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Is it too late to edit myself out of this film?

Dear Doc Doctor:

I think I made the mistake of putting myself in my film as the inquisitive filmmaker—as a woman, I’m not sure if the role really suits me. What can be done at this stage to save the film?

Changing major structural and creative decisions once the film is shot is extremely challenging. Before you embark on the re-edit of your life, let’s save you from cultural influences before we save the film.

The “quest” or “essay” documentary genre has been re-popularized by films with men in the lead role, and not coincidentally, these are the films that have made it to the big screen. This is, however, a cultural issue, not just a characteristic of documentary films.

There seems to be a tacit consensus that men, and only men, can be the fighters, the conquistadores, inquirers, judges, and bearers of good and bad news alike. While women sit in the back re-charging the weapons and healing the wounded—in film terms, the associate producers who set up interviews and digitize all night. (Men readers, please forgive the generalization).

Fortunately, many female documentarians have decided that it can be quite ladylike to shove a camera and microphone in someone’s nose when necessary. We might not see these films at the local cineplex but they are out there at festivals and on networks and educational/outreach circuits. From Judith Helfand in A Healthy Baby Girl (1997) and Blue Vinyl (2002), to Maggie Hadleigh-West in Warzone (1998), to the soon to be finished Kelly Gallagher’s Mercury in Retrograde (2004).

On a more personal level, the quest documentary reduces its narrator to just one aspect: the inquirer, sometimes the angry pushy inquirer. A liberating experience, but maybe not too glamorous to watch. Being a well-rounded person, seeing yourself reduced on the screen to just one part of your complex self can be painful to watch.

Who better than Therese Shechter (I Was a Teenage Feminist) to relate to women’s struggles on and off the screen? “For a long time, I resisted being the lead character in my film,” she says. “I thought: Who would want to see me on screen? Who would care about my own search for my lost feminism and the feminist movement? But I realized that my character could act as a surrogate for all the women out there who were asking the very same questions.”

I strongly believe in first instincts. If early on you felt you had to be in the film leading the narrative, I’m sure that is still so, and you simply need to adjust to your “screen self.” And if you just can’t get used to it, try thinking of the future generations of female filmmakers who need your help to keep diversity of voices in the filmmaking business.

Dear Doc Doctor:

I always have problems getting the crew to do what I need them to do, when I need them to do it. Often I find myself yelling or being the unreasonable, crazy one on location. Can women in a position of power be heard?

We all have seen in films, and maybe also in real life, some version of the tyrannical director with beret, pipe, horse riding pants, and a megaphone screaming orders to the stressed-out crew. That image never gained popularity among documentary filmmakers. For better or worse, crews are smaller, and interviewees don’t respond well to personal questions being screamed through a megaphone.

I don’t see the director—male or female, fiction or documentary—as the almighty powerful god of the set or location. I rather see him or her as the quiet skillful manager of people’s creativity, including his/her own. A few screams and intimidating looks might get people moving, but it doesn’t guarantee their talent and creativity.

When camera people and editors shuffle their feet, they are not challenging your authority for the sake of discrediting you, but rather showing symptoms of discomfort. You want to be heard, and they want to be heard, too. Rather than raising your voice and becoming a part-time monster, search for the cause of rebellion. Something is wrong and you have to find out, because that dash of disobedience can ultimately be prohibiting you and your film.

The New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al, explains in easy steps how to handle conflict without resorting to the use of authority, which almost always backfires and snowballs into more conflict.

In short, listen first and listen deeply, beyond the apparent cause. Acknowledge their position or argument. Explain how his or her attitude reads from your side. Find common ground and a common solution that suits both—“common” being the operative word. It might feel like compromising, but you will be surprised what happens when your crew has a chance to be part of the solution.

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Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award® nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

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