There has been no better time than now for documentaries to educate and create a platform that enhances dialogue. Two years into the pandemic, documentarians have led the helm in starting conversations for viewers to learn and explore the lives of people and social constructs while audiences are still in their own pandemic bubbles.
At Variety’s FYC Fest Documentary Day, keynote speakers who have directed documentaries that have pushed the conversations forward, including Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul,” Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” and Samatha Stark’s “Framing Britney Spears,” spoke about their process of digging deep into their documentary subject, the renewed recognition of the media content and what conversations they hope to inspire.
Making A Documentary Requires Finding the Right Timing
“I met Amin when I was 15,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen said, referring to the Afghan refugee at the center t of his animated documentary “Flee.” “I was always curious about how and why he ended up in a little Danish village coming from Afghanistan. 15 years ago I asked him if I could do a regular documentary about his story, and he said no. He wasn’t ready. But he also said that he knew he would have to share his story at some point, and when he was ready he would like to share it with me.”
Stanley Nelson, director of “Attica,” also had timing to consider. But for him, it was less about patience with his subjects. Instead, he realized their story had to be told sooner rather than later, as the film is focused on the people involved in the 1971 Attica Prison uprising.
“It was a story that I had wanted to do for 20 to 30 years, and I felt that at this time in my life I could actually tell the story. And the people were getting older,” he said. “They were still really vibrant and alive, but they were in their 70s. If I waited 10 more years, they would be in their 80s, and it would be a very different story.”
Nanfu Wang’s “In The Same Breath” was one of the first COVID-19 documentaries ever made. Her film required her to listen to urgent instincts of the moment.
“In January 2020, I was visiting my mom [in Wuhan, China] with my two-year-old son, and I had decided to leave him with my mom to spend two weeks there,” she said. “It was then that Wuhan went into lockdown. The initial days [were about] me trying to find out how much I could trust what the government said, how much the virus was under control and how severe the virus was. So I was gathering information from people inside Wuhan and trying to figure out if I needed to go back to pick up my son, if my mom was safe. I quickly realized that what the government told the people and the world seemed to be an alternative universe than what was the reality in Wuhan. So my initial urge was to document the story and show the world.”
Specificity and Focus Often Don’t Emerge Until You’re Already Working
Jessica Kingdon was more focused on environmental issues than capitalism at large when she started making “Ascension,” but that began to change as she deepened her understanding of the locations she was filming in.
“The initial idea was to connect the dots and draw associations in a really visceral experience of the sites of hidden economies that power the supply chain and our modern, technology-dependent lifestyles,” she said. “That’s why the film is book-ended by these two locations: we start in a low-wage labor market where people are looking for jobs at tech companies, and then it ends in a rare earth mineral mine, which is the source of rare earth that are used to power our smartphones and tablets and things like that. Initially, the idea was more environmentally driven, and the structure was going to look more like the cycle of production, consumption and waste. But as we were shooting and things kept evolving, the film really became more about this quest for upward mobility and the meaning of work, and ultimately seeing what capitalism looks like when it’s outside of the U.S., in this case, China.”
When sisters and co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler set out with ACLU deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson to make “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” they weren’t totally sure who the subjects of the film would be.
“We knew one of the stories that we wanted to tell was about the 1921 Tulsa massacre,” Emily said. “There’s only a few surviving witnesses to that massacre left. They’re protected, and they’re protected for a reason. They’re valuable members of this community, and they don’t want to entrust their stories to [just] anybody. So we actually went [to Tulsa] three times, but it was only after members of the community saw Jeff’s presentation at a local church [that they decided to participate]. We would just travel around and find people where we went. We had broad stroke ideas. We knew the types of stories we wanted to be represented, but we didn’t know who the voices would be until we met them.”
Sometimes The Documentary Process is All About Joy
Documentaries are often thought of as the most “serious” genre of film, but some documentarians make a point to center joy and excitement in their filmmaking process.
“We didn’t want to stop. We just loved the process so much,” Todd Haynes when asked how he decided to finish his documentary “The Velvet Underground” about the rock band of the same name. ”I think it’s because we were exploring aesthetic practices and ideas that aren’t necessarily circulating today, that are about challenging orthodoxies and looking at what does constitute a song, the beginning and middle of a film, the relationship of the viewer to artwork. All of these things were, with a tremendous amount of excitement and investment, being challenged in the 1960s. It was almost like that was the criteria for how you looked at new work. How much did it make you think about orthodoxy and convention, and how much did it make you re-examine that?”
When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from her Julia Child documentary “Julia,” co-director Julie Cohen said, “the beauty and amazingness of older people. My directing partner [Betsy West] and I both come from the network news world where the rule is, nobody wants to see anyone over age 49. Julia’s career didn’t even start [until she was that age]. The amount of beautiful, amazing characters in our film who are into their 80s and 90s, including some who’ve passed away since shooting, just bringing their story and bringing their life experience was a joy. We want people to come away with a sense of the exuberance and joy that Julia brought to screens.”
Non-Fiction Storytelling Is Still Subjective
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, director of the documentary “Rescue,” spoke to the intricacies of telling non-fiction stories. Though there are journalist standards the filmmaker holds herself to, she believes that the work remains intrinsically subjective. She names the motive behind her work as a key factor of its nobility.
“What we do is subjective, and we are not claiming otherwise, you know? This is my interpretation of events and my own moral compass that’s guiding it, you know. And I try to think that I can live with myself the next morning and that I’m motivated by the right reasons,” said Vasarhelyi. “But there are a lot of people out there who are motivated by making money or motivated by like bringing down some political party, and they also claim to be journalists.”
Sally Aitken, director of “Playing With Sharks,” also views the ways in which filmmakers see the world as subjective, relying instead on her own emotional truth.
“What is the objectivity anyway?” Aitken posed. “We are storytellers, and we are telling an emotional, true story of a given subject creatively, hopefully engagingly, entertainingly and all the rest of it.”
Matthew Heineman, who directed “The First Wave,” spoke to both sides of the coin of subjectivity versus objectivity. His thinking was to imagine the outlook of the audience.
“I think the average person who watches a documentary on Netflix thinks the documentary is the truth,” said Heineman. “I think there’s two sides of the debate. It’s how we hold ourselves accountable, but it’s also about how it’s presented to the general public, who I think for the most part receive documentaries as a biblical piece of information.”
There Is Power in Vulnerability
Max Lowe, director of “Torn,” spoke to his own exploration of his emotional experiences as well as those shared with his family. In discovering the gravity of their trauma, Lowe realized sharing more of themselves could lend itself to helping audiences as well.
“I saw the potential in sharing in this vulnerable exploration with an audience and the power that it could have for other people to process their own traumas,” shared Lowe. “It was that kind of peripheral perspective as a storyteller that made me see the value in pushing my family to try and do this. In all my storytelling, I always strive to put myself in the shoes of my characters because I think as a documentary filmmaker is truly the only responsible way to move forward in telling a story as if you were there in it yourself.”
More Often Than Not, Directors Learn More About Their Subject As They Create the Film
In a keynote conversation with directors including: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of “Summer of Soul,” Robert Greene of “Procession,” Tim Pood of “Bow,” Megan Mylan of “Simple as Water,” Samantha Stark of “Framing Britney Spears” and Andrea Nix Fine and Nick Fine of “LFG,” Thompson said that “Summer of Soul” chose him.
As a musician, songwriter and musical journalist, Thompson said he didn’t know much about the 1969 Cultural Festival — and wanted to change that for everyone else.
“I thought I was the all-knowing savant of everything music and historical,” said the musician. “Once I knew this wasn’t just a movie, this was my turn to correct and restore history.”
Samantha Stark, who serves as the director for the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary, said her original idea wasn’t meant to talk about the singer’s infamous conservatorship.”
“I was really concerned with making a documentary about a woman — who’s a victim to a lot of people, and so watching this footage of her, she was so humiliated all the time and I decided that I didn’t want to make a film about why people hated Britney Spears, I wanted to make a film about why people loved Britney Spears,” Stark said. “I started talking to people who loved her, and this whole story of conservatorship she was stuck in started unraveling and the world ignored it, they thought she was okay.”
After starting the film, Stark found new revelations about Spears’s conservatorship through a member of the star’s security company — and started searching more.
“He shared that Brittany was being monitored, her phone was being mirrored and there was an audio recorder in her bedroom, so we knew we had to tell that story about how all this all happened.”
Sometimes a New Set of Eyes Is What’s Needed
After learning a great deal about “Summer of Soul” in Harlem, Questlove believed he would be able to direct the film, as he wasn’t as attached to the filmmaking trade before, giving him fresh eyes in the music documentary world.
“Especially in the field of music, people will tend to follow the traditional Ken Burns route,” said Thompson. “I don’t know what the traditional rules were for filmmaking, so we were able to break and create new rules.”
View the full videos of Variety’s FYC Fest Documentary Day Above.