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.