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Sundance documentary lab finding the story in the footage

Published July 25, 2013 5:52 pm

Documentary lab • Nonfiction filmmakers get to the heart of the matter at Sundance.
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Sundance • On a sunny July day in the woods of Provo Canyon, within walking distance of the Sundance resort's ski lift and fancy vacation cabins, Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly are thinking about poverty.

Specifically, the filmmaking partners are talking about the stories of three homeless Chicago teens, whose lives they have been following for 3 1/2 years for their documentary "The Homestretch."

"We have a lot of scenes where events take place, but what do the scenes add up to?" Kelly asked, looking at a bulletin board on which index cards have been arranged with the teens' names as headings. "We're trying to keep the journey clear."

"We've been looking at each character's journey in a linear way," de Mare added, "and how do we break that up so that we tell the larger story?"

"The Homestretch" is one of four documentary projects whose makers were invited earlier this month to take part in the Sundance Institute's Documentary Edit and Story Lab. Four more projects were part of a similar lab in late June. At the Sundance resort, the directors and their editors could talk about their films in a low-pressure setting, and meet with advisors who could provide fresh eyes and suggestions about their projects.

The Documentary Lab, in its 10th year, aims to do for nonfiction filmmakers what the Directors Lab has done for narrative filmmakers since the Sundance Institute's founding in the 1980s.

"We're similar to all the other labs in that we're artist-centric, we really focus on building community, we insist on excellence, [and] we work with best both on the adviser side and the filmmaker side," said Cara Mertes, who directs Sundance's Documentary Film Program and Fund.

But there's a key difference in the way the labs work. Fellows in the Directing Lab get advice while their films are still in the script stage, before going before the cameras. Documentary Lab participants arrive after they have shot their film and are getting into the editing phase.

That difference reflects the way story emerges in the different forms. In narrative films, the story's in the screenplay. With documentaries, the story is found in the footage.

First showing • The filmmakers accepted to the Documentary Lab bring in a rough cut, or at least a rough assembly of edited footage, to show advisers. They then screen that footage and listen to the advisers' reactions.

Filmmaker Robb Moss, who directed the 2003 documentary "The Same River Twice" and is one of this year's advisers, said that moment is "full of promise and terror. And we, as advisers, have a chance to think with them at this critical moment. … I think of it a little bit like if surgeons get together about a really interesting case."

Salt Lake City documentarian Andrew James, a participant in the June Documentary Lab with his film "Street Fighting Man," said the rough assembly he showed to the Sundance advisers was the first time anyone outside the production had seen any of his footage.

"These are people who are very accomplished filmmakers, and you look up to them and you know their work," James said. "There's a lot of pressure. But they're so warm and they're so gracious, and they really make you feel comfortable. That nervousness sort of disappears quickly, and before you know it, you're in these really intense conversations with all these people about what's working and not working in your film and how you can make it better."

It's not always easy.

"Usually they start crying," Mertes said. "Or they start laughing with great joy. Sometimes they cry for joy. We have a joke at the lab that crying is a sign of strength."

For de Mare and Kelly, with their movie on homeless teens, the harsh lesson was that their rough cut was driven too much by the issue and not enough by the people on the screen.

"We subconsciously had been feeling very responsible to an issue, the crisis of youth homelessness, and trying to bring awareness and explain it," Kelly said. "We had all these pieces and all these moments, but it was too issue-driven. It didn't have an emotional anchor."

"Filmmakers tend to be information-driven," Mertes said. "When you're making films in a contemporary issue space, you tend to want to let everybody know everything you know about the issue. And you forget about narrative, you forget about storytelling and you forget about why you loved the characters in the film. You lead with information and you leave your heart behind. And they had done that and didn't even know it."

So instead of front-loading the film with facts and figures, de Mare and Kelly aim to show their three teen subjects on their character arcs — and, through their specific stories, the broader issue of teen homelessness will be not only explored but given a face.

"We need to trust that [the issue] is inside the personal stories of your characters," de Mare said. "You can trust to build it from there out, as opposed as from the outside in."

James' "Street Fighting Man" is, he says, a "cinéma vérité" look at three Detroit residents from different generations who represent "the past, present and future" of the beleaguered city. The issue with his film was the lack of on-camera interviews.

"One of the philosophies behind the film was not to talk about things after the fact, but try to really get in there and see what was happening, and shoot it all so that it would be more visceral and more of an experience," James said.

During the lab critique, though, one of the main sticking points was that the scenes didn't provide enough context and that the audience would not follow what was happening without some explanation.

"In my back pocket, I had these interviews I had recorded on audio, just in case," James said. After the critique, he played some of the interviews for the advisers. He decided to use a few interviews, sparsely, "to help give the audience a road map. … The interview frees us up to stop trying to explain everything through a scene. It streamlines our storytelling."

Expert help • Another regular feature of the lab is the sharing of war stories. The advisers give evening presentations of their past work, sparking discussions about the choices they made directing and editing their films.

At one presentation, veteran film editor Victor Livingston showed clips of films he had worked on. The list varies from the prison film "Shakespeare Behind Bars" to two artist portraits: "Crumb," about the cartoonist R. Crumb, and "Corman's World," about B-movie impresario Roger Corman.

In showing scenes from "Shakespeare Behind Bars," Livingston revealed a trick he has mastered: intercutting a confessional interview with vérité footage of the same subject in action. In this case, he took footage of an inmate in an acting class and matched it with an interview of the same inmate discussing the crime that landed him in prison.

"I find it can be very effective," Livingston said, "and it can be a good way to find cutaways."

Editors accompany their directors to the documentary lab, a reflection of the importance Sundance stresses on film editing for nonfiction films. It's the same reason the Sundance Film Festival gives awards to editors of documentaries, as the equivalent to the awards given to screenwriters for narrative films.

"They're the magicians of the field," said Moss.

When Moss was finishing "The Same River Twice," a personal look at former member of a communal-living group, his editor was Karen Schmeer. At the same time, Schmeer was working on Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," a hard-hitting interview with former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara about his decisions during the Vietnam War.

"You couldn't have two more different films," Moss said. " 'Fog of War' looked like an Errol Morris movie, and 'Same River Twice' looks like my film. Karen cut them both, and there's not a single moment where she wasn't offering her own view." Schmeer died in 2010, hit by a getaway car after a drugstore robbery in Manhattan.

"Directors are often thinking about the big picture, and editors are going, 'Yeah, but how do I get there?'," Moss said.

The lab, first and foremost, allows filmmakers to reconnect with the reasons they wanted to make a movie in the first place.

"It was a really great time to be able to sit and think about the film," James said. "You get so busy with all the other stuff, you need to unplug and just … remind yourself of what you're trying to accomplish."