Coming Clean

David Sampliner and Tim Nackashi’s debut documentary film Dirty Work premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2004 and is currently on the film festival circuit. Dirty Work follows the lives of three men—Russ, a bull semen collector, Darrell, a septic tank pumper, and Bernard, an embalmer—who passionately pursue distasteful, indispensable professions.

Do you have an idea for a film, but have no experience, no resources, no equipment, and are working a day job? Do you sort of know in your bones you can make a film, but just don’t know how to do it? When someone asks you what you do, are you still embarrassed to say “filmmaker,” since, well, you haven’t made a film yet?

Then you’re exactly where Tim and I were four years ago when we first discussed making a documentary film in Athens, Georgia about a few odd jobs and the people who do them. I was writing fiction and waiting tables; Tim was helping run an internet design business and playing in a band. Neither of us had been to film school. I had quit a Ph.D. program in US history; Tim had a Bachelors degree in painting and did graduate work in computer animation. That and a small chunk of change from my grandparents was what we brought to the documentary filmmaking table. But, in our glorious naivete, we were determined to make a film, having virtually no idea what that meant.

We did know that filmmakers start with a budget, so we drew one up, putting in the traditional “lines” for a cinematographer, editor, sound person. And then there was the decisive question: What medium would we shoot on? Filmmakers shoot on film, of course. A conservative (and, in retrospect, totally unrealistic) estimate put our expenses at around $350,000.

Where would we get that kind of cash? We had no track record, so we didn’t feel like we could go to outlets like ITVS or HBO. We didn’t feel like we could go to foundations since our documentary couldn’t promise to advance any particular social cause. And we weren’t comfortable asking friends or family to put up money for a project directed by two unreasonably ambitious neophytes.

An old college friend now in the film industry made a pertinent suggestion: “Why don’t you guys just make it yourselves?” Indeed, if we did everything ourselves, suddenly the project seemed more feasible, at least financially, because we wouldn’t be paying anyone. And if we were going to do everything ourselves, then we were going to have to embrace the digital revolution and leave aside our fantasies of learning how to shoot film. After doing some research, we bought what we considered to be a top-rate, bare-bones outfit: a Sony VX-2000, a Sennheiser shotgun mic, a Lectrasonics wireless, a G4 computer, and Final Cut Pro. We were, technically speaking anyway, in business.

The most grossly miscalculated element of our “plan” was time. We both remember thinking we’d probably finish the project in a year. But after following one subject (the bull semen collector) alone for a year, another for about four months (the septic tank pumper and his wife), we were still trying to find someone in the funeral industry. That’s when we re-estimated the project would take an additional six months. Two and half years later—four years all told—we were finally putting the finishing touches on the film.

Spending over three years following your subjects and shooting over 110 hours for a fifty-eight-minute film might sound crazy to anybody other than another documentary filmmaker, but we did know from the outset that we didn’t want to drop into the strange worlds we were preparing to enter and capture merely the bizarre. Because we were venturing into worlds not only largely invisible to most people but easily ridiculed, we knew we would have to live with our subjects long enough to make a film that didn’t merely trade on the obviously titillating aspects of their professions. We just underestimated what “long enough” meant exactly.

Beyond the fact that it was never our full-time job, why did a fifty-eight-minute film take four years to make? In many respects, this film was our film school. We started shooting well before we knew how or what to shoot, so a lot of time was spent making rookie mistakes, then trying to correct them the next time out. Likewise, we spent about two years editing the film, a good portion of which was spent creating edits that, though we weren’t aware of it at the time, were useful only as exercises in learning what works and more often, what doesn’t. At three separate points we made versions of the film, watched it, despised it, and started a new edit completely from scratch.

However considerable our technical limitations, they did not prove to be our steepest challenge. If you had asked us what natural gifts we brought to documentary filmmaking, each of us would have trumpeted our sensitivity, our innate ability to listen and make others feel comfortable being themselves around us. Then we started making a documentary film.

With all three of our subjects we encountered resistance at various stages of the process when each became distrustful for one reason or another of what they had agreed to take part in. After an initial rush of enthusiasm for the flattering attention to their work, each subject would eventually come to question why they were exposing themselves to two relative strangers.

Dr. Page, the bull semen collector, let us know from the very beginning that even though he would allow us to film him, he didn’t fully trust our intentions. We told him we wanted to make a film about unheralded professions, but he remained wary throughout that we might be moles for PETA, swooping in to get footage, then using it out of context to decry the food industry’s inhumane treatment of animals.

After filming him and his work for two years, and showing him that we were equally interested in his other passion, farmland protection, he gradually conceded that our intentions might be honorable. We still never visited his home—his wife couldn’t understand why he had agreed to participate in this film, and wanted no part of it.

At the end of the last day of shooting with Russ, confident we’d earned his trust, we handed him the standard release form. (We knew he would never have signed it at the beginning of the process, given his suspicions, so we had waited.) Read it, we told him, ask us any questions you’d like, and then sign it. A few days later I called Russ to see when we might pick up the form. His response? “I feel like you’ve slapped me in the face.”

Russ, it turned out, ran his business with handshakes, not contracts, and felt that our asking him to sign a release form betrayed the bond of trust we had formed. We apologized profusely, and we needed to—assured that we had immersed ourselves fully and respectfully in his world, we hadn’t adequately let him into ours. After an exchange of letters and several conversations, he finally agreed to sign.

In contrast to Russ, the septic tank pumpers, Darrell and Martha Allen, appeared to throw the doors wide open to us. After only the second day of shooting with them, we were invited back to their house to film Martha’s birthday celebration with their extended family. Their trust, it seemed, had been won instantly.

Darrell Allen is a septic tank pumper.

But as we spent more time with them, we learned things weren’t that simple. During one early visit, they told us a story about one of their daughters that we felt would illuminate a lot about Darrell, and that would be flattering to the family and make them much more fully rounded characters. When we told them we wanted to pursue that story further, suddenly our access to their home diminished. We tried for months to arrange a sit-down interview with them in their home, and for months they found excuses for why it wasn’t convenient.

Letting us into their home and letting us into their private world, it turned out, were two different things. They eventually allowed us to interview them at home, but they wanted assurances that if they were to draw boundaries, we would respect them. We did, knowing we were losing something that would make them more sympathetic to an audience, but also knowing that having at least part of their story was better than having no story at all.

The fiercest resistance came from our most complex character, Bernard Holston, the embalmer. When approached about the film, Bernard told us he would have no problem with us filming him immediately. “Only those who have something to hide worry about telling the truth,” he said. “And I have nothing to hide.” By now, though, we knew to expect that after the thrill of being in a film wore off, complicated emotions might follow. And they did.

The night of our premiere screening in Athens, Georgia was the realization of a dream we had envisioned four years before—the film’s title gleaming on the Georgia Theatre marquee, our family and friends filling the seats along with the subjects, who had by then all seen the film and enjoyed it, and their extended families. Yet minutes before the screening was to start, Bernard hadn’t showed. We called him, hoping he was simply late. No, he said, he couldn’t make it. He wouldn’t elaborate as to why. All that seemed clear was that Bernard would tolerate the film, but not embrace it. We were crushed.

In our recent conversations with him, Bernard has peppered us with questions about how audiences have responded to the film and particularly to him. Because audiences have received him so enthusiastically, we could easily provide him with glowing reports. At this writing, Bernard has expressed interest in rejoining the other subjects at upcoming screenings of Dirty Work at other festivals.

Still, this particular experience with Bernard remains a sobering reminder of the power of the documentary-making process, and of the difficulty of controlling its effects. We can only do so much on our part to assure our subjects that the filmmaking process will be safe because the truth is, a lot of times it isn’t, no matter how hard the filmmakers may try to make it so.

And in the end, that may have been our sternest lesson—the inescapable burden of telling someone else’s story in your own words. Did you tell it right? And were you right to tell it? Not having sure answers to these questions might be the surest sign that while we’re still young filmmakers, we’re not quite new anymore.

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