Watching and Listening and Letting it Happen

I got a video camera in the mid 90s to capture the usual home-movie shenanigans when my child was born. I was nearing the end of my decade as a freelance magazine writer and photographer. Up to that point — including when I first started making photographs in junior high school — I was largely uninterested (much to my mother’s chagrin) in documenting family life.

I rekindled my interest in photography (for my own purposes) at the dawn of the digital age. And I moved from tape to digital video as soon as the technology (and price) allowed. I recorded all kinds of things — much of it event-centered enough to qualify as proto-documentary. On a list of goals I made around that time, I wrote “learn to make documentary films.”

Seven plus years of grad school later in 2004 I got a job teaching journalism (print and internet, including photo, audio, and video) at Missouri State University in a department that included a film program. Ten years after that I began producing my first “real” documentary film — two actually. Shared Spaces was a short that I pulled from act 2 of Downtown: A New American Dream.

Rich Hillfirst on my list — struck me like a freight train. I hadn’t actually thought about how I wanted to make documentary films. The sprawling mess that is Downtown: A New American Dream demonstrates clearly what I was thinking: do journalism.

My previous post talks briefly about direct cinema. And I say that I am still on that journey. I have yet to produce my own Rich Hill. But I’m getting there step by step. You can see the progress in Witness at Tornillo and A Vietnam Peace Story.

What struck me about Rich Hill was how the filmmaker watched, listened, and let the story happen (setting aside for a moment how much a/the filmmaker’s choices in filming and editing create a/the story). No formal interviews on camera. Much of the audio is captured as life happens or in unobtrusive asides. Visual sequences are complete and telling without resorting to visual clichés. And the cinematographer does what I love best — she works closely and intimately with the subjects.

My plan is to deal with my list — and some other films — first, and then I will begin a short series of essays in which I work out my own documentary dogma.

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