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Subject Awareness Increased at House of Docs Session

By Tamara Krinsky

From Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's <em>Daughter from Dunang</em>, winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Photo courtesy of Gail Dolgin.

While overall reports of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival have remarked on a quieter, more somber air in Park City, there was much warmth and activity to be found at the House of Docs. Providing opportunities for festival filmmakers to meet both formally and informally with resource advisors, press, buyers and organizational directors, the House offered lively roundtable discussions and special presentations.

One of the most interesting sessions was the “Filmmaker-to-Filmmaker” discussion on “Subjects and Aftermath.” In a year of landmark events, it’s easy to forget that on a personal scale, the making of a documentary can be a volatile event in the life of its subject, often having unpredictable consequences and long-lasting effects.

Such was the case with Close to Home, which deals with the sexual abuse of children. One of the film’s subjects, 14-year-old Merrilea, had been molested by her biological father from the ages of four to eight. Producers/directors Alexandra Dickson and Vanessa Roth had a tape of Merrilea at age nine speaking to an advocate during a forensic interview, and they struggled with whether or not to include the interview in the final piece. “It was a great piece of film to use to show the sides of the victims and what a horrible crime it is. But Merrilea hadn’t seen the tape in a long time.”

After much discussion among Merrilea, her adoptive parents and the filmmakers, all agreed that the footage should be included. Throughout much of the film’s first public screening, Merrilea sobbed, but she found unexpected support from the other subjects who were watching with her, and from adult audience members, who congratulated the children for their bravery. Dickson recalls, “I think these kids felt, ‘Wow, I had something to say and people listened.’ It’s a powerful thing to see these kids feel a sense of importance and value in their world.”

Awareness of the line between advocacy and concern for the represented children was quite prevalent for Johnny Symons, director of Daddy and Papa, a candid look into the personal, cultural and political implications of gay fatherhood. One of the subjects, Symons’ close friend Kelly Wallace, admitted that he had never really thought the film would get made, much less play at Sundance. He confided to Symons that had he known the film would screen there, he never would have agreed to have taken part.

Symons, whose own family story was presented in the doc, explained, “There’s a conflict between wanting to share the story and protect our children. There’s something frightening about putting a life, which is not viewed positively by many in the world, up on screen without knowing what the ramifications will be.”

When beginning to film The Execution of Wanda Jean, director Liz Garbus faced the difficulty of her sunject’s mental impairment. The film chronicles inmate Wanda Jean Allen’s fight to get off death row, and examines the roles poverty, mental health, race, geography and sexuality play within the criminal justice system. Said Garbus of Wanda Jean, “We weren’t sure she understood what making the documentary meant. We wanted to show her other films we had made in order to help her understand the level of commitment necessary.” Consequently, the filmmakers showed Wanda Jean their previous film, The Farm, in which there are two executions.

As a result, “Wanda Jean became afraid of the process of becoming involved in the film and the ultimate death that might occur to her at the end of the film. Prior to The Farm, I don’t think she’d seen such an intimate portrayal of someone being executed. Perhaps it was a mistake—or perhaps it was healing—but it was certainly something we had to talk a lot about.”

Directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco of Daughter from Danang, which earned the Documentary Grand Jury Prize, almost lost the subject of their film due to her concerns over vulnerabilities revealed during the filming process. The doc tells the story of Heidi Bub, aka Mai Thi Hiep, and her Vietnamese mother from whom she was separated in 1975 when brought to the US as part of Operation Baby Lift. Twenty-two years later, Heidi decided to search for her birth mother.

According to the filmmakers, “Heidi went to Vietnam with expectations of having a wonderful healing process with her birth mother. When things revealed themselves differently, it was very difficult. When we came back from Vietnam, she didn’t want to make the film. She had allowed us to film some very intimate moments, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to share those with the world.” After a long period of talking with Heidi, the filmmakers finally came to the conclusion that they would only make the film if she could find something in it for herself. She finally decided that making the film might actually help with her own healing process, as it forced her to keep searching through and dealing with her past.

Whitney Dow, co-director with Marco Williams of Two Towns of Jasper, reminded the audience that “Filmmakers think they’re doing this incredible thing and opening all these doors, but very often documentary subjects have their own agenda.” He told the story of one of the subjects of Jasper, which explores the vicious, racially-charged murder of James Byrd in 1998 in Jasper, Texas. Trent Smith spoke in great detail about his membership in the Aryan Circle and its activities in prison. The filmmakers couldn’t understand why Smith was willing to break the gang’s code of silence. Much later, Smith confided to them that he used the documentary to help him make a life choice, for he knew that by talking so candidly about the Aryan Circle and his relationship to it, he would be forced to leave it.

The act of revelation can be tough on filmmaker and subject alike. Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa won the Directing Award for Sister Helen, about a nun who runs a private shelter for recovering addicts. Fruchtman said, “It was a tough subject to film because people are talking about the failures of their lives. We were concerned about the effect of that. After three years of working on the film, we showed it to the men who are in it. Amazingly, they loved the film; they loved seeing themselves.

“There was one alcoholic who wouldn’t come to see it,” Fruchtman continued. “He’s drunk in the film; I think he’s afraid to see what he looks like. The other men in the house want him to come see it because they think it will have an effect on him.” Thus, even if the process of making a doc doesn’t affect its subject, the viewing and subsequent audience response often does.

There’s no way to know how an audience will react to a film, and this can have a jarring effect on many documentary subjects. Kirby Dick, at Sundance with Derrida, a portrait of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction, addressed this. “Audiences think they know the subject after they’ve seen a documentary. However, they only know a part of them. The audiences then relate to the character you’ve built, the doppelganger, and that can be very disorienting to the subject of a piece. It’s only one representation of the experience, not the whole thing.”

On the practical side, all agreed that while the relationships between a documentarian and his/her subjects can be confusing and complex, it is important to be as clear as possible upfront. All subjects should sign releases, and know that once they’ve done so, nothing is off the record. One filmmaker warned, “If they are not willing to sign the release, don’t film them!”


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of International Documentary.