Musings on the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a memorial service for Sokhorn Sem, the mother of one of the subjects of my film Monkey Dance. The service was held at the Khmer Buddhist Temple in Chelmsford, Massachusetts (Wat Triratanaram). Sokhorn’s battle with breast cancer was the last of many difficult struggles in her life: surviving Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide, fleeing through minefields and jungles to a Thai refugee camp, landing in the United States without job or language skills, and supporting her disabled husband and four sons in a violent neighborhood.
The temple was full of friends and family dressed in mixtures of black and white – the American and Cambodian colors of mourning, respectively. I was wearing a long black skirt with a white sweater. I am used to trying to “blend in” with communities where I have filmed. It’s something I enjoy because of my own mixed heritage and my ability to speak four languages.
In this situation, though, I felt somewhat awkward. I knelt before her body to light incense and say a prayer, and I cried – both from sadness that she died so young and from my debt of gratitude for sharing her story with me and thousands of others who saw the film. Her son (and my film subject) Samnang led me to the food table and served me from the steaming pots of homemade soup and chicken curry. I wasn’t hungry but took some food, partly because it gave me something to do. I sat on a step to eat and watch a projected slideshow of Sokhorn’s life. In years of making documentaries, I have often felt uncomfortable filming; this time I felt strangely uncomfortable without my camera.
Sitting alone among two hundred people, I realized that I was the only person in the room with the specific relationship I had with Sokhorn – one that was rich and deep, yet not particularly intimate. It is the peculiar relationship of the filmmaker to her subject. It’s what I had built with Samnang’s family as I filmed his “coming of age” over four years – his falling during the state gymnastics meet (where he still won first place), hanging out with friends, thrilling crowds with his mix of hip-hop and traditional Cambodian dance, taking the SATs, and opening his college acceptance letters. After so many conversations, and so much important time spent together, I know a lot about his family. They know little about me. (Monkey Dance is showing along with a performance by Angkor Dance Troupe on Sunday, November 15 at University of Massachusetts Amherst.)
My late colleague Dick Rogers used to tell students, “The true subject of all documentary is the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject.” (Dick said he was quoting Michael Rabiger, though I have never found a clear source… anyone?) I think this statement speaks to the deeper truths that are recorded besides “content” when the world is converted into media. What is the power dynamic between filmmaker and subject? What are their understandings of each other’s motivations to participate? How deeply do they know each other?
Alex Olch, one of Dick’s former students at Harvard, just finished a film called The Windmill Movie in which he pieced together twenty years of footage Dick shot in an attempt to tell his own life story of upper-class privilege and guilt. Dick died at age 57 from a brain tumor and couldn’t finish his film. Alex sorted through Dick’s 200 hours of material, hired actors to portray fictional versions of Dick and his friends, and even wrote and performed first-person voiceover as the young Dick. I haven’t seen the film yet but am intrigued. Its tag line is “What if someone wrote your autobiography?”
The topic of filmmaker-subject relationships forms the bulk of an interesting report released in September by the Center for Social Media called Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. Apparently many of the forty-five filmmakers interviewed follow a sort of filmmaker’s Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.
In one of my current projects, building relationships turns out to be 90 percent of the work – including shooting and editing. Peacemaking Circle explores dynamic applications of a Native American tradition in which community members resolve conflict by convening a special ritual circle. Three years ago, I began researching what I thought would be a feature-length documentary about one conflict being resolved over the course of many peacemaking circles. I spoke with organizations around the country using circles to resolve gang disputes, school fights, domestic violence issues, and sentencing for criminal cases. One group in California agreed to have me to film, only to cancel the shoot the night before my flight. Other groups welcomed me to observe but would not let me film.
I learned how challenging it is for restorative justice practitioners to get all of the parties in a serious conflict into a room together to participate in this unusual circle process – and what deep trust must then be built before the parties might consent to be filmed. This difficulty explains in part why no existing film on peacemaking circles shows an actual circle process from start to finish.
After getting to know my subjects’ world over several years, I reconceived the project as a multimedia piece that will consist of a five-channel video installation, a website, and a DVD. I am excited about how the form of the piece is responding to the needs of the communities I am filming. My experience as a filmmaker parallels restorative justice practice itself: building trusting relationships, and finding one’s place in the community, are the time-consuming yet crucial first steps towards resolution.
Fortunately, for all my patience with that project, I have been rewarded with a most willing and supportive subject for my other current film. Lalita is an exploration of the body as archive, seen through a portrait of a 60-year-old woman who has experienced profound geographical, cultural, and bodily changes. I have never developed such a close friendship with a film subject before. I am sure I will visit Lalita long after the film is complete. And I think this intimacy will show itself as the film takes viewers on a journey through Lalita’s changing experience of her body. In one colonoscopy scene, we literally travel through her insides with the doctor’s laparoscopic camera.
I have learned so much from the varied and particular relationships I have made with my film subjects over the years. I can only hope they feel they have gotten as much out of the experience as I have. In any case, the filmmaker-subject relationship has a core impact on both the content and form of a film.