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?