Subject/Author

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A couple of weeks ago we were shooting in Albuquerque with my sisters. There was a moment when I revisited the bookshelves I had grown up with. I had the pleasure of growing up with a ton of books: children’s books, science fiction serials, far too much Kurt Vonnegut for one household, the stuff my brothers were in to, and perhaps most important for the documentary, books that my father had collected over the course of his life. A first edition of Vivekanda’s Complete Works, an audio book of The Secrets of Power Negotiating, Gandhi’s autobiography: a lifetime of curiosity left behind in books.

As we were shooting, I started to remember this child in love with his dad, a child who would try to understand his mind through the books he left behind. I remember as a kid, sitting in front of those two towering bookshelves full of awe and wonder. What kind of man owned a copy of Mathematics for Fun and Pleasure? Just what kind of advice was contained in I’m OK, You’re OK?

I pulled down one of a three-volume set of stories of Krishna written for children. Suddenly I remembered the story where his mother Yashoda looks into baby Krishna’s mouth and sees the whole universe. Funky illustrations. I was perched on the edge, about to go down this rabbit hole of experience and memory. For people who shoot a lot of doc, you’ve probably encountered this moment before, when your subject more or less forgets, (or stops caring) about the camera, and really begins to have a visceral experience.

But at that moment, my cameraperson started shooting cutaways. A microphone wire was coming out of my pocket; it needed to get tucked in. I guess I had a pimple or blemish that needed some attention before he felt he could get a shot of my face. This is not an entirely unreasonable thing to ask a subject. Being behind the camera, I’ve often had to intervene to fix a faulty mic or some such.

Right before I was a documentary subject in a moment of vulnerability. In the current moment, I was asked to be the director of this project again. I looked up and saw two people telling me that I was remembering incorrectly, I didn’t look the right way. I needed to make a case for why it was more important to simply keep rolling and capture this visceral experience, mic cord and blemish notwithstanding.

But I couldn’t do that. I basically just shut down. “I’m done,” I said.

Looking back, in front of those bookshelves, I really wanted to capture that experience, a man remembering himself as child. I could nearly touch that sense of longing and awe. Instead I fear that this scene is of a grumpy man looking at books.

This is yet another challenge of directing a personal documentary. When are you you, and when are you theauthor? Long ago I realized that there is no actual way to represent my self in the documentary. Doug Block, director of 51 Birch Street and a great advocate for personal documentary, writes that it’s better to consider yourself a character in a film, than trying to represent some kind of essential self.

This is a crucial distinction to make, but one that I feel people have to remind themselves of often. You’re seeing yourself in the edit room, you hear your nasal voice, see your bad posture, etc. Like any project, you have a choice of how to represent your subject. Do you take out the bad completely, take out the good completely, combine them both in some way that you hope resembles, or at least points to the truth? Do you labor to make clear some kind of visceral experience? And what kind of truth is that? Whose truth? The gamble is that as doc filmmakers we can at the very least represent some kind of real experience. But when it’s you yourself, how do you begin?

So far my compass has been my own experience and sense as a person and artist, guided by some really talented collaborators. There have been many times in the editing room, where some cultural or familial thing makes no sense to my editor. There have been moments that I found incredibly poignant, but outside of my personal experience mean little. Deep down, though, we all know how to tell stories, especially our own. We do it all the time in such tiny ways.

This is not unlike the process of making a “normal” documentary. You get sucked into a story: tiny things are blown out of proportion, big things seem to be less important. Most of the rough cuts I’ve seen are this process at work, filmmakers figuring out how much significance to give different things. I think one of the marks of a good documentary is the ability for its author to go on that journey, return, and tell something meaningful to the audience its meant for.

I’d like to think that when I complete this documentary, the experience of being both subject and author of making significant a potentially insular story will only make me a better filmmaker. Understanding what it’s like being in front of the camera, the stakes of telling your story publicly could cultivate a kind of sensitivity to apply to future subjects. After the experience in front of the bookshelves, I do have my doubts. Perhaps this whole experience will make me too cautious, too deferential. I fear that I might lose the essential boldness it takes to shoot a documentary. Until this is over and I can fully process it, I might have to remain a grumpy man looking at books.

Some thoughts on “Personal Doc”

Last week we had a visitor at Kartemquin, as we often do. Touring the building, a colleague introduced me like this: “Here’s Dinesh, he’s making a movie about his life.”

“What’s so special about your life that you’re making a doc about it?” She asked.

To which I replied, as artlessly as the introduction and the question itself, “It’s about my parents who died when I was young. My mother had schizophrenia.”

At this point she was a little taken aback, but I resented the question and didn’t mind.

One of the reasons I was a bit annoyed is that it’s actually a question I’ve been asking since I started making this documentary. I think it’s a question that most filmmakers ask themselves. Namely, what’s so special about this material that it warrants a film?

There are a number of assumptions loaded into the question itself. Shouldn’t all stories, if well told, be worthy of a documentary? Doesn’t everyone have one good documentary in them, just as they have one good novel? Or are some projects and stories worth more than others?

Anyone who has applied for funding and gotten rejected has at some point considered all of this. Criteria for the worthiness of projects must exist, and hopefully those are what funders are using to make decisions. Some funders expressly prohibit “personal doc.” Often times after I pitch the story, people will respond with some degree of apathy, “oh, a personal doc.”

Table now the notion of funding, (a different topic for a different time), and focus instead on the idea of personal documentary. Part of me wants to argue that most docs are personal. Unless you’re making a No End in Sight –type work, you’re probably telling in some degree the intimate story of a character. Personal documentary is that arbitrarily circumscribed area of stories with filmmakers making stories that they belong to. Why is that less valid? Are those stories less true? Is there some line between subject and author that we must pretend doesn’t get crossed? One that we perhaps pretend doesn’t get crossed in “normal” documentaries?

Is Michael Moore a personal documentarian, as he injects himself in his work, which is somewhat staged? I would argue not, at least not according to the conventional definition. How about Steve James in Stevie which partly addresses the relationship he had and has with his subject. At some point the term breaks down, it becomes useless.  I’d argue that with some noun adjustment at least 9 of Doug Block’s Ten Rules for Personal Doc are actually great rules for doc in general.

I guess what I’d like to ultimately question is the arbitrariness of the category of “personal doc.” Yes, many filmmakers can make indulgent work, often times including themselves, and some of the most unbearably indulgent work belongs to that category. But there’s plenty of unbearably indulgent work in other genres of documentary too.

When I first started shooting what would become Unbroken Glass, I hadn’t fully committed to making a documentary about it. I just had a lot of questions about my parents, and having the camera was a good excuse to have conversations that I had never had before. I thought that if I documented it, future generations of Sabus might find it interesting.

There was a moment where the story became bigger than just my family or just me. There was a moment when I realized that there might be some virtue to transmitting this story to a wider audience. The experiences my family had with mental illness, stories like that aren’t told, especially in the South Asian community. Telling this story has the potential to change attitudes and affect a community. Being able to tell this story means a lot to me as someone who’s lived through it. Telling it has helped me process, to make sense out of these events. And I think this is an occasionally incredible story that people want to hear.

But isn’t that why we tell any kind of story, personal or otherwise?

Independence Day

Memory is an interesting thing. I only have a handful of proper memories of my dad. One involved fireworks, I think it was Diwali or July 4 or some such. I have this image of my dad holding a long cylindrical firework. The fuse is burning while he’s holding it, and I’m worried that it’s going to explode. Then all of a sudden, he throws it way way up in the air, to the kind of stratospheric height that only your father can throw it if you’re 4 years old.

So it goes way way up in the air and then explodes into color.

When you’re young and an immigrant, it takes a little while before you realize you’re doing everything as a qualified-American. Qualified as Indian-American. (and only later do you start worrying about what it means to be an authentic Indian-American, if such a thing even exists.)

Christmas was not a religious occasion, but a chance for us to be Americans. The story I’ve been told is that in their early years here, my mother Susheela wanted to celebrate Christmas, she bought my sister a cylinder of Lego and my dad a tie. It didn’t go over so well. My dad, the frugal Marwari bania that he was, scolded her for wasting money on such frivolous things. But I think, and maybe there’s a version of this story that goes like this, he questioned the necessity of celebrating Christmas. Maybe he was afraid that he was losing something if we started celebrating Christmas. “We’re Indians,” he says, “we don’t celebrate Christmas.” “Yes but,” my mother responds in my mind, “we’re Indians in America.”

By the time I came along, the Christmas question was settled, and it was a rare occasion for getting vast amounts of presents.

So there’s that tension between wanting to embrace America and fit in, to not be the funny kid at school, and wanting to preserve some kind of culture. For me it was to understand what I saw when I looked in the mirror, the right way to pronounce my name, and the meaning of all of that.

There were both Indian and American holidays that we celebrated as kids. There was Rakhi, Holi, Diwali, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Much better writers and thinkers have captured the experience of being Indian-American.

But I’ll tell you this, at that age everything falls on the spectrum of experience. There are no Indian holidays and American holidays, at least not until you get a little older and start wondering about what you see in the mirror. When you got older you learned about the significance of July 4th and the American experiment, and this history of immigration and genocide that this country was founded upon. Later you looked at your textbooks with a sense of awe and continuity, thinking about the first settlers of this country, the later settlers like my Dad and Mom. You think about democracy and equality and justice, and not having parents you imagine what and why and the exact texture of their experience, the reasons they decided to participate in the experiment. Could they have imagined?

But as a kid, they were just holidays. With fireworks. And at least once—maybe it was Diwali, maybe it was Independence Day—my dad tossed one way way up in the air as it exploded.