As humanitarian filmmakers we face difficulties beyond bad lighting or a noisy interview. Each of our films challenges our hearts and imacts our spirits, and sometimes that can start to take a toll. The following is a repost from Kevin’s website and an honest look at something we have each questioned while on this journey.
Social justice documentaries are hard to make. As with traditional docs, almost everything’s out of the filmmaker’s control from the weather to the outcome. Actors are not following a script; real people are living their lives, and those, believe it or not, can be hard to predict. However, the reasonsocial justice docs are particularly difficult is that they have the inherent dilemma of capturing the exploited and abused on film in a non-exploitive, non-abusive way. These people are seldom far removed from desperate need, and all too often they’re already there.
Yesterday I interviewed a woman named Eliza, whose story we had been following on camera for the preceding two weeks, and whose circumstances are hard to not describe as tragic. We set up our interview in the bedroom of her two-room house, which was already at capacity with two beds nearly touching side-by-side. After the mic levels were tested and the camera was in place, the single, bare light bulb illuminating this small space was unplugged, leaving us with the natural light of a single wood-thatched window. The soft stream of light revealed waves of smoke drifting through the air from a neighbor’s open fire, which mixed with the noise of hungry dogs barking in the distance and a gentle rain as it began to fall on the trees above. I hold back a sigh in reminiscence of this filmmaker’s much-loved “controlled environment,” but no roosters were making noise at present so we were ready to begin.
In her broken but easy-to-understand English, Eliza began to answer my questions. She lives in a Filipino barrio wracked with unemployment and poverty whose only local resource is a landfill. The smell of refuse can be pervasive at times depending on the prevailing wind, and here, as Eliza put it, “life is hard.” Her husband and father to her first son, Daniel, died unexpectedly a year past, and her circumstances have drifted from bad to worse. When we first met, Eliza was nearly due with her second child and now, in spite of a world working against her, the baby was lying healthy and asleep in front of me, next to her on the bed. As I continued to ask questions relevant to her experience at the birth clinic for which the film was being produced, one topic unexpectedly hit a nerve: “How do you make a living and feed your children?” Tears burst forth. Eliza did her best to force out an explanation between sobs.
Her new husband, and father to her new baby boy, is unemployed and spends much of his time searching for work. She didn’t have to tell me that his search rarely translates to food on the table, and household chores as well as food provision is left to her on a daily basis. In meek answer to the question, Eliza revealed that her primary source of subsistence is loans from her relatives. With a seven-year-old to feed and a new baby to nurse, she clearly doesn’t know how she’s going to survive. As she continues to fight back deeply emotional tears by holding a rag to her face, I do my best to calm her – asking her to take her time. However, in the same moment I look to Tim, who’s on camera, to confirm that we’re rolling. This is the problem.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, emotion is substance. In the realm of relating a modern audience to a hard story, capturing genuine tears on the screen isn’t a technique: it’s the goal. It’s not to say that we as filmmakers purposely prod our interviewees into crying. Our hope is that real people feel real emotion in a real way. Thus, planning a good doc takes this into account all the way from ‘casting’ suitable characters to scheduling an interview for a day when the subject may be predisposed to emotion due to postpartum hormones. (Okay, so that was a freebie – but you get my point.) So, when an interviewee breaks down it catches even the practiced interviewer (i.e., not me) between a rock and a hard place. On the side of the anthropological documentarian, one must maintain separation between the filmmaker(s) and the subject(s) so as not to disrupt the authenticity of the situation. On the flipside, as a humanitarian filmmaker, one feels an impulse to turn off the camera and ‘rescue’ this poor woman brought to tears simply by the thought of making dinner for her kid. I wanted to tell Eliza, “It’s going to be okay,” but even for this idealistic storyteller – captivated by the ever-cliché ‘happy ending’ – a kind platitude felt more like an insult. ‘Okay’ is something to which Eliza’s family could only aspire this day – and things aren’t necessarily getting better.
After Eliza had settled, I thanked her for allowing us to tell her story and shared my hope that it would be used to help more women like her who are in need. However, as true as this statement was, the words felt empty because, in truth, what good does a word do for a tired mother with hungry child? As I took the moment to ponder this question, a loud rooster crow reminded me that time was of the essence as a tropical thunderstorm was on the way. I opened the iPad on my lap and found the next question.
As we hiked back after the interview to the van, sweating from the tropical heat as we walked through the freshly wet mud, I had an internal debate: Were we as filmmakers helping the helpless with our high-tech medium, or preying upon those of poor circumstances as we invaded with battery-powered gear that they don’t even understand? For me personally, I content myself in knowing that my motives are born out of a desire to help – not to exploit for personal or commercial gain. Yet, this is the paradox at play when standing on the frontline of the war for social justice as a non-combatant: Am I making film for “good,” or are my good intentions just another part of the problem?
What do you think? Is filmmaking for “good” intrinsically a good thing? What are the boundaries of “good” filmmaking and when do we cross them as filmmakers?