Doug Block wasn’t sure he had a film yet. His mother had passed away and he was videotaping his father’s move from the family home for posterity. Block had every reason to believe his parents’ 54-year marriage was happy. Then, riding next to his father one afternoon, he asked, “Do you miss mom?”
“No, I can’t say I miss her,” said his father, staring straight ahead.
This punch-to-the gut response anchors Block’s personal documentary, 51 Birch Street. “I just wanted to keep talking to my father,” says Block on hearing his father’s unexpected candor. But unlike the run-of-the-mill son, he also wanted to capture every moment of it in a documentary.
Following in the footsteps of personal documentary pioneers Ross McElwee and his mentor Ed Pincus, Block is among a growing cohort of filmmakers compelled to tell their own stories—personal family stories—on film. Production of personal docs, or autobiographical films, is on the rise, arguably on the coattails of the written memoir. Popularized at the turn of the century by public interest in the private lives of the famous and elite, the memoir has become one of literature’s richest and most enduring genres, and elements of the form have seeped into countless other forms of expression—from poetry to reality television to daily blogs. And so it goes into personal filmmaking.
Making a personal doc requires, of course, getting personal—digging into family history, interviewing relatives, and excavating basements and closets for old letters, photographs, and home movies. But objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear. Sometimes this process turns up family secrets. It always turns up a number of dicey choices. The documentarian is thus charged with deciding if moments not originally recorded for public consumption can transcend the navel and strike at a universal conflict or truth. And if so, is it ethical?
“Telling someone else’s story, and the burdens and possibilities of that, immediately introduces a host of ethical issues,” says Tom Rankin, documentary photographer, filmmaker, and director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. But the same can be said for telling your own story. Rankin offers up three questions vital to every documentarian: What’s going to happen to the work? Who gets to see it? And do the subjects understand all that you intend?
This poses a dilemma for filmmakers like Block or Jonathan Cauoette (Tarnation), who casually videotaped their family members (or themselves) in unguarded moments, and only later decided later to use that footage in theatrically-released films. The plot thickens when said filmmakers uncover documents or footage from the past—and secrets that could destroy a family—but could also drive a gripping narrative.
Finding the dirty laundry is one thing. Using it? Another.
Block’s film is about secrets, though he wasn’t necessarily looking for them. When he went to help his father move after his mother’s death, he discovered decades of his mother’s handwritten diaries. He struggled with whether or not to read them. “I didn’t want to deal with it, what a keg of dynamite it was, what a Pandora’s box,” he says retrospectively. In the film he tackles the situation as an all-out ethical conundrum: He visits a young yet remarkably wise Rabbi for advice. He asks several family members if his mom would be okay with it.
After viewing a work-in-progress, HBO’s Sheila Nevins told Block she thought the diaries were the heart of his film. “I knew she was right,” he says. But he still worried about how he would look to viewers, asking himself, “Who would do this?” Of course had his mom been alive to provide or withhold consent, Block would have made a very different film, or no film at all.
Ellen M. Maccarone, who teaches applied ethics and theory at Gonzaga University, has recently started studying the ethics of documentary filmmaking. She reasons that since there is no “right to know” about the goings-on of a private family, documentary participants must understand what they are being asked to do in order to consent. She sees red flags when the process of filming or its results could damage a person’s agency, or ability to choose how to live his or her life. “If it doesn’t cause harm, okay fine, but if it does cause them some harm, than it better cause them more good,” she says.
So where does a filmmaker draw the line when a subject is dead or otherwise unable to weigh in and assess the greater good? There aren’t necessarily right and wrong answers, but there are better ways to approach sticky situations.
Block believes experience helps. Having been a cameraman for years, he has spent a lot of time developing a personal ethical code. “You get right away how comfortable people are or not, if they don’t want to be filmed,” he explains. In particular, one past subject taught Block to think through the ethics of including someone in a film: “His lips were saying ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but his body language ‘No, no, no.’” You don’t want to shoot a documentary about people who don’t want to be in it, he figures. “But if they are an important part of the film, you either don’t use them, or the fact that they don’t want to do it becomes part of the story.”
Block’s deliberation about reading his mother’s diaries is crucial to 51 Birch Street. The notebooks detail years of unhappiness in her marriage to his father. She wrote obsessively about her therapist, and often wrote explicitly about her sexual desires and frustrations. Though reading her tomes was transformative for Block personally, and even transformed his relationship with his mom after her death, he says he knew where to draw the line for the purposes of the film. He didn’t want to be explicit about his parents’ sex life, for example. “I hinted that my father worked late and had a secretary he was close to. I used it to fuel the suspicion but I wasn’t going to go into any of the particulars,” he says.
Besides individual subjects, filmmakers must also contend with other relatives whose opinions and concerns can sometimes be even more forecefully expressed. When visionary/architect Glen Howard Small asked his daughter Lucia Small to write his biography, she agreed instead to make a film. He encouraged her to do it her way, to find the story and her voice through the process. Lucia Small appreciated this openness although she knew that he expected she would basically document his career. The result, My Father, The Genius, is a far more complex examination of her father’s aspirations and failures—coupled with his unabashed detachment—from his two families.
Glen Howard Small understood his story would go public, but he didn’t necessarily want Lucia’s version. “No one did,” says Small of her family’s reaction to her film. It is her belief that none of the participants, not even she, fully grasped what it would mean to let My Father, The Genius out into the world. “It’s always tricky because your family changes and evolves and you’ve captured them at one point in their lives,” says Small.
And while she says that it was no secret that her father thinks himself a genius, subtle unknowns always surface when making a film about your family. Small was shocked, for example, by how differently her two sisters perceived the same Sunday visits with dad growing up. She learned this only through interviewing them on film. “One felt like they were the best days of her life, the other felt taken hostage,” she says. Those differences can be magnified in the editing room, she observes, where characters must be simplified for a 90-minute film. In fact, she confesses her sisters fell prey in just this way.
But making tough choices is the individual artist’s prerogative, and a necessity when shaping a story other people will want to watch. Documentaries work best, says Rankin, when a specific, localized, familial story has reverberations way beyond. Rankin wants his students to figure out how to decipher what’s personal and what’s universal themselves. “It’s not like they are told here’s the recipe for pure careful sensitive work where there are no risks involved at all, there are a lot of risks. You’ve got to be able to work it out and live with [the results],” he says.
In making her 2003 personal documentary Shelter, Lorna Lowe-Streeter weighed the costs and benefits of revealing the intimacies of her family life on her journey to find her birth mother. She didn’t sit down and make rules for herself, but she decided to tell her family, “These are the kinds of questions I’m going to ask you.” Her intention was to share plenty of information with them while leaving enough room for the film to tell the story in an objective way.
Yet after several interviews she says, “It increasingly didn’t feel right for me to stay behind the camera, commentate and observe. I don’t think that’s the right choice for everyone, but I think an ethical question did arise, ‘Is this right for me to be talking about my family and extricate myself from the process?’” She opted to turn the camera on herself confessional-style, and in that way conveyed her point of view.
According to Rankin at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, the filmmaker who puts her or himself in the film is doing it out of 1) full disclosure or 2) the illusion of full disclosure. The autobiographical film engages in an immediate tension between being honest about its subjectivity and falling prey to narcissism. “In many of these films, it’s not clear at which time it’s one or the other,” he says. “The filmmaker who is really good at that takes you right up to that line and brings you back again and again.”
Rankin points out examples when filmmaker-as-character works. “With people like Ross McElwee it just makes the story much more compelling, he hasn’t at all sacrificed universal resonance he’s enhanced it,” he says of Sherman’s March. Another film he cites, Susan Stern’s The Self-Made Man, was prompted by a videotaped suicide message from her ill father and how he involves her entire family in his decision. “It’s an infinitely more interesting way to think of end of life, for me anyway, than some kind of public policy approach to end of life issues,” says Rankin.
Following instincts similar to Lowe-Streeter, Block, and Small also appear in their films. All three believe first-person filmmakers get harsher judgment than memoirists or essayists, perhaps because film provides concrete visual information. Block admits that he even holds it against some filmmakers who make the choice. He found that critic after critic started reviews of 51 Birch Street with “Yet another filmmaker is whining about his family . . .” But thankfully, he says, the reviews lightened up after that.
Putting yourself in your film “gets a bad name because there are lots of films that don’t work,” says Small. “People think it’s an easier way of expressing yourself but I think it’s harder. For it to really work you have to be brutally honest.” On Rankin’s question of disclosure Small says, “Full disclosure? Never.” However looking ahead to Genius II, she vows to spend more time during the editing process considering ethical issues. With the first film about her father, she says, “I was racing to the finish line. I would’ve liked to have sat with it a little bit and shown it to the family.” Of course, she observes, if she had involved her father too much, it wouldn’t have been her vision.
Five years later, Small is still experimenting with the first-person approach. She and collaborator Ed Pincus may appear in their current project about Hurricane Katrina, An Axe in the Attic. A sample reel includes a scene where a woman has difficulty entering her flooded home and Small steps from behind the camera to help. Pincus has been on hiatus since releasing his groundbreaking personal documentary, Diaries in 1982, decades before audiences became accustomed to having access to the added interpretive information now found in director’s commentaries and DVD extras.
Time and technology can change ethical questions, says Maccarone. Supplementary content, for example, has the potential to broaden or alter the meaning of a personal documentary. For Small, the release of the My Father, The Genius DVD dramatically improved relations with her father because on it she was able to provide a deeper look at his architecture, among other issues.
Even question and answer sessions after screenings of 51 Birch Street altered the audience’s relationship to the film. The film had a successful run at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in cooperation with the Boston Jewish Film Festival, so much so that it returned for several engagements throughout 2007. Block’s sister Ellen Block was present to answer questions on January 27, 2007. After credits rolled, hands shot into the air:
Did you or your sister have veto power in the edit room?
What was your father’s reaction?
He’s very proud; he thinks it’s an honest portrayal.
What would have been different if the film had remained private?
It’s made me consider all kinds of questions I would not have otherwise asked myself.
How has it felt for this film to be shown in public?
I am fine in this kind of forum, when I don’t know the people in the room. It’s harder with friends or family. But I am grateful. I know so much more. I would make this choice again.
Ellen Block’s public acceptance and approval of the film added to the audience experience of it.
Gonzaga’s Maccarone believes that the documentary community has an obligation to hold people within their field to a shared standard of ethical excellence. She considers documentary filmmaking a practice or a social institution, similar to the practices of medical and legal professions, where the collective upholds the public’s trust. Of course, filmmaking is less likely to bear the same degree of life-or-death burden, and it integrates an indisputable commitment to individual and artistic expression.
“If you see someone doing something not right for your practice, you need to speak up,” Maccarone suggests to filmmakers. She would like to see a documentary code of ethics that stands apart from the field of journalism.
But what forum would filmmakers use to raise such issues with one another? As it stands, public dialogue about film is largely relegated to critics who stand apart from the filmmaking community, or to academics who primarily talk to each other. Even Rankin, who leads a prominent educational institution, shies from the idea of doctrinal thinking when it comes to ethics and storytelling. “When we have staff meetings, it’s not like we have consensus on this,” he says. “This isn’t a church.”
“Family secrets are kind of like community secrets,” suggests Rankin, “The energy that guards them really inflates their value.” When documentarians don’t want to buy in to the collective denial, he adds, they are left with the role of teller and burden of it. “The fact that they are hidden says to some people that they need to be told.” How those secrets are revealed, whether by family, or by the filmmaker, isn’t that precisely the charge of an independent filmmaker?
“It really wasn’t until I read the diaries that I got to accept who she was as a woman, in all of her humanity,” says Block about his mother. “She wasn’t an easy woman. From a documentary filmmaker’s perspective, I don’t take anything on its surface. To get at the truth, it’s easier with a camera in your hand. I wouldn’t have read the diaries if I wasn’t making a film. It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.”
For more information, visit 51 Birch Street website.