Decoded Arts attended Film Forum: Making Meaning at the Florida Film Festival on Thursday, April 16, 2015, at Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida.
Documentary filmmakers JP Eason, Jimmy Goldblum, Julie Sokolow, Christopher Walker, film subject Tony Sullivan, and Full Sail University professor Maylen Dominguez, who moderated the panel, presented their views on finding meaningful subjects and making films that change the world during a 90-minute panel discussion at the 2015 Florida Film Festival held throughout Central Florida in April. The film forum took place in Maitland, Florida, on the stage at Enzian Theater, producer of the 24-year-old festival.
The filmmakers shared their ideas on finding subjects and telling stories as they worked toward producing meaningful independent documentaries – even when social justice was not their primary goal.
While the specific topics addressed in their films include gay marriage, Asperger’s syndrome, poverty, and citizen’s rights, inevitably larger, more general issues that can change the world emerge through these smaller films.
Filmakers Discuss Finding Subjects
How can filmmakers find compelling characters and causes worth exploring cinematically? Documentary filmmaker JP Eason says it requires a leap of faith. “You have to let the project develop organically. With documentary film you don’t know where it’s going, and you just hope it’s going to turn out coherent and with a resolution. There’s a lot of uncertainly going into it.”
Eason, who didn’t have a film in this year’s Festival, works as a course director in the Film Production MFA program at Full Sail University, sponsor of the forum.
Jimmy Goldblum, co-director of Tomorrow We Disappear, a documentary about the forced relocation of New Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, an impoverished community of Indian artists, says he got the idea for the movie after reading about a “magician’s ghetto” in a book.
After doing online research on the subject, he became intrigued by the community and its plight, but remained uncertain about how to cover the subject.
“For documentaries, you need a really spectacular, well-thought out plan that you’re willing to abandon,” Goldblum says.
He and co-director Adam Weber spent three years attempting to document the impending relocation of the community of 2,800 families. As American filmmakers coming into a foreign location and situation, one of the first things they needed to do was find something they had in common with the subjects of their film.
By finding this point of commonality with them, it’s “like coming into the magician’s ghetto as artists working with artists,” according to Goldblum.
This strategy apparently worked. Featuring the struggle through the eyes of a puppeteer, a magician, and a young acrobat, Tomorrow We Disappear won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival.
Welcome to Leith co-director Christopher Walker (who co-directed with Michael Beach Nichols) also found his big idea through reading about it. “We discovered the subject in a newspaper and found it very appealing. It sounded like a western standoff, but we didn’t really know what it would be like until we got there,” he says.
The film, which won a Special Jury Award for Nonfiction Storytelling at the Festival, takes places in Leith, North Dakota, where a town with a population of just 24 residents confronts a white supremacist who purchased land there to create a local haven for neo-Nazis and other like-minded people.
With tempers flaring around town between both factions, Walker reveals it was necessary for the filmmakers to document everything relevant to the story, but not get personally involved in the unfolding drama.
“At first it was shock value, but then it turned into a straightforward documentary,” he says, adding that the ultimate test for filmmakers dealing with difficult subject matter is to ask themselves: “Does this do justice to the character?”
Tony Sullivan, one half of the same-sex married couple starring in Limited Partnership, agrees about the need for mutual cooperation and admiration.
Director Thomas G. Miller (who received an Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Festival) worked with Sullivan and his late partner, Richard Adams, for 14 years. The story, which chronicles their wedding in 1975 followed by years of discrimination and deportation threats, includes their federal lawsuit seeking equal rights for same-sex couples (the first lawsuit of its kind).
Sullivan says many filmmakers approached them over the years, but chose Miller to share their story because they felt most comfortable with him. “Even though we lived a public kind of life, we’re very private people… The film crew became part of our lives, but they were very unobtrusive, so we could react as we naturally do without being conscious of the film crew,” he says.
Occasionally subjects find the filmmakers rather than the other way around. Julie Sokolow, director of Aspie Seeks Love says David Matthews found her on Facebook and asked if she would chronicle his journey to find love as someone suffering from Asperger’s syndrome.
“He said he liked my work and wanted to tell me his story,” she says.
Sokolow stresses the importance of finding interesting characters with meaningful stories, but says it works both ways. “It’s important that the subject like the filmmaker, too.”
Telling Stories on Film
Telling stories that resonate with the audience and bring about positive change isn’t an easy challenge for any filmmaker. While developing the idea, shooting the film, and editing the footage, they need to keep in mind their audiences’ needs, their commitment to being fair and accurate to the subjects, and producing a work of art that lives up to his or her own aesthetic standards.
“Although many filmmakers don’t start out intentionally making social justice films, they turn out that way by showing the humanity of their subjects by empathetically approaching the subject matter and helping the audience fall in love with the individualized representation of a larger issue that society is facing,” Eason says. “Docs have been taking their cues from narrative features and using a single subject to be representative of a bigger cause. One movie might not change the world, but the cumulative affect has the power to change.”
In Tomorrow We Disappear, the filmmakers attempted to portray how the soon-to-be-displaced artists and the government officials saw themselves. In order to elicit empathy from audiences, they provided a political context for an introspective journey as artists prepared to leave the only home most of them had ever known. Although it’s important for audiences to feel something for the characters, filmmakers shouldn’t romanticize their subjects.
“You need to realize everything about your subject that’s honorable and dignified and give respect to that,” Goldblum says.
He describes his film as plot-driven because it follows the plans for relocation. “Plot is what’s happening in the external world…Subplot is what’s happening inside you, which is like emotionally this is who I am as a character and these are the things I care about,” he says. “If the plot and subplot don’t intersect in a way it just feels arbitrary. We know that these people are artists and we know that this thing is happening to them, but what the hell does it mean?”
Naturally, this search for meaning applies to individuals as well as communities. Sokolow describes her film’s subject, David, as the eternal outsider faced with a lifetime of teasing and bullying. Chronically misunderstood, David faced ongoing identity issues, according to the filmmaker.
“David was offering up his love life [for the documentary], which is very vulnerable for a lot of people,” Sokolow says. “He went on a first date with the camera right there. So it really helped us that he wanted to work with the story.
“We found the other people on the autism spectrum wanted an outlet to talk about dating, specifically, because on the autism spectrum there’s a 4 to 1 ratio of guys to girls. Finding a partner in life is difficult for all of them. The movie turned out to be a funny, romantic approach to advocacy.”
There’s nothing funny or romantic in Welcome to Leith. With a creepy soundtrack and escalating tension, the film sometimes feels like a thriller or horror story taking place in this small town of working class people. Curiously, Craig Cobb (the white supremacist at the center of the controversy) also admits on camera to having Asperger’s syndrome.
“It was important to show both sides of the issue,” Walker says. “Most of our job was just listening to what subjects had to say…and trying not to influence the story with our presence. We wanted to humanize both sides of the story.”
Sullivan admits some trepidation about having his own personal story revealed in a public film to be viewed and discussed by millions of others. Unaware of how the documentary was developing over the years, he says he felt initial embarrassment when he finally saw himself on film. Eventually, his embarrassment turned into gratitude.
“The thing I got most from the film…is I always knew how Richard felt about me by the love in his eyes,” Sullivan says. “We were each other’s best friends, which is what made the relationship really work.
“But you never really know when you’re in a relationship how you look at the other person. And it was very rewarding to realize when I saw us together that I looked at him with the same love he looked at me.”
Creating a Documentary Film Project
Compelling characters, leaps of faith, conflict resolution, flexibility, neutrality, respect for the subject, the ability to listen, a small story representative of a bigger picture, and gratitude for the magic of movies to unite the past and present – all vital components in making meaning. When these elements – or a combination of these elements – unite on film there’s a unique opportunity to help change the world, one person at a time.
“There’s an amazing, poignant moment when you recognize yourself in a movie,” Goldblum says.
That recognition of sameness can produce an empathetic tug on the heart that provides the first individual step toward change, which can lead to ripple effects throughout society. These small changes ultimately can lead to a shift in global consciousness.