Can you imagine filming moments of a stranger's life for years on end? From Hoop Dreams to The Up Series, filmmakers occasionally piece together remarkable stories from this kind of unparalleled documentation. Are they brave, genius, or completely mad? Susan Motamed, who has worked with filmmakers from Alex Gibney to Martin Scorsese, and produced a slew of docs including Oscar Nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, answers with her experiences on filming this way with Girl, Adopted -- which is currently streaming for free.
Here is the trailer for Girl, Adopted, which will be available from PBS for free for one more week:
NFS: How did you become interested in producing to begin with? What’s your background?
SM: I loved documentaries since I was a kid. My dad and I used to watch public TV together: cooking shows and documentaries. And there was something about that boundary between journalism and filmmaking that really captivated me. When I graduated from college and moved to NY, I started working in documentaries. I worked for a great old-school documentarian, Robert Richter, back in the days when documentary filmmakers were called Producers, not Directors. I came up writing and researching and working as an assistant editor and as a production coordinator, basically doing whatever needed doing at any stage in the production, and I just got lucky. I think this is the work I'm most suited for, partly because it's always changing. You can never get bored making documentaries because each film is like a Master's Thesis in a new subject, and each phase of the film or show requires different skills. It's always something new: new places, new people, new technology.
NFS: Your latest film, Girl, Adopted, is a documentary that follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl named Weynsht for over four years as she is adopted by a family in Pyatt, Arkansas, of all places. How did you get access to this story and find the subjects?
SM: The film we set out to make and the film we made are really different. Eight years ago my co-producer/director, Melanie Judd, and I went to Ethiopia to research a documentary about the adoption of Ethiopian kids by American families. It was a time when the AIDS crisis in Africa was a constant front-page story. We wanted to make an observational film about the adoption of a few kids into different American families and create a portrait of that incredible journey. When we got to the orphanage, we were really taken with the oldest kids there. They were such typical teenagers in a universal way, and they were also Ethiopian orphans, and about to go to live with total strangers in a strange land. Initially the film was about 5 of these kids, and our main subject, Weynsht was one of them. It was going to follow 5 kids and their new families (assuming they all were chosen) for their first year after adoption.
After a year and a half or so, we realized the film was not done. We didn't have an ending and we couldn't find one that felt worthy of such a dramatic beginning. And over time we realized that we needed to make a longer film about one family, and that for a variety of reasons, Weynsht was the kid we would continue to follow. We knew Weynsht (and all the kids) first, before they were adopted. Then, as they were chosen by parents, we approached the parents and begged them to let us document their meeting, and their first year together. It evolved from there.
NFS: Logistically, it seems like such a monumental undertaking to follow a subject for this long -- Weynsht is now 21. Can you explain what it is like to follow someone’s life for this long?
SM: It's a blessing and a curse. I feel immensely privileged to have been able watch this incredible young woman grow and develop over so many years. She has remarkable parents, too, and we were so fortunate to get to know them and to learn from them over all these years. And Melanie and I have Weynsht in our hearts forever, as well as the other kids we followed, well beyond the parameters of the film.
But it's also a lot to ask of someone, to be that much in their face and in their lives. There were times when they really didn't want us to film because they had other stuff going on in their lives and in their family, and we did a lot of begging. And as a filmmaker I am always acutely aware of wanting it to be a fair trade. The subject should be getting as much out of it as the filmmaker (in proportion to their involvement). So, as you spend more and more time invading someone's family life with a camera, you wrestle with that equation: is this still fair to them? Or at least we wrestled with it.
NFS: How did you get the family to agree to stick it out for this long?
SM: We sort of had to re-negotiate as it went on. Originally, Weynsht's parents only agreed to let us film their first meeting. Then we had to get them to let us go film with them in Ethiopia, and then when they went home to Arkansas, which was not easy -- they are really private people. In the beginning, I think they hoped that they were going to inspire other families to step up and adopt. As things got harder, they had to really examine their willingness to keep participating in the film.
They did not make it easy for us -- it wasn't like they said: please, bring your camera into our home, whenever you want! They were very protective of Weynsht and of their other kids’ privacy, and ultimately, even though it made our job really difficult, it helped because we knew they were twice as protective of Weynsht as we were. We were very aware of not wanting to exploit Weynsht or expose her too much. We wanted to tell what she wanted tell, and protect her privacy. And I think the limits on shooting, while they made it really hard to have enough coverage in the edit room, helped us to keep a safe distance, if that makes sense.
NFS: Do you think anything changes in the dynamic of a family when a camera crew is filming them? How did the cinematographers embed themselves in the family?
SM: It definitely changes things to have a camera present. Undoubtedly. That said, it is amazing how people can forget about the presence of a camera over time. Not fully forget, but maybe willfully ignore. And that's when the great stuff happens. We always shot as a crew of 2 or 3. Melanie filmed when we didn't have money for camera people, and we did our own sound. And the other shooters came in stages over the many years of making the film. They were doc cameramen and were pretty good at just being quiet and observational, and each had their own relationships with the families. I think Weynsht's dad always liked talking to the cameramen about what they worked on, and where they had traveled. That part was easy.
NFS: Do you form bonds with these subjects, or do you stay removed?
SM: Ha! If only! We form bonds.
Melanie and I both have kids who were between 4 and 8 when we started the film, and we were really emotionally connected to what we were witnessing. I think almost every time Weynsht or her mom cried in an interview, I cried, too. That was a lot of crying, especially for my side of the camera! I think in a lot of ways, we filmmakers form stronger bonds (or imagined bonds) than the subjects of the film do, because we spend literally months with them in the edit room. Tiny throw-away moments in their lives, and a week spent together shooting with us, get relived by us in the edit room for many weeks, and start to feel frozen in amber in a way that I don't think Weynsht and her family can really grasp. But regardless, none of us knew what we were getting into when we started and it all got pretty complicated and intense, and it made us all close. We all had to really learn to trust and respect each other.
NFS: Weynsht and her parents have such moving thoughts they share in the film -- how did you execute the interviews that generated these responses?
SM: So much of the film is narrated by Weynsht and her parents. Originally we had hoped to make a verite film that had these kind of artificially set up 2 person dialogues interspersed like a Greek chorus. Early in the film, you see Weynsht and her friend Tizita participating in this interview 'game' and later Weynsht and her sister interview each other, and that's a vestige of that technique.
Over time, we also realized that we needed to interview the characters as a kind of backup to have another layer of material to draw from, especially in the early part of the film, where the verite was thin (because we had been filming with multiple characters originally, and needed less from each one of them). We also relied on the interviews to just understand where they were in the process and in their heads. Eventually, those interviews became really valuable because they allowed us to tell the story much more directly using Weynsht’s and her parents' own words as they had said them to us. It was pretty late in the process that we finally really embraced the narration-through-interview solution, but we were glad to have collected the interviews along the way because Weynsht’s mastery of English changed a lot overtime and that limited what we could use when, and also we were able to capture some of the emotions when they were immediate. This is a very interior film. So the voices had to be believable for each point in the emotional journey (to overuse an overused word).
NFS: Did you edit the story over the course of filming for 5+ years, or did you start editing once you had all the footage in the can?
SM: Both. We were editing as we shot the initial multi-character film, and that's how we knew it wasn't coming together yet. We edited this film a lot over the years. We would cut for a few months, then shoot some more, then cut again. But in the end, when we brought on our last editor, we knew we had the film largely in the can, and that any shooting we would need to do would be to fill in gaps in interviews or get B-roll, and to shoot the visuals for the chronological end of the film.
So we talked about the story we wanted to share, and Fiona [Otway] really helped us lay out the structure and then adhere to it. We lost some stuff we really loved in that process, including, I think a bunch of laughs and some moments that really made Weynsht appear as lovable as she is, but ultimately, we had to privilege having a story with a beginning, middle, and end over all the little extras we loved. And it seems like viewers still feel like they're getting a nuanced portrait of the experience, so I'm satisfied.
NFS: You got funding from ITVS. Can you talk about what it’s like to get funding through that channel?
SM: It is really hard to get funding from ITVS. You go through several rounds of elimination, and it takes months, and you do a lot of work for each round, and then you get rejected. It's grueling and a lot of work. And it's so worth it! They are an amazing organization. They truly support independent filmmakers in such a comprehensive way. I am so, so grateful for all the funding we got to make this documentary: from The Sundance Documentary Fund, Chicken & Egg, and Impact Partners. But along with the funding from ITVS, comes a wealth of resources that I wasn't aware of before. I'm a big fan. Of course not every film can wait to go through such a long funding process, but I guess that's the upside of spending 8 years on a project!
NFS: What do you think it takes to be a good producer?
SM: I think the strongest producers are the people who know about all aspects of filmmaking. They should know about technology and technique, and be able to solve problems with the crew. And I can really only speak to documentaries here, as I have no experience in narrative or episodic TV. But the producer needs to kind of be the command center of the production. I think it helps to be good with budgets and also to be a strong writer, especially if you are raising money. And the more people you know, the better, as it seems you are forever asking people for favors.
It helps to be a flexible thinker, and to be patient, as nothing ever goes as planned.
It can be especially challenging when you are the producer and the director, because it's hard to know which voice to listen to: the one that says, "We have to have this. This is a great idea. Money is no object!" or the one that says, "We have to preserve limited resources. We don't know what's coming down the road. Let's be efficient and not impulsive." In case you weren't sure, the second voice was the producer voice.
Thank you, Susan!
If you want to watch Girl, Adopted you can stream it for free here -- but only until October 29th!
Have you ever attempted to film a subject for a long period of time? What do you think about the relationship between subject and documentarian? What do you think about the documentation of the coming-of-age in Girl, Adopted?