POV @ 25: Jennifer Fox and Cristina Ibarra on Doc Filmmaking as an Act of Faith

In celebration of the 25th season of PBS’ groundbreaking documentary series POV, Filmmaker is this week running a four-part conversation series between two non-fiction directors with close ties to the show. A few weeks ago, acclaimed documentarian Jennifer Fox — whose 20-year project, My Reincarnation, kicks off the 2012 POV season this Thursday — and The Last Conquistador director Cristina Ibarra, a relative newcomer to the non-fiction scene, sat down to talk about a variety of issues that arise from their work. Despite radically different backgrounds and, at the time of the conversation, being literally continents apart — NYC resident Fox was in Amsterdam, talking to Ibarra over Skype — the two found much common ground and dug in deep in their discussion of the documentary craft.

In this penultimate part, the two directors discuss the extent to which making a non-fiction film is, by necessity, an act of faith.

Cristina Ibarra: I’ve made one feature documentary and a lot of short films. And I’m working on my second [feature] now. And I think, for me, there is this faith that there’s something here. And I think that since I’m the oldest in an immigrant family, I was always the one that’s going through things first and I think in some ways that it’s helped me to take that approach in my filmmaking. And I think that it’s okay if I’m doing this; some people might not like the subject or believe there’s any layers to this, but speaking about it with my friends, speaking about it with my family and figuring out how I feel about the subject and the idea [I believe in it]. And despite hearing rejection, I think that it’s just a faith that there’s something [there]. There’s a faith in yourself and I think a lot about the people that came before me; there’s these empowerment films of the Chicana movement like Luis Valdez and these people who have really opened the doors already. And I feel like I’m kind of also stepping on their shoulders as well. I don’t know if you’d call it a responsibility, but it’s this passion of, “What else can we do? Where else can we go from here?” Just using this subject I’m exploring and thinking about what my ancestors have done and how I fit in with that and dialogue with that a little a bit. And just having this love for where I’m from. It is about faith and using all the lessons learned from the failures and the mistakes and past works and successes, and just trying to grow and learn despite the people that aren’t excited about it. That’s what keeps the passion alive.

Jennifer Fox: I guess I have made quite a bit of work by now, but all of my work has always taken many, many years and I’ve tried never to do the same films twice. And that means, in terms in funding, your partners are never the same film to film. I’ve never actually had the same funding pattern, because you’re starting again each time on very different subjects or very different languages, or different markets. Beirut: The Last Home Movie took six years to make and An American Love Story, which is a ten-hour piece,took seven [years]; Flying, which is a six-hour piece, took six [years]. And then My Reincarnation, twenty years.

But I think that if one were to look at it, in my case, I’ll have an idea and usually everybody thinks it’s a bad idea. And I play it around for a while and everybody telling me it’s a bad idea is useful because I keep thinking, “Well, how can I make this work? How can I make this work?”

And that goes on for a while and I usually am following something very esoteric. Like with Flying, it was how women speak, which is not a filmable idea. But once I hook onto an idea, I have an inner voice that drives me pretty strongly despite the fact that people are telling me I’m wrong. I’m okay with that and going through the long-term process of filmmaking and editing. But I have to say with My Reincarnation, I did not have that inner voice at all. What happened is, I had a subject which was a very special Buddhism teacher; and I had access to this teacher. And about after four years of filming him I thought, “This film is impossible to make.” And after that I tried to get rid of the film for about 16 more years.

So, I kept thinking, “Oh, this impossible, it’s going to ruin my career.” It did not have this inner voice, but it had this love of the subject. I was really scared. I was scared because I didn’t really see a story manifesting and I’m really narrative-driven. If I can’t see a narrative in front of me, I’m pretty much lost.

You know, there have been many beautiful spiritual films without narratives; Into Great Silenceis a great example. But that’s not me, so I kept filming this teacher and his son waiting for a narrative to appear. And it really was 18 years into filming; and most of those 18 years I was really uncomfortable. And I didn’t have almost any funding—a dribble here, a dribble there. So a lot of it was me feeling responsible. I felt really responsible to the subject, that I was the only one with access to this great Tibetan master and this incredibly special, yet endangered, esoteric teaching and if I didn’t manifest something, it would never manifest. So rather than having a clear vision of the film, I did not.

I think I was driven out of responsibility and love for the subject and out of that didn’t come faith like you know it. Not faith like, “Oh gee, I’m just going to follow it and I’m very comfortable.” I was incredibly uncomfortable for 18 of those 20 years. It wasn’t like a happy adventure, whereas Flying took six years to make and I think I knew what I was doing. As weird a film as that is, you know a film that is really crossing a lot of languages. And My Reincarnation turned into a really simple narrative about a father and a son.

So I guess it is about faith, but I can’t say it’s just faith. For me, every film has a different key and I guess with My Reincarnation it was a sense of responsibility to a subject that I was privileged enough to be inside of, for whatever reason; for no good reason—I’m not a Buddhist, I just happened to have this access.

Ibarra: I think from what I’m hearing, I’ll say you’re just embracing the doubt. That even though you weren’t quite sure, it was something you just had to keep doing. You were embracing it.

Fox: Yeah, I embraced the doubt because I didn’t… You know that old saying “There’s no way out but through”? Filmmaking’s a lot like that: you just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going and just keep asking yourself, “How can I do this? What’s the story? How can I tell this?” In this case, “How can I translate this very secret, esoteric knowledge to something accessible? Where’s the story in it?”

There’s all these things but there’s also something my dad told me that I want to share because it saved my life and entire filmmaking career. He said, “If you judge success by time, you will always fail. But if you let go of time, you will always succeed. Or can always succeed.” So, with My Reincarnation, you know, year ten there was still hope for that film. Year fifteen, there was still hope for it. You know, “It’s not a failure, it just isn’t finished yet.” And that’s a really useful thing for documentary filmmakers: it will be finished when it’s finished. Just keep going until the story you need to tell is there.

Ibarra: How do you know? You just know? [laughs]

Fox: Well, I think that’s a really good question. For me, because I’m a narrative-driven filmmaker, I know when I have enough narrative to hold the content I’m trying to convey. And again, that’s pretty weird because I’ve made a 10-hour film, and I’ve made a six-hour film, and a two-hour feature, and a 100-minute feature.

So, for me, there isn’t one rule, but usually you have a certain amount of message or content that you’re trying to communicate. You have a thesis and the thesis sometimes takes six hours and sometimes takes 10 minutes and sometimes takes two hours. So the thesis determines when you have finished shooting. Or when you have enough story. Or how many hours it should be. For me, that’s the way I decide when it’s over. A lot of broadcasters have asked me, “When’s it gonna be over? Okay, Jennifer, how do you know when to stop shooting?” And I always know when to stop shooting. They just don’t believe me!

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