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Doc U Recap: Documenting Change

By KJ Relth

In honor of a few highly motivating stories of individuals who have moved mountains to affect change, we gathered three filmmakers from our DocuWeeks Theatrical Showcase and asked them to answer one major question: What does it mean to document change? We asked a seasoned filmmaker Amanda Pope, who lectures on documentary production at USC, to moderate a panel of filmmakers to attempt to answer just this question. Joined by Nicole Karsin (director, We Women Warriors), Patrick Shen (director, La Source), and Sandra Itkoff (producer, Love Free or Die), Amanda set out to get right to the heart of the challenges, joys, and rewarding moments of filming tumultuous and evolving issues.

Amanda opened by asking each of the panelists to give the "elevator pitch" for the films they had entered in DocuWeeks. In case you didn’t have the time to see any of these films in their runs at both IFC Center in New York or Laemmle Noho 7 in Los Angeles, here’s a little bit on each of them:

Love Free or Die is about a man whose two defining passions are in direct conflict: his love for God and his partner Mark. Gene Robinson is the first openly gay person to become a bishop in the historical traditions of Christendom. The film follows Robinson around the world as he calls for all to stand for equality.

La Source tells the uplifting story of Josue Lajuenesse, a Haitian Princeton janitor who returns to his country after the devastating 2010 earthquake to revive his lifelong dream to bring what is most fundamental to his village’s survival: clean water.

We Women Warriors follows three native women caught in the crossfire of Colombia’s warfare who use nonviolent resistance to defend their people’s survival. Colombia has 102 aboriginal groups, one-third of which face extinction because of the conflict. Trapped in a protracted predicament financed by the drug trade, indigenous women are resourcefully leading and creating transformation imbued with hope.

Some major themes of the panel were defining the importance of change in conceiving the initial project, the concept of objectivity or "fairness" in telling a story, and advice on ways to properly prepare for all stages of production.

Each filmmaker took a moment to address the process they went through to conceive and convey the change that would unfold in their stories. Nicole Karsin said that she wanted to show these brave women who were in desperate situations because of armed conflict, and how they overcame their circumstances through bravery and resistance. Along with change obviously comes advocacy, which Nicole agreed was a major reason behind making her film. Sandra jumped in, saying that to every story there is always another side that can be told compassionately. In her film Love Free or Die, they worked hard to show the other side in a good light. Sandra, and everyone on the panel for that matter, understood the importance of respecting the opponent.

Patrick knew how prevalent social issue documentaries are nowadays, and even before he started shooting he decided to take a narrative approach. "We consciously wanted to tell a story about a person," Patrick emphasized.

The conversation then moved on to focus on issues of objectivity. Nicole mentioned early on that she didn't believe in objectivity—everything about the filmmaking process involves a conscious decision, right down to where the camera's lens is pointing. Amanda emphasized how important it is to get permission before one starts filming so that a filmmaker is covered legally by a contract. This doesn't, however, entirely remove ethical responsibility. Your subjects, Amanda said, "will sometimes open up in ways that could be damaging to them socially, morally or politically." This is why it is so important for a filmmaker to consider whether any of the material one has collected could be potentially harmful to one's subjects. "It's important," Amanda stated, to know your subject better than anyone else."

Sandra had just such an experience when she was making her film, Love Free or Die. In the very beginning stages of production, the filmmakers interviewed the bishop of Massachusetts, a man who was gay but never officially came out. He lived a completely closeted life, sitting in in the shadows while Bishop Robinson received death threats and had to publicly defend his sexual orientation at every turn. When he sat down in front of the camera to do an interview for the film, against everyone's expectations, he came out. But Sandra and her team were very careful, sending the bishop a very carefully-worded email telling him that they were keeping that interview in the final cut of the film. Even though they had full intention of keeping that priceless, important moment, they still made the point of informing their subject about their decision before he faced possible public defamation.

Another major theme, preparation, kept appearing throughout the panel. Amanda mentioned that there are always a challenges in documenting a story as it is happening, with problems usually arising due to lack of preparation. "To the extent that you can be prepared," Amanda said, "you can get ready for what is going to happen next." None of the filmmakers on the panel expected their films to take as much time as they did, but in the end Nicole's took six years, Sandra's five, and Patrick's two.

Amanda also suggested that one should think ahead about who the audience will be for one's film. This factors into almost every aspect of the making of one's film, from the marketing to the tone to the music right down to the ultimate goal of distribution. Most subjects and topics have a built-in audience, and digital platforms today make it easier and easier to tap into those groups.

If you would like to watch clips from this and other Doc U panels, please visit our YouTube channel in the coming days. Stay tuned on our Facebook page for even more photos from this and other IDA events!