher had no problem throwing right down the middle.

 

From Jeffrey Radice's No No: A Dockumentary. Photo: Ron Mrowiec. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

 

The relationship between one's subject and the truth was also at play in several Slamdance docs. Elliot, which takes a sharp look at low-budget filmmaking, struggled with the relationship between their subject and his idea of the truth. While there's a lot of humor in the early stages of the movie, things slowly turn dark as the film's subjects struggle to keep their relationship moving forward along with their film. The documentarians, Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau, state, "For us getting to the truth of any situation is of great importance, [and it] becomes very tricky when your subject is someone who is not entirely truthful. There seemed to be something in Elliot driving him to delude himself and everyone around him, and our goal was not to give any answers but to present questions about how we all lie to ourselves."

Sometimes we lie to ourselves, and sometimes we are lied to by big companies. Despite growing up in Louisiana, Nailah Jefferson knew little about the communities of fishermen who worked the coastline bringing in the catch that made the state famous for seafood. When the 2010 BP spill began to hit the shore, she didn't grab her camera, but when she saw that the media had gone away and the real problems were just starting, she jumped right in and made Vanishing Pearls.

According to Jefferson, it's documentarians that make sure that stories like hers don't go unnoticed. "We don't have to bend to the pressures of splashy headlines and daily ratings, like the media does," she asserts. "We can keep stories alive, like the effects of the BP Oil Spill on Gulf Coast communities, and see them through to the end. Because this particular story is no longer in the news and images of oil no longer inundate our TV screens, many think it's over-recovery has occurred and the Gulf is back to normal. That's not true. I believe it is my responsibility to convey that to the public-perhaps until it is true."

The intersection between truth and faith was central to Kate Logan's Kidnapped for Christ. When she went to the Dominican Republic to make what she thought would be an inspirational film about redemption, things didn't turn out as she expected. "When I started the film I was an evangelical Christian and I was attending a conservative Christian college," she reflects. "I don't think I ever would have gotten permission to film at the school had I not been a part of the evangelical sub-culture. Being of the same faith as the staff at Escuela Caribe gave me the access and understanding that I needed to make the film, but it also caused me great personal distress as I struggled to reconcile the fact that people who were a part of my faith were doing things that caused so much harm. Intellectually, of course, I knew that people do bad things in the name of religion, but it was much different actually getting to know the people doing those bad things. I saw just how similar I was to the staff at Escuela Caribe, especially the young ones who came to the school right out of college. I realized that I could have easily become one of them."

Faith is also the major theme of Little Hope Was Arson, a documentary that unravels the twisted tale behind a string of church fires. According to director Theo Love, "I have to admit that my first reaction towards these burned churches was more judgmental than sympathetic. But once I began to sit with the church members and hear their stories my perspective changed. While I still have many strong opinions about pop church culture, I tried to create a film that reflects their complexities instead of just another oversimplified portrayal of faith."

Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends , which captured a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at Sundance, examines faith from a bird's eye view. Flying across Africa in a lightweight plane, Sauper passes a jittery lens across the broken pieces of colonialism. Missionaries flow into voids and the filmmaker observes without direct comment. 

In Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy, about the short but prolific life of Reddit founder Aaron Schwartz, the truth is difficult to pin down. After the main character takes his own life, anger and sadness obscure both the big and small pictures, but the sense of loss is clear.

 

From Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwartz. Photo: Noah Berger. Courtesy of Sundnace Film Festival

 

While many of the Sundance docs focused on big picture "truths" like the risks of sugar (Fed Up), and the perils of colonialism (We Come As Friends), the majority of the Slamdance docs were much more focused on smaller individual stories in which the characters tried to live up to their individual truths. This was evident in Glena, Huntington's Dance, Skanks and I Dream of Flying.

When one's sense of self doesn't fit neatly into the construct of one's community, being true to oneself takes on a different set of challenges. The risqué, and comedic, film Skanks was made by David McMahon, who returned to his native Birmingham, Alabama, to document the locally produced play, Skanks in a One Horse Town

Skanks is as funny and irreverent as the characters it follows. Football-obsessed Birmingham is not the easiest place to run a theater that embraces wild and diverse sexuality that's more suited for Off-Off Broadway than the Bible Belt. The film focuses on the fun but touches on the struggles of being out of step with one's larger community.

Glena, the titular character of Allan Luebke's doc, is brutally honest about herself and her life in this vérité doc about a mother's quest to become a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter. Skillfully lensed and edited, the doc follows Glena through a number of bouts as she tries to hold on to her house and her family, marshaling all of her energy to reach her goal. 

Chris Furbee's Huntington's Dance, which was 18 years in the making, has echoes of Ross McElwee's work, with a strong use of first-person filmmaking anchoring this complex tale. The 28-year-old Furbee was called home to West Virginia by his aunt because his mother, whom he hadn't seen in years, was struggling with the powerful effects of Huntington's disease. Armed with a camera, and the knowledge that he too had a strong chance of developing the disease, Furbee set to work trying to take care of his mother. Of the camera he says, "It was kind of like my confidant and my therapist because I could say anything to it and I didn't hold back anything. I didn't really have anyone that I could speak to there. It helped not only as a filmmaker, looking at not only through that eye, but also for myself as a person." It took him many years, and his own struggle with Huntington's, to muster the energy and focus to tell his story. While the film documents Furbee's experience with Huntington's disease, there are insights and lessons to be learned that pertain to all kinds of struggles that we face in life.

Growing up in Poland Aneta Popiel had a vision as a child that she would later turn into a film. "I was perhaps 9 years old, I heard about a very young prima ballerina who, the day before her premiere, went out of the house in slippers with the rubbish and slipped so badly she sprained her ankle. She was so ambitious and stubborn that she hid the contusion from everyone and the next day danced as the lead ballerina in the premiere, despite the pain.  And that was her last performance. After the show she was taken to hospital. She'd done so much damage to her ankle that even after a lengthy rehabilitation she couldn't ever return to her dancing. One step and one bad decision destroyed her life. I've held this story in my mind ever since I was a young child."

I Dream of Flying feels like a narrative fiction film because it is so deeply observational that no one in the film ever acknowledges the camera. Talal Derki's Return to Homs, which earned the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance, also feels fictional because the narrator is so close to and present with the intense fighting in Syria that it simply feels unreal. Derki and cinematographers Kahtan Hassoun, Ossama Al Homsi and Orwa Nyrabia began shooting as part of an ad hoc media collective, documenting the increasing violence in their hometown of Homs, as protests began to roil the city.  Increasingly they train their lens on their friend, Basset, the goalkeeper for the Syrian National football team. This charismatic figure rallies the people and calls for calm resistance. Soon the tanks roll in, and in short order neighborhoods turn to rubble and Basset becomes one of the leaders of the revolution. We run through the streets with the camera as characters get shot and fall to the ground. The pain and anguish is so palpable and present that it can't be true. This level of immersion makes it clear that the filmmakers are not journalists, trying to uncover a distanced truth, but instead freedom fighters, attempting to deliver the meaningful truth on the ground to a world drowning in images without meaning.

 

From Tala Derki's Return to Homs. Photo: Kahtan Hassoun. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

 

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.