Do you have the courage to point the camera every day, at everyone around you?
Reid Davenport is a filmmaker. He also happens to be a visibly disabled person.
What does that mean? As you begin to understand in I Didn’t See You There, it means time and again, people gawk at you, in crosswalks, on the subway. Sometimes they try to help (when it’s not needed). Other times, they just stare. Or even honk. And it’s fucking annoying.
In his film, Davenport turns the gaze on everybody else. In the style of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson or Chantal Akerman’s News From Home, Davenport creates a film shot entirely from his first-person lens. The result is an aggravating portrait of what it's like to be an unwilling participant in our culture’s rude curiosity and spectacle of the "other." Davenport's camera reveals what it’s like to be looked at, but not seen.
Davenport spoke with No Film School after the film’s premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival to talk about making his feature documentary.
No Film School: At No Film School, we're obviously obsessed with cameras. In I Didn’t See You There, you actually begin the film by mentioning your new camera helped you focus more on the cinematography on shapes and patterns, rather than meanings and words. What was it and why was it the right camera for this film?
Davenport: I used the DJI Osmo, and it's made for drones, and I picked it because it's stable on all three axes, has a gimbal, and I control it either with my phone or my tablet. I can control the exposure and the color profile via the app, which is really easy to handle. It's relatively inexpensive so when I break it, which just happened, I just buy a new one. It's not that big of a deal.
NFS: What was your strategy for deciding what to film? For example, did you decide to film everything you did on every single day, or did you have certain times or rituals in mind to capture?
Davenport: It would really depend on the day. Experimental is definitely kind of a dirty word for filmmaking, but this was generally experimental in that I was seeing what would look good, what people would add to, and just testing it out. I did the majority of the shooting before COVID. Of course, the past two years [under COVID] have been such a blur for me that it's hard to say what my process was. It was something like, I'll go out and I'll see what I get, and then I'll go back and see what looks good and what doesn't look good, notice what do I want to talk about, and things of that nature.
NFS: After that process of seeking the footage in this experimental process, was the editing a challenge?
Davenport: I feel very fortunate to have worked with an amazing editor, Todd Chandler, who really crafted the film. He is also a musician and I like to think that he crafted this film like a song, always attaching it to rhythm.
NFS: I could really see that, how some of the film structure had a musicality to it. The footage takes on a rhythm of its own.
Davenport: The other really cool thing about working with Todd is that I had my selects and he had his selects, and we have mostly the same shots in both. So we knew from the get-go that we would more or less have the same footage. He is such a brilliant editor that he was able to take what could be kind of monotonous footage and really bring it to life.
NFS: You mention something in the film about having “failed at conventional career paths” and then instead becoming an artist. It made me wonder about becoming a filmmaker, if there’s a certain sensibility that makes you good at art but bad at conventional careers. Of course, it’s a challenge to actually make a living as a filmmaker. Do you have a philosophical opinion about that?
Davenport: I've tried very hard not to be prescriptive with the film, but I was alluding to the fact that I couldn't get a job out of college. I watched all my friends get very good jobs out of college and I could not, despite doing pretty well academically and having the internships and all that good stuff, and I wasn't making it. So it's alluding to whether being an artist was really a choice for me.
It wasn't like, “Oh I'm not going to work for the man.” That would have been cool, but it wasn’t like that.
NFS: What was it like to bring the camera into every moment of your life? I feel like, if you’re being hired as a cinematographer, you don’t feel weird about holding and pointing the camera. But for that same person, to actually bring a camera around into your own real life, and just point it, that’s quite scary. Is that a muscle that you build and become braver about? How did it work for you?
Davenport: There are many people out there whose first film was a personal film. That’s what I did. It was very cathartic to me, and I think that is one of the reasons I wanted to make films. It was such a good experience because I was able to express some frustration. And I talk about in the film about growing up with a disability. That felt cathartic.
With this film, however, I'm not sure I can quite put my finger on it but, it made me feel even more vulnerable. I think it's about shooting, and then figuring out what is too much, too vulnerable.
NFS: In the film, someone approaches you about how they're impressed seeing you travel all across town. Your response is that “everyone has their shit,” which I interpreted to mean everyone has their challenges in life. What would be your advice to other filmmakers, whatever their shit is, on making films?
Davenport: I'd say patience is necessary. It's really hard to make a film that you go out and seek. The film really has to come to you. I think you have a much better chance of making a film that you will be proud of, if the film comes to you.