When Margins Fade
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
While showing one of my short films to my husband to get his feedback on it (something he kindly agrees to do on almost a daily basis), he pointed out something that I've since been wrestling with:
Some of my shots were obviously staged; they weren't documentations of reality. I explained to him that sometimes I only have an hour with a subject and need to quickly record an interview and some b-roll. So what do I do? Usually I come up with a couple of quick scenes for them to act out. I ask them to pretend to be working at their desk or to walk down a hallway or to fake a conversation with one of their coworkers.
It's a terrible and frankly uncreative habit.
And this was glaringly obvious to Colin. His response was that I should make it my goal to set my standards higher, to strive for truly authentic shots.
A few days later, I was talking to my colleague Max Machado over a cup of coffee and he raised this as an issue that he has often observed on the sets of documentary productions. I politely nodded in agreement - hiding the fact that I often succumb to the same old practice. We spoke about how these enacted scenes actually lie to our viewers, manipulating them into believing false documentary truths.
As I wind up my current projects and begin to brainstorm for my upcoming contracts, I'm seeking practical ways to address this pattern of mine.
I have two main obstacles: time and fear.
If I only have a short window of time to film a subject, then how can I do a better job of capturing real slices of their life?
Better planning prior to a shoot is probably the first step. I should ask if we can film our subject as they're walking to work, as opposed to filming them pretending to walk into their office building. Or I can ask to just shadow them for an hour or so, rather than asking them to pretend to be typing or to look out the window deep in thought. I can certainly schedule more natural shots into our shoots, so that our time and effort is still efficient but wholly focused on documenting reality.
And as to fear, I want to stop resorting to the same "safe" cinematic shots that I repeatedly capture - slow motion shots of a person walking down the street with the sun serving as a perfect backlight, overly stylized slider shots that serve as mechanic transitions between scenes, and chronological action sequences that don't add anything nuanced to the visual narrative.
Instead, I want to be more bold by incorporating more abstract shots that poetically hint at deeper themes, shots that create unexpected twists and turns that unsettle the viewer, and genuinely creative camera movements that add rhythm to the stories I aim to tell.
These jumbled thoughts of mine remind me of Tolkien's take on the role of recovery in creative works. He writes:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view... We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness... They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them... Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.
Tolkien believed that fantastical literature was the best approach to recovering our sense of wonder about the world around us. But I believe reality can be just as enlightening, just as enchanting - so long as we strive to capture it in a fresh way, following the unorchestrated bounces of light that aimlessly direct our attention to the finer details of the theatrical stage in which we live. Instead of fabricating a secondary world, as a documentary filmmaker my role is to mesmerize the viewer with the magic of the real world.