When Should a Filmmaker Become Part of Their Own Movie?
Three Netflix documentarians decided to put themselves on screen, for three very different reasons.
Sometimes, the story of a documentary film is best told by inserting the filmmaker into the tale and onto the screen. This could be due to something the filmmaker experienced, or something they did, or when they serve as a narrator or host. The filmmaker might have a personal connection with the story, or due to budget or access, the film becomes more doable when the filmmaker serves a function onscreen.
At DOC NYC PRO’s panel When the Filmmaker is Part of the Story, three directors who feature themselves in the documentaries they brought to DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in America, sat down to discuss why they made the choices they did, and how those choices were implemented in their productions.
"If I was in the film I knew I wasn’t going to quit."
Bryan Fogel shot Icarus looking to show how easy it is for an athlete to take steroids and avoid detection. His movie grew into an investigation of the Russian doping scandal.
“I wanted to find an athlete and convince him [or her] to dope for the greater good,” Fogel shared. The idea was to convince an athlete that being filmed taking drugs wouldn’t cost a career because they would be showing that the system wasn’t working. Fogel came to realize that asking someone other than himself to dope raised the issues of paying that person, the collusion involved, and that this would be a years-long process with a rogue element: a person who could quit at any time. Fogel decided to serve as the system-cheating guinea pig himself: “I am the most passionate one about the story,” he said. “If I was in the film I knew I wasn’t going to quit.”
Skype calls feature heavily in Fogel’s film, and the how-to of shooting those included Fogel setting up two Canon C300s, plus a small digital camera, and using screen capture on his computer. “I had an on/off, on/off, on/off relationship with my DP,” he shared. “It was a variable as to whether a shoot was planned, or something where we didn’t know if it would be important but we simply had to film it.”
Yance Ford’s film Strong Island, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance 2017, is a meditative look at racial injustice in America, and the effect the murder of his black brother by a white mechanic had on his family in the following years. One of Ford’s first decisions was that he wouldn’t appear on camera, but as the filmmaking progressed he found himself serving as the connective tissue of the film, a narrating presence both personally tied to the tragedy and able to contextualize the event with contemporary American issues of injustice.
For Ford, the physical conditions around when he was on camera were important. He pre-directed the crew, instructing them not to tell him the questions ahead of time, and not to stop rolling. They constructed a wall of sound blankets, so that all he could see were the lenses. “I needed to be as alone in that space as possible,” he reflected. “These killings take out entire families.” Making connections between his family’s suffering and historical injustice was easier to do when he didn't feel that he was in front of an audience.
Jeff Orlowski, of Chasing Ice fame, came to the festival with Chasing Coral. Coral loses its vibrant color as it gets stressed, and this dramatic change of coral bleaching serves as a visual symbol of climate change in the film.
“Visual evidence is more effective than graphs and stats,” Orlowski advised. “We wanted to use images to combat some of the skepticism.” Orlowski hadn’t wanted to be featured in this film, but the burden of building the technology to capture the bleaching event fell to him and his team. “We invented the world’s first underwater solar panel application,” he shared. “The technology became the key to making the footage work,” and that became a key element to the story.
These filmmakers believe that putting themselves in their films ultimately provided stronger stories than if they had remained behind the camera. Ford recalled that at least one person at every screening he has been to with the film has self-identified as a survivor of a homicide. Fogel took evidence he collected to the New York Times, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the International Olympic Committee. While filmmakers frequently ask their subjects to rephrase the question in the answer, his use of yes/no questions proves quite effective. “Were you the mastermind that cheated the Olympics?” he asks Dr. Grigory Rodchenko, a Russian scientist who ended up fleeing Russia for his life. Rodchenko answers, “Yes.”
Orlowski is seeing his commitment to shine a light in dark places begin to cross political lines. “There is no business-as-usual if we don’t address climate change now,” he said. “This is a science problem and a policy problem, and the question is how do we leverage policies that work with both Democrats and Republicans to address this properly?” Orlowski has seen someone self-described as alt-right on Twitter promoting the film, and one big conservative donor reached out for talking points before his meeting with Republicans after his son told him about the film. Chasing Coral is bigger than politics, and it has the potential to reframe the issue of climate change for those who have somehow continued to think of climate change as a political issue.
To see the effectiveness of their decisions for yourself, Chasing Coral, Strong Island, and ICARUS are all available on Netflix now.