Under the Microscope: Lessons In Personal Doc Filmmaking From The Outsider’s POV

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Patrick Lile, co-producer of Unbroken Glass.  I’ve been working with Dinesh on his film since May 2012.  From time to time I’ll take to this space to reflect on my own experiences of making the film, sometimes touching on my unique position of collaborating with a person who is both filmmaker and protagonist.

Personally, I hate having my picture taken.  In fact, I’ve been told that for being a decently attractive person, I’m downright ugly in photos.  It’s true and I’m okay with it because hopefully it dissuades photographers from taking any additional photos.   I suppose I’m a bit hypocritical because I do enjoy taking photos and video. I don’t want to be analyzed, I want to do the analyzing.  The person who holds the camera has the power to show the subject however they see fit.  Considering that, I sometimes wonder why people ever agree to participate in documentaries?  Yes, I suppose the answer is to highlight a cause or a message, but to be under that microscope for weeks, months and years at a time takes its toll.  I’ve seen the mounting toll while shooting Unbroken Glass, as Dinesh plays the dual role of being subject and filmmaker.  By turning the camera upon himself, Dinesh has not only been put in a position where he must self-analyze, but he has trusted myself, editor Matt Lauterbach, and cinematographer Ian Kibbe to challenge his boundaries and serve as the microscope.

Yet, over the course of collaborating with Dinesh on Unbroken Glass, my instincts sometimes have led me down a road that he didn’t want to take.  Maybe I was prying too much or maybe he knew the answers weren’t engaging enough to pursue, but by working with the main protagonist of a documentary who just so happens to also be the director, it has forced me to reevaluate all director/subject relationships. In some of the documentary classes I have taught, I have stressed to my students the importance of documentary ethics, the fine balance you need to strike with the subjects that you are making a film about.  Sticking a camera into someone’s personal life is anything but natural and the definitive “Miss Manners Guide To How To Treat Your Doc Subjects” has yet to be written (note to self – write Miss Manners Guide To How To Treat Your Doc Subjects).  But at the end of the day, we are people first and filmmakers second (except for Werner Herzog, he’s is actually a cyborg first.)

The most generic answer of why I wanted to work on Unbroken Glass is to gain the experience of co-producing a feature documentary, a Kartemquin film to boot.    However, the more time I spend with theUnbroken Glass footage, re-writing treatments, and getting to know the Sabu family, a career opportunity has become a personal project for me as well.  I will never know what Dinesh and his family have gone through, but I know my own family has a shit ton of shit that we should talk about that we never will.  Resentment, blame, divorce, trauma, divorce again, every family in the world has their own baggage.  It might be Dinesh under the microscope, but recently as I sat across from him unloading a series of questions with a camera just over my left shoulder, the questions I asked felt very autobiographical.  I dug in deep about Dinesh’s parents’ marriage, his relationship with his siblings, and closing in on this thirtieth birthday.  The specifics are unique to the Sabus, but the problems are universal.

In my own films, I’ve had some experience capturing a subject when they were showing signs of breaking down. One time early on, I brought one of the toughest men I ever met to tears, I quietly told my cameraman, “Okay.  Enough. Cut.”  However, his instincts as a cameraman were to unknowingly keep rolling and have me decide what to do with the footage once the heat of the moment had cooled down.  In that minute of footage, I probably had the most honest and revealing admission of truth, a scene any filmmaker would dream to have captured, but to this day I’m the only person to have ever laid eyes on that clip.

My experience working with Dinesh on Unbroken Glass reminds me of that interview where the subject broke down crying. He and his family trusted me, allowed me into the most private moments of their lives with the hope something could be learned from their pain. Today, with Unbroken Glass I’m asking myself the same questions.  The relationship is different with Dinesh than previous subjects, but the lessons are all the same.  Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll find the will to turn the camera on myself and make a personal documentary of my own.