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Emotional Rescue: Addressing Well-Being in the Documentary Career

By Tom White

Documentary is a challenging art form. It can take you to challenging situations—war zones, harsh climates—and it can introduce you to challenging people. And on a day-to-day basis, there are the uncertainties of fundraising and the daunting prospects of sustaining a career and having a life.

At a certain point in the trajectory, you retreat and assess the fact that while the path you're on is your purpose and your passion, even that which defines you can take an emotional and psychological toll. The help you really need goes beyond filmmaking and fundraising.

That was the epiphany for Edinburgh-based filmmaker Rebecca Day, who, after a decade or so in the documentary world, sensed a real community-wide need for some sort of psychotherapeutic infrastructure. So, she started to build a parallel career as a therapist, undergoing a rigorous training program, developing a network of both NGOs and filmmakers, and doing the research to build her own business. And she will be participating in Getting Real 2018, leading both an experiential psychotherapy workshop and a panel.    

Documentary spoke to Day via Skype about her unique journey, her plans for Getting Real and where she takes her parallel careers from here.


Documentary: What was the motivation for embarking on this parallel career path?

REBECCA DAY: It's been a long journey. I've been working my way through production and becoming a producer over the last 10 to 12 years, working primarily with the Scottish Documentary Institute in Edinburgh, but also with a few other companies and as a freelancer.

In 2013, I worked on a film called I Am Breathing, about a young man with Motor Neuron Disease [MND]—you call it ALS in the States—and I was the production manager on it. When we came to release the film, I was the outreach coordinator. I was doing all the audience engagement—and it was kind of life-changing.

I was dealing with people affected by the issues within the film—people who had ALS themselves. We were reaching out to the community and saying, How you can use this film to benefit you? To benefit your struggle? And we were raising awareness about this awful disease.  That was my role quite intensely for quite a long time.

And when it finished, I was quite bereft. I felt that that human connection that I had experienced with those people was something that I wasn’t having in my day to day as a producer on documentaries. So, there was that element of it. There was also this realization that while I was doing that work, I was dealing with some pretty big stuff around death and elements of counseling and playing that supportive role for people that I had no training in at all.

We were supported a little bit by the MND Association in the UK, but they couldn't really provide us with the training. I've never felt more alive doing that role; I absolutely loved it and it really spoke to something in me about the way that we connected with other human beings. You couple that with a lot of other experiences that I have been having in the industry of just seeing some really fantastic people struggle under the pressure of trying to make documentaries about these incredibly profound and difficult life-changing subjects, while not really earning a living from it.

And you add the sustainability element as well. When I went freelance a couple years ago, I realized that I was not going be able to make a living from being purely a documentary producer, unless I was producing the amount of documentaries at one time that I didn't think my mental health could handle.

I was thinking, Well, what else can I do? I’m not very technical. I didn’t want to go off and be a DP in my spare time or make that money to be able to sustain me to be a producer. So I was really drawn to this idea of training as a therapist and then having that as a sideline for my producing work. My idea was to have a private practice and then the rest of the time to be producing documentaries.

It had taken me a number of years thinking that I could have been pushed in that direction, and it felt like the two things really spoke to that part of my personality. I was really inspired by both of those things. So, that was my decision—to do the training in the first place. And then while I was actually undergoing the training, I would wonder, Why do we not approach our work in a very similar way as therapists do?  The training I was receiving as a therapist felt so valuable, and I really thought it should be transferable to filmmakers.


D: Is this a systemic issue in the documentary community in the UK? Did you sense there was a growing need for a psychotherapeutic infrastructure to service the documentary community?

RD:    Yes. I only really started talking to people about it in the last year. There was always that part of me that thought, Are people going to think that I’m not committed enough as a producer if I’m doing this other thing at the same time? And there’s that element, when you're working in the film industry, of focus, that sort of focus that you need to have with your work that nothing else can compete with.

I felt quite torn. It took me a while to find my voice and be able to say, This is what I’m doing and I think it's really important. And since I’ve started talking to people, I can hear that there is a need for this sort of thing. The responses I've been getting are that people are very excited by this; they think that it is a conversation that we need to be having.

So, the next step is to do a research project over the course of the next five months, where I want to reach out to people within the industry and start to get together their stories, their experiences, and find out from people how they think they would benefit if support was available for them. What would that look like?


D: In your training can you talk about specific theories or experts that inspired you? What do you feel from your training is most useful and applicable to the documentary profession?

RD:    I’ve studied person-centered therapy, which an American psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, developed. It takes on the belief that the relationship is the most important thing. The role of the therapist is not to act as an expert, but you’re to create an equal environment where the client and the therapist work together.

We shape the therapy with the client. We don' dictate the direction that the therapy goes in. And that's the real core principle of person-centered therapy, which really spoke truthfully to me because everybody is an individual. We can't all work in this dogmatic way; it all needs to be shaped around that individual person.

During my training, what really struck a chord with me was the amount of time we were given as therapists to do personal reflection—to look at ourselves quite deeply and consider who we are in relation to other people, the impact that we have on other people when we're either in that one to one session or in group environments.

What you also learn is how to develop boundaries and processes that enable you to take care of yourself as a therapist. That felt really important. And I thought, We're drawn to working on these types of films for very much the same reasons therapists are drawn to offer therapy to people. We want to work with people in that way. We're drawn to those types of stories; we come from these spaces ourselves. We want to share what we learned. We all have this sort of belief in human transformation, the transformation of an individual.

But filmmakers don't have that space or time to do self-reflection, that time to develop themselves personally and to really protect themselves against some really, really difficult issues—and on the other side, to be able to protect the people that they’re filming with. You're filming really vulnerable people, and we’ve become really vulnerable people in the process.


D: You said in your training what struck a chord with you was building that relationship between therapist and client. Would you be working in groups—say, the director, producer and the rest of the artistic personnel? What would the dynamic look like? Or would it be one on one, parsing out each member of the team?

RD:    It's very open, to be honest. And I think the research will help me focus it a little bit more. But at the moment I'm imagining one-to-one sessions. And that sort of thing could happen over Skype because distance is always an issue with the international documentary community.

But then there's also often a need for mediation in certain film projects where we have relationships that are broken down and they just need someone external to come in and help see what the issues are and try and bring people back together. It can be such an intense time in a person’s life. We're very much in each other’s pockets. Just having that outside perspective can be really helpful.

But then, on the training/personal development workshop side of things, it really depends on where it’s taking place and how long you've got. There’s only so much that can be achieved in an hour-and-a-half. And it would be more like an encounter group to start to look at those issues within a small group of people. We would be looking at issues of vulnerability and what that means to feel vulnerable and to being held responsible.

But I really would like to do weeklong retreats as well. I think participants would need to be in the middle of a project that’s particularly challenging because I know for a lot of filmmakers it’s really hard to justify the time out and to find the funding for these things. So, if it can be justified as a development of the filmmaker and the project, it would be much more useful.

So, I would like to come together with a small group of filmmakers and go really in depth into what it means to work in a healthier way.


D: On-camera participants—or protagonists, as I like to call them—are a fundamental part of a documentary project. Once the project is done, what's crucial and challenging is maintaining your relationship with your protagonists, beyond the project. How would you work protagonists into your practice, or would it be a different kind of dynamic?

RD:    It's really tricky, and one that needs a lot more focus. I know it is something that we come back to and we discuss often. The way we work as therapists is that we begin our time with a client sussing out how much time we might need to work together, and we work out a contract.

We might draw up a contract at the beginning of the session and then we would review that contract eight or 12 weeks later. Then we'd say, How do we feel that we’re working this bit? Do we want to change anything in this contract? What would benefit the growth business relationship more?

I wonder if an approach like that would work with the filmmaking as well because in some experiences I’ve had, we can just roll along with the filmmaking process. And communication becomes quite short because the filmmaker is not only trying to protect the protagonists that they’re filming with, but they’re also trying to protect their film. And the film is like a third person in a relationship that has these needs of its own.

I don't know if the protagonist always understands that. And then when the filmmaker goes off to edit the film, they are still really immersed in the protagonist's life; in their heads, in their minds, in their everyday—they're still with that person. But for the protagonist, that's not the case at all. It's a really different stage where they might be left feeling quite vulnerable and isolated—especially for someone who has mental health issues—and not really understand where [the filmmaker] has gone.

And then it comes back to them when the film comes to be released. I look at a lot of the contracts that we make with protagonists in film, and they're very content-based: "You give us the right to use your image, all rights media worldwide"—that sort of thing. But there's not so much in there about taking care of somebody. And I just wonder if something more humanistic and more pluralistic can be worked out between those parties.


D: I was thinking of the gatekeepers—funders, investors, commissioning editors, etc. They're certainly part of the dynamic of docmaking, but, within the context of psychotherapy, is that something you might consider—a group session, or a framework that would consider the dynamic between gatekeepers and filmmakers?

RD:    That's a really interesting point. In fact, I had a chat with [Getting Real Producer] Cynthia Kane last week and she put that in my mind as well. She was talking about this kind of trauma or almost PTSD symptoms that can arise from when you’re immersed in the subject that really is intensely draining on you emotionally, and you’re desperately trying to get that funding in place and get that support from the industry and you’re competing at this exceptionally high level against other films. Who are you in that moment? It can be extremely traumatic to be having to constantly reframe your film to fit in with funders' needs. Speaking about it in a language that might not sit that comfortably with you, that needs to be used in order to raise the money, is a really challenging thing.

I guess that’s why the producer-director relationship is incredibly important in many ways. The producer needs to protect the director from that. But again, it comes back to that question of, It's not always sustainable to be a producer. The producer/director relationship is often under threat because the director doesn't realize all the work that the producer is putting into that kind of role, and vice versa.


D: You remarked on PTSD. Many filmmakers deal with very traumatic subjects, and I think many filmmakers do experience PTSD as a consequence. How have your peers handled PTSD?

RD:    I don't know how open people are about expressing symptoms of PTSD. It's not well discussed within the film industry. And I think a lot of people would just use the word "stress" and not realize that they might be suffering from vicarious trauma or first-time trauma.

I haven't worked with anyone who's worked in that type of situation, such as in a war zone.

I've worked on films with varying subject matters, but generally, the themes have revolved around much gentler conflict. Themes of death and dying have come up in several projects. I know in some cases the filmmakers have sought independent support throughout the filming process to help them deal with some of the losses that go with this type of work.

I do think there are techniques out there that we can provide to people to enable them to cope better with the impact of filming in emotionally challenging situations. But until we start talking about them and recognizing a need for them, they're very hard to deliver.


D: Another aspect of sustainability is the life-work balance. Would that particular dynamic in sustainability work into your practice?

RD:    It's really important to me. And that's coming from my own personal experience, but also from being in contact with a lot of people around me, where I realize that I know absolutely nothing about their life outside of the work that we do. I'm very close to my family, and I have a large network of friends that isn't affiliated with the film industry. It always struck me as just something that's missing: Where is the time to discuss the personal stuff?

And I know that films are more than just a job. It's for every person working in the industry. Our lives become intertwined around them on a very personal level. But we can't avoid the other connections that we have with people. I really noticed this for myself when my nieces and nephews came along; I wanted to spend time with them. And I felt very distracted and very disconnected and I kept missing things.

I got quite ill a couple times as well, and it was at that point where I had to turn around and say, I can't work at that pace anymore; I can't work those hours and feel that level of stress. It's the more you take home, the less you can achieve, because you’ve got too many balls that you’re juggling.

I think that I've gotten to that stage quite early in my career, thankfully. I was able to say, OK, that's not sustainable for my mental health. But actually, it was a sign of stress and not managing and my body telling me that I needed to slow down. So I did. And at that time I was working for a production company for the Scottish Documentary Institute. So, I was supported there because I had a salary.

But as soon as I went freelance, it was really difficult to then sustain a healthy level. I don't want to produce six documentaries at once; it’s too much.


D: Are there plans to build a network with your peers in Scotland and the UK and then possibly Europe and internationally?

RD:  That's definitely the plan. I'm setting up a company in the next couple months called Film in Mind, then I'll develop a network, then do the research. I'm trying to find some funding at the moment to support me while I do the research. It will be quite time-consuming. But I really want to do the research properly, with a very broad spectrum of people working across the industry internationally. Not just in the UK.

I want to really find out what the big issues are, so that I can shape the next steps properly. I imagine being able to offer this set of four strands: I’d like to do these training workshop exercises at film festivals, and I'll also be going into universities and talking to film students at the very, very early stage of their careers about the importance of healthy working relationships. You just have to preempt these issues before they actually come, in terms of burnout and compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma and sustainability. And then there will the retreats I've already mentioned. And then one-to-one counseling, if it's needed, and general consulting as well, if anyone has concerns over the potential mental health risks of a certain project.

It feels like a bit of an open book at the moment for us. The more I dive into it, it just develops wider and wider. I hope more filmmakers want to study as psychotherapists.


D:   Regarding Getting Real, is there something you can divulge about your plans for your sessions?

RD:    This is a new venture and I am still very much in the exploratory stages. My initial conversations with people in the industry prove to me that there is a great need for this conversation to be happening, but the services that I can offer as an individual are still being shaped. I'm embarking on a period of research that will begin when I attend the Getting Real conference in September, hosting both a panel and a group workshop there, titled "Therapeutic Interventions in Documentary."

I'm completely committed to developing my work so that I can contribute to a growing need to discuss and combat mental health within the film industry. Part of that will be looking at how we work with vulnerable people. For example, I'm talking with MIND, a mental health charity in the UK, about how we contract with protagonists. The other element is developing therapeutic support for filmmakers. Of course, not all projects will demand this type of support, nor will they take an emotional, financial or physical strain on the producers and directors who make them. But many do.  The best we can do in that situation is reach out and create a strong and healthy support system to share the hardship and absolute passion of making documentaries.


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.