The Feedback: Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez' 'Personal Statement'
By Tom White
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reached out to the filmmakers as they were either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.
In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez' Personal Statement.
We caught up with director Dressner and co-director Martinez via email following the film's world premiere as the opening-night film at AFI Docs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Synopsis: Personal Statement is a feature-length documentary that follows Karoline, Christine and Enoch through their senior year and into college. They work tirelessly as peer college counselors to realize better futures for themselves and their peers. They struggle and they stumble, but refuse to succumb to the barriers that prevent so many low-income students from attending and graduating from college.
How did you happen upon this story of young students empowering themselves to rise to the next level in their educational careers?
Juliane Dressner: I make character-based films that shed light on economic and racial justice issues. Edwin Martinez and I first collaborated on a short film that sought to explore the human toll of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practice. We told the story of a young man who had been stopped and frisked more than 60 times before his 18th birthday.
I began working on Personal Statement after I learned that young people were taking it upon themselves to close the college guidance gap in their schools. I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity to both understand the obstacles they face and learn from their inspirational determination to surmount them.
I reached out to one of the co-directors of the organization that was training high school students to work as college counselors in their schools, Lori Chajet of CARA (College Access: Research & Action). She and her colleague, Janice Bloom, were open to us filming because they knew that seeing the work in action is the best way to understand its power.
Talk about the process of finding your subjects to help tell your story.
JD: CARA invited me to the first day of its peer counselor training. Karoline, Christine and Enoch were three of the 70 inspirational young people I met that day. After Karoline, Christine and Enoch expressed interest, we then collaborated with them to explore the best ways to tell their stories.
They were in the thick of writing their personal statements for college, deciding how best to frame their stories in their college applications, and we thought that this was a perfect starting point for the film.
Edwin Martinez: Karoline, Christine and Enoch succeed in large part in their peer counseling work by leveraging the power of their own stories to help build confidence for their classmates. They will often share stories of their own struggles and eventual triumphs in order to show that there is a path towards college and success for people who are willing to do the work and believe in themselves. This is also why these three were open to being stars of our film; in a lot of ways, it operates as a natural extension of the work they were already doing.
Gaining access to the New York City public school system is, I imagine, a byzantine process. How did you narrow down the schools you wanted to focus on? How did you present your project to the respective administrators at these schools?
JD: After Karoline, Christine and Enoch expressed interest in collaborating with us on a film, I followed up with the nonprofit organizations that support the peer college counseling programs in their schools: Make the Road New York, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and Generation Schools Network. These nonprofit organizations provide an essential resource to the schools, significantly increasing the amount of college guidance support. As you can imagine, the schools are incredibly grateful for these partnerships.
Like CARA, these organizations were interested in collaborating on a film because they wanted others to see the impact of these peer counselors.
I then approached the schools to seek permission to film. I think the schools responded positively because they knew that their nonprofit partners wanted the film to happen and because they too are enormously proud of the ways in which these young people are transforming their schools.
Karoline, Christine and Enoch each allow you into their homes so that we viewers are afforded a look at the real struggles that they face—economically, socioculturally, personally. Given that you were documenting a critical year in their lives, talk about the how you gained their trust—and that of their families.
JD: As Edwin said, Karoline, Christine and Enoch were motivated to collaborate on the film for the very same reasons they were motivated to work as college counselors.
When we first met, they agreed that a film could provide documentary evidence of the impact of their work, and that hopefully, this evidence might help build more support for college guidance in public schools.
We worked collaboratively to explore the stories they wanted to tell. We decided we wanted to enable our audience to understand the many different kinds of obstacles that stand between low-income students and a college degree. And since these obstacles are sometimes related to personal issues, we decided it was important to explore those as well.
Karoline, Christine and Enoch invited us into their homes because they are quite aware that we as a society need to take into account all of the circumstances that young people face if we are going to figure out how to level the college playing field.
Just as Karoline, Christine and Enoch's families supported their work as college counselors, so too did they support their participation in the film. We are incredibly grateful to them for welcoming us into their homes so that we could attempt to capture the many complicated factors that can make going to and graduating from college so incredibly difficult.
EM: I started out my doc career primarily working as a cinematographer, often on vérité or observational projects where I constantly had to insert myself into the lives of the people being filmed, often in difficult times of their lives. I learned quite quickly that as important as my technical aptitude and visual proficiency was, so was who I was as a person. That, more than anything, has informed my ability to build relationships, cultivate trust and ultimately make character-based films.
Acknowledging that dynamic—being a person first, filmmaker second—is a way that I try communicate to people I am filming that I am not here simply to get footage of/from you. I am here to make a connection with you and we can hopefully work together to make something great. Sometimes some of this is stated overtly, sometimes it plays out in the micro moments of communication, body language and friendship. I like to think that Karoline, Christine and Enoch could sense that and open up to me, even when I would only show up for shoots periodically, while Julie was filming the majority of the time.
Additionally, having made To Be Heard, a five-year character documentary also about three young people in New York City, I understood some of the long-term challenges that could arise throughout such a process. Early into the production, I contacted two of the participants from that film, Pearl Quick and Karina Sanchez, to lead a workshop for the young stars of what would become Personal Statement. They led the group, filmmakers included, in a personal storytelling workshop that focused on the power of speaking your own truths, as well as on offering their perspective on what it was like to have a movie made about you. I believe that having Karoline, Christine and Enoch see the other side of that process, and the fact that my relationship with Pearl and Karina was still healthy after years of working together, demystified the process for them a bit.
This is your first feature-length documentary, following a number of shorts you've made for NY Times Op-Docs, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic and New York magazine. Talk about the challenges of transitioning from the short form to the feature-length format.
JD: There was most definitely no shortage of challenges, and I have learned so much from making this film. I think this film was especially difficult to craft because we decided to make it almost entirely observational.
I launched the edit by collaborating with the Edit Center. We intentionally did not share any of our interview footage with the students because we wanted to see if the scenes could hold up on their own, without being scaffolded by interviews and voiceover. The students edited approximately an hour of scenes. It was when I first watched their edited scenes that I realized that this film might actually work—and perhaps be even more powerful—without interviews.
This was new terrain for me. My short documentaries had all included interviews. Working alongside editors Kent Bassett and Martha Shane, with Edwin consulting, we created the first version of the film. I then worked alongside Rikki Gunton, who was as an additional editor on the film, with Edwin's guidance.
For the last year of post-production, Edwin came on as the editor. He's a brilliant editor (and filmmaker), and our process benefited enormously from his previous experience working on feature-length films (To Be Heard, City of Trees). Beth Levison (producer extraordinaire!) also has extensive experience crafting features (Lemon, 32 Pills, The Trials of Spring) and her guidance and input on the edit was hugely helpful.
We restructured the film a whopping 23 times (!) before arriving at the final version.
With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?
EM: Honestly, I think editors are lying if they don't say they go into a rough-cut screening hoping the cut just works and they can start fine-tuning and wrap that baby up—although that is not necessarily what we expected. Up to that point we had a lot of smaller rough-cut screenings in Juliane's apartment, but this was the first time we were playing the film to a larger room. So really, even though we knew the film still likely wasn't working fully, we wanted to see how the film felt.
Was DocuClub your first public screening?
JD: Over the course of editing the film, we sought input from just about everyone we know who was willing to watch and share feedback. Before the DocuClub screening, we had quite a few informal feedback screenings. But the DocuClub screening was the first public screening, and it was the first screening with folks who had no connection to anyone on the creative team.
What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening, and what were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
EM: Balance. It's one of the hardest things to achieve, but maybe the easiest to feel as an audience member. The DocuClub screening showed me clearly that our film was not in balance. Yes, we had powerful and compelling characters—and Karoline, Christine and Enoch did most of that themselves—but the conveyance of their world, along with the flow of the story, was not yet coherent.
The biggest way the film was not yet balanced—and this was perhaps the biggest struggle throughout the entire edit—was the integration between program or issue and character. We had decided to make a character film, but the central premise of their stories was rooted in a particular issue—college access—and within the program through which they all met and work. Figuring out how to set up the story so all those ideas, elements, threads and expository needs worked together was super hard. We knew that if we frontloaded too much program stuff, we would incorrectly telegraph a nonprofit promo film. If we avoided or delayed including the larger context, then viewers had no idea what the movie was really about. Getting this right took months to figure out.
What observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?
EM: Going into the screening, we had a plan about what we wanted to discuss and some specific editorial questions with which we were wrestling. However, before we were able to get that going during the talkback, a few vocal viewers immediately foregrounded their specific thoughts, a couple more offered unsolicited solutions, and we were off. After the initial feedback, our warm and incisive moderator, Theresa Navarro of POV, brought the conversation together and guided us through an ultimately fruitful conversation.
In all honesty, I was frustrated at first but I soon realized that sometimes you have to let the room have its reaction to your work. Perhaps the more controlled conversation I wanted was not what we needed in that moment. With further reflection, I think the emotion of the room was based, at least partly, on a frustration that our audience had with our film. While feelings about the movie were overwhelmingly positive, there was also a sense that we had not taken them all the way. I think the room could sense that we were onto something pretty strong, but were just teasing around the edges rather than going for the score. In the end, they were right. If we had been too stubborn to sense what was really going on during that screening, if we had not really allowed ourselves to absorb the emotional timbre of the response, our film would be all the worse off for it.
When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
EM: Our biggest realization, and the key to much of our subsequent editing, was accepting that balance and symmetry are not the same thing. Our film has a lot of characters and a lot of pieces, and we were tacitly trying to give them equal measure for the sake of symmetry. If we have a certain scene with one character, then we have to have a matching one with another. In some cases certain symmetries organically made sense in the film; in other cases it did not. For us, this challenge had a lot to do with balancing the roles of our secondary characters in the film, the people helping our stars help everybody else.
Once we freed ourselves from a tacit obligation to some expectation of formulaic symmetry, then we were able to explore what our footage was telling us the film needed to be. Each character did not need a best friend and a family member at home and an adult-school professional. They needed somebody in their lives, but who that was could shift, depending on the situation. As we threaded this approach throughout the film, each story did not match perfectly, but they began to harmonize.
What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your AFI Docs premiere?
EM: There are a few markers I've begin to notice show up near the end of every film I've made (besides being broke, exhausted and sitting on a pile of rejection emails). First, openings suck. They are so hard and so elusive. We spent months getting our first act and then the first 10 minutes to work. They are like building foundations—any missteps or off calculations ripple through the entire structure. Secondly, I feel a film is truly done (or close to it) when I finally know what every single scene, moment and shot is doing to serve the story. When each scene has a clear purpose, each change of character thread feels like the self-evident choice to make, I know we’re there. Part of this clarity comes from the due diligence of having tried nearly everything else and watching it fail. This barrage of broken ideas and misguided solutions paradoxically offers the confidence of believing your final edit is the closest you can get to your final idea. Yes, you can infinitely tweak and tune, but eventually it becomes a game of diminishing returns.
When you screened your film at AFI Docs, what were some of the reactions, questions and observations that you found most surprising and unexpected?
JD: We were overwhelmed by the audience's response at our world premiere on the opening night of AFI Docs. When we were joined on the stage after the screening by Karoline, Christine and Enoch, the audience erupted in applause and gave them a well-deserved standing ovation. After the screening, folks were lined up to have a chance to talk to Karoline, Christine and Enoch on the red carpet.
EM: Honestly, I was surprised by how much people loved the film. You work on something for so long and you hope against hope that it will land for people. You try to trust your process and have faith that it will lead you to something that adds value to the world and communicates something to audiences. But you never know. It was affirming to feel that during the screening, people were on the journey with us and our three stars—laughing, sighing, and crying during the same moments we did while shooting and editing the film. But beyond that was how glorious it was to see Karoline, Christine and Enoch be seen and valued as the rock stars they really are.
JD: This film was only possible because we established trusting and loving relationships. I am so incredibly grateful for the friendships that I have developed with Karoline, Christine, and Enoch (and also Andrew Greenaway and the many other outstanding humans in the film). We dealt with many hurdles while making this film, and what kept me going was what an absolute joy it was to work alongside them. I am so excited to finally be sharing this film with the world, so that others can have the same privilege that I had, of getting to know these inspiring young people and being right alongside them as they face huge obstacles but steadfastly refuse to give up on themselves or their peers.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.