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On the Creative Interpretation of Reality -Part 2

I learned some hard lessons making that first documentary.

After fully absorbing my instructor’s injunction to make a film that was “the creative interpretation of reality”, I turned to my class project with newly opened eyes. I thought about what my reality was. I was a new transplant to Los Angeles. As anyone who has moved to LA from any other part of the world probably knows, the city is an odd blend of laid-back vibes and ambitious plans; extravagant high-living and struggling poverty; tinsel and grit. So I decided to do a film on LA. Or at least on the LA I had experienced so far.

I wanted to discover a style that would suit my topic but also stretch my narrative skills. I was greatly influenced at the time by the idea of filmic poetry and I thought that maybe this would be a good project to try some of the ideas I had about creating a mood and documenting my view of reality.

It was important to me that the voices heard in the film be the direct experience of the speakers and that their voices create the story so I did away with any traditional narrator or omniscient viewpoint. And I didn’t want the way people looked on-screen to distract viewers from what they were saying. I’d made several other films that used the voice of a disembodied speaker so I thought that might be a good device to use in the film to get the experience I was looking for. This decision had the added advantage of not needing a fancy lighting setup for the interviews since I was interviewing my subjects only with audio. I would then go out with a friend to shoot scenes of the city to superimpose over the voices. In the end I was happy with the mood of the short – but I was unprepared for the reaction viewers had to the content of the film.

The content came in the form of interviews with the people around me that I had met in LA. It was not a particularly considered decision about whom to interview. Anyone I knew who was available and willing was asked to be in the film.

One of the interviews was with a young man who was hardly older than I was but who was a manager in the data entry office where I worked part-time to support my studies. Several other co-workers had agreed to participate and tell me their views on living in LA, so he was one of maybe 5 or 6 people I interviewed there. Most of the interviews revealed fairly banal reactions and maybe one or two notable stories I could use. So when I met him in his office, I had no notion of what would unfold.

After he signed the release form, on went the tape recorder. I asked him my opening questions about how long he had lived in LA and where he came from originally. And then I asked him how he liked living in the city.

His response shocked me. He went into a long tirade about how minorities were ruining the city and making it unlivable. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and just nod at him while he continued speaking but internally I was freaking out a little. The team he managed included mostly women and most of them were Filipino, Asian or Hispanic. I had never heard anyone in the office claim he was racist or had ever treated any employee badly. But his feelings were clear. And he didn’t seem at all concerned at the quiet whoosh of the tape recorder rolling in front of him.

I remember when I was editing the film my instructor looked at the rough cut and I told him I couldn’t decide whether or not to use this man’s interview. I was worried it might be offensive. But my instructor asked if the man knew he was being interviewed. I told him he did and had signed a release. Then he asked, “Well does it match your vision for the film?”

I thought long and hard for several days about it but ultimately decided to keep some of his statements in the final film. I felt like the underlying, hidden racism he revealed was a part of the fabric of LA and it would be disingenuous to exclude it, at least in my view of reality.

The reaction at the student screening was explosive. Several of the black students got angry and told me I was a racist. My professor had to diffuse the situation in class and point out that this was in fact from an interview and not my words. And in an unforeseen circumstance, some of the women I worked with came to the student screening and they were very upset. It was a very hard lesson to learn about the impact a documentary can make on people. I suppose now I can look back and feel good that it was worthy of discussion. But at the time I felt embattled and blindsided by the audience reaction.

I had a number of other formative experiences that year, some excellent and some very discouraging. But in the end, after having looked closely into the mouth of the beast in Hollywood, I decided it was not a place I belonged as an artist. I learned that I was terrible at directing and dealing with actors, great at writing and editing, and not at all cut out for the wheeling and dealing of the big Hollywood movies. So I left the city a bit wiser and with a new respect for the power of the documentary and the way in which we can use our creativity to shape the stories others have to tell.

And after a detour in academia and the tech industry, I finally found myself, years later, being paid to produce documentaries for a living. My snobbery was gone and instead I felt a passion about writing and producing stories drawn from real life. And now I agree with my old professor: sifting through an interview to uncover the heart of a story feels like some of the most important work in the world. The true stories are the ones that have the most impact.

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