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The Beautiful Stubborn Loneliness of the Filmmaker-Shooter

Elizabeth Lo shooting on the set of Stray (photo by Ceylan Carhoglu)

Folks who go to artist residencies fall into one of three categories. There are the artists for whom the time and space is more an experiential tool (we’re looking at you, social practitioners), those who strike a healthy balance between socializing and accomplishing an elevated amount of creative work, and those who disappear into an antisocial work bunker, popping up only for communal feedings, knowing upon exiting into the real world they’ll be back in the trenches of freelance gigs, copyediting, teaching work and the reply-all emails that accompany them. I fall into the latter category.

Not long ago, I was at a residency, immersed in one such productivity bunker. At one dazed breakfast, I observed the talk of other artists—a mix of writers, poets, composers, visual and interdisciplinary artists. Before I knew it, a documentary filmmaker sat down next to me. With introductory banter, they probed into what I was working on. 

“Oh, just some experimental nonfiction,” I mumbled. “Editing like, 12 to 15 hours a day, munching through footage I’ve shot over 20 years.” 

“Oh—my editor’s working on my film right now. I’m here writing a book.” 

While the hands-off remote model of editing didn’t sound unusual to me, at that early moment it was fairly enviable, given the long night—until 3 a.m.—I’d spent taming time-based material. Somehow, this filmmaker was able to further extract from me my work history (lack of coffee is a liability), which includes being a producer and cameraperson for reality TV. At this, the documentarian perked up. 

“Oh. My partner is a producer in reality TV. But he doesn’t…”—the person smirked and dusted the air with a hand—“fool around with the camera.” 

The pointed implication: To handle instruments of making is a lowly toil. A pity, even. This particular person in front of me probably didn’t understand that my furrowed brow was not from fragile hurt but utter confusion. How could I explain that my physical labor was everything to me? How I loved cameras, that I have always loved cameras, not as an obsessive gearhead but because cameras have become the natural instrument with which I emotionally engage the world? Why wouldn’t you want to be fooling around with the camera? Also, who doesn’t love to fool around? Who doesn’t like sunshine and candy? 

While the conversation was a subtle irritant surely magnified by isolation, as I puttered back to my editing cave what resurfaced was a long history of interactions and dialogue I’ve witnessed within my documentary community around ideas of labor, hierarchy, authorship, crediting, funding and inequitable structures therein—just to name a few. Not to mention age-old unanswerable questions around definitions of art, artist, documentary and newer discussions of defining the artist–filmmaker. 

I’d often heard frustrations privately voiced by close filmmaker friends who choose to shoot their own work. In this so-called golden age of industrified documentary film, the increasingly dominant large-specialized-crew model of production casts a skeptical eye at director-as-camera. As my grumpy breakfast exchange made clear, the idea that a director would burden themselves with the shooting and even editing of their own work is viewed as the consequence of amateurism, the personal failure to follow what is apparently perceived as the natural career progression, like the tech CEO who no longer codes.

One might raise an eyebrow if Michael Moore or Ken Burns referred to themselves as artists, but at the same time persuasive, well-accepted cases have been made for the art of the pop provocateur, the art of finding the money, the art of vision, ideas and directing through collaboration, the art of managing and directing a creative team to amass an archive and sculpt histories. 

Poststructuralist Marxism posits that immaterial labor is more expansive and relevant to our current postindustrial economies. Or, as one of my students once joked during a heated debate, “Is emotional labor on par with labor that throws out your back?” As with so many discussions around documentary thought and its politics, these queries can ironically contort into neoliberal mental gymnastics. These are thorny, provocative questions better suited for those people with indefatigable intellectual energy for driving in circles, one of whom I am ultimately not (after all, I need to get back to editing). 

But. This much is true: Filming your own work is different. 

It’s a different relationship, it’s a different funding model and, in the absence of self-replication, it has very different career implications. To say this kind of filmmaker is special is to fall into the language trap of exceptionalism, exacerbating the problem of elitism in art (however one may define it). But it’s suspect not to recognize the fact that this mode of working might well fall under its own category of nonfiction filmmaking. At the very least, it should be considered overdue for discussion. 

What follows is a conversation that is directed, meandering, open and may even make the occasional swerve into the self-contradictory. This is not a thesis-driven manifesto posing “those who shoot” versus “those who hire the shooter.” Instead, this is a meditative discussion with seven documentary and experimental nonfiction filmmakers, taking place both right before and during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Christopher Harris

(still/here, Reckless Eyeballing)

Christopher Harris makes films and video installations that read African American historiography through the poetics and aesthetics of experimental cinema. His current project, Speaking in Tongues, is a 16mm experimental film collage of manually and optically altered original documentary and archival film that analogizes the discourse of racialized criminality and the carceral apparatus.

My undergraduate training was in a program more or less geared toward industrial, commercial narrative models of filmmaking. I thought that that was something I was interested in at the time, then I realized I was much more interested in other ways of working. That’s when I went on to study at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago). The whole experimental filmmaker model of the filmmaker working alone, or mostly alone, and fulfilling all or most of the roles in the production process appealed to me because it cut out a lot of problems with people. I guess you could say there’s a financial element involved in it. If you have a few million dollars, you can hire a lot of people who are really good at what they do—better than I am at what I do, technically. I can find somebody in every area technically better than me that I could hire if I had a lot of money, but I don’t. 

But there was another question involved. I create through my limitations, so having somebody technically proficient and being able to pay a bunch of specialists isn’t that appealing to me—possibly, that leads to a kind of aesthetic homogenization of work. I try to get the maximum impact out of minimal gestures based on what I know I can do technically. I’m always looking to learn new things, expand and experiment with new techniques, but I never repeat them. I’ll go back to people like Thelonious Monk. There were people who would say things like, “He doesn’t have any technique or anything like that.” The retort was, “He has all the techniques that he needs to say what he wants to say.” Right?

The film proceeds from the realities of my material limitations. I have access to this one camera. In the case of still/here, I’m driving around North St. Louis in a car scouting locations, going alone into dangerous spaces that are physically unstable. I’m going in and out alone. For still/here, I did go out with another colleague who shot some of the footage. Most of the time, it was me, but occasionally he was around to work with me, and I liked having him there because he has a great eye and we’re good friends. 

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about or watching mainstream documentary just because there’s so many other types of films I prefer to see that it’s enough work to catch up with those. I’m honestly quite surprised regularly when I see a film. Then it’s over and I see these long credits. I’m thinking, “My God, these people, they have all this kind of money.” I don’t really envy them. I think for me, I need a little bit of money, and a lot of time. 

David Osit

(Mayor, Thank You for Playing)

David Osit is an Emmy Award–winning director, editor and composer. His latest film, Mayor, premiered at the 2020 True/False Film Fest. Mayor is a real-life political saga following Musa Hadid, the charismatic Christian mayor of Ramallah.

With Mayor, early on it became apparent that it was not possible, for me, to manage a crew as I chased this mayor all around, in cars full of staff, etc. I was talking to a filmmaker who was recommending I free myself up and hire someone to shoot, but I felt my presence in the room was exactly right for the film. I tried to give myself instruction early on for the aesthetics of the filmmaking: I’m going to shoot only wide, wider than I normally would, I’m going to hold shots for 20 to 30 seconds longer than I normally would. All these rules created an aesthetic I really got excited about. The other obstacle was sound. Filming in these cavernous, Ottoman architecture–style rooms in Ramallah, sometimes the sound was atrocious. So, a sound person would have been great, but I also had this really strong relationship with the character. On two separate occasions I brought a PA, but it was not good. People shut down, people stopped being comfortable in the same way. 

There’s the benefit of filming a known figure. He’s often being interviewed, and I can film those interactions as vérité interactions. That does a lot of heavy lifting. It took about a year where he understood exactly what I was interested in. The last year of the filming over these past two years was the best part because we got to be collaborators.

When I’m filming, I’m always a stand-in for what the audience is feeling, a conduit. In the edit room, I immediately think of how can I transmit how I was filming behind the camera. There is this one scene in the film, where Israeli soldiers come to town hall to try and seize surveillance cameras, and there is a clash. What was shocking to me about filming that scene of violence was how banal it was to everyone else around me. The next day, in decompressing with everyone, I realized I was the only one for whom this was unusual. At which point, I realized this was normalcy, this was life under occupation. Everyone in the mayor’s office has had this experience since birth. And that became a part of the film—that emotional experience, of me being frightened while filming but keeping it together, [knowing] that I had a job to do—and then realizing that that fear was something I was bringing in exclusively.

My rules will change for any film I’m working on. But for this film, I was always thinking I’m never going to pretend I’m not there. That’s not an illusion I’m interested in. I’m quite aware that my presence is, quite literally, a character.

Stephanie Spray

(Manakamana, forthcoming Patagonia Park and Edge of Time)

Spray is a filmmaker, phonographer and anthropologist whose work explores and exploits the poetics of everyday life. Currently, she is at work on Patagonia Park and Edge of Time, both of which relate to climate change, the environment and scientific research.

My background is anthropology. The role of the ethnographer is to put themselves in the world, and [there is] this whole methodology of participant observation. The idea is that you participate in the activities that you are researching or studying, and there is a value in this empirical mode of engagement. So, for me, filmmaking was an extension of that. When I first started, I had already been living in another country and speaking another language for a long time. I wanted to find a new way to express the beauty and the everyday aesthetic that I saw around me that I couldn’t quite get at in writing. But I also wanted to have this creative engagement. I very much subscribe to Jean Rouch’s ciné-transe—this idea of the camera as an instrument that allows you to not romanticize but fall in love with your senses and the world around you. That doesn’t always happen. That’s something I chase after, and that comes with shooting.

There are several layers to it. There is the love of shooting, the love of being present. I feel the same way even when I’m shooting with my own family—which I’ve never made into a film—but the joy of observing and recording life. Of course, when Rouch was talking about ciné-transe, it was all about the embodied camera. So, that’s part of my practice. I don’t know if I would have the same connection if I didn’t shoot it. I must say, because I wasn’t professionally trained as a cinematographer, my films won’t have the same look as if I could hire, like, a crew that worked for National Geographic. But I’m not going for that. Much of the focus of my films—this maybe comes from to my training as an anthropologist—is the interest of everyday aesthetics and interpersonal relation, so having a big crew kind of changes the whole dynamic. On the other hand, I’ve never tried to film a social movement, where a big crew would be really helpful. 

I’m currently working on two features, Edge of Time and Patagonia Park, which I’m filming in Patagonia in Chile. I’m up for collaboration, and did [it] in Manakamana, and I’m sure I will collaborate in some way in the future. But I do question that myself. I don’t want to use the word authorship, it feels too heavy. But in some ways, it must be healthy in a way to let go of some of that, to get stuff done. I can see why people do it. In a lot of ways, I know I’d be able to finish both of these features I’m working on if I could just take my hands off the work for a while. But whatever—I’m not getting money from Discovery, so it’s a different animal, is the way I see it. Because I have a position at a university, I am somewhat protected and can say, “I’m gonna take a little more time to finish this.”

Angelo Madsen Minax

(North By Current, The Eddies)

Angelo Madsen Minax works in documentary and hybrid filmmaking formats, narrative cinema, experimental and essay film, performance and media installation; his projects explore queer and trans intimacies. Currently, he is working on North By Current, about the death of his niece and the wrongful arrest of his brother-in-law for her murder.

I think I would shoot and edit even if money were no object. Almost everything I make happens in the editing process, because I am working from a place of loose association, essentially. I’m making juxtapositions based on images of content I can’t preconceive. I have to do that in the timeline. Some people are really exceptional at laying out, then executing, that idea, but I really prefer to let the footage tell me what to do with it. There are times where it is appropriate to have an organizational blueprint, but that doesn’t mean that that’s what you do just because you have the blueprint. 

I do feel like I spend less time in that pre-production mindset because I’m so invested in discovering what associations will be made when juxtapositions are in place. In that way, a lot of my content is not pitchable. A film like The Eddies, I had no idea what it would be like when I started making it. I just was like, “I’m going to do these Craigslist things and film them,” but I couldn’t say I’m going to create this narrative about this character who is me but also a fictionalized character. There’[re] so many layers of fiction and nonfiction in that film that it’d be impossible to imagine pre-structuring that—for me, anyway.

I am now a documentary filmmaker, which is not really what I thought I was or think I am. But it seems to be kind of happening that way. I really like having multiple consulting editors that can go deep with me throughout my whole editing process, which is what I’ve been doing with North By Current, which I feel like is good because the main person I’m working with has been looking at cuts of this film for two years now. So, she has a really clear idea of what it is I’m trying to do. That was built on six months of conversations before even looking at the footage. 

Part of it’s like, “Damn, it’s hard work to invest in these relationships, and you don’t know if they’re going to actually work or not.” It’s definitely a leap of faith. The more open I can be with collaborating with people that specialize in particular traditions or forms, the better off I am. I don’t think it’s restrictive. I used to teach drawing, and my students were like, “You’re a fucking internet weirdo, and you make some of the weirdest shit. Why are you teaching us figure drawing?” Well, you can’t do something really innovative and challenging unless you have a broad understanding of where these rules came from. But also I’m a fucking control freak, and I really need final say over stuff.

Jeffrey Palmer

(N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear)

Jeffrey Palmer is an award-winning Kiowa filmmaker and media artist, whose first feature film, N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

I am so connected to the image that I have to, in some way, be attached to that camera. All my mentors shoot all their stuff. This is something that I learned, I think, early in film school—some people have an eye, right? If you know that you have an eye and you’re good at these things, you are not afraid to go out there and shoot. That’s what I feel, and I’ve been told that. So, I have the confidence to do it, but more so I feel connected to the work that I’m doing. I don’t want to say that as just a cliché thing. It really, really is important for me to embody that type of work.

I have used cinematographers, and it does lift a burden off at points. But I always feel detached when I do that type of work. It’s a weird experience for me; it doesn’t feel comfortable at all. My wife shoots with me, too, and I’ve come to trust her eye. We can talk to each other really quickly and say, “No, let’s move the subject to the other side of the camera.” I’ve shot with [cinematographer] Shana Hagan recently. She was fantastic to work with. She just comes and turns everything on and she’s ready to go. She’s a total professional. I love the work that she was doing, but I still felt detached in that film [Sounds of Life]. I still felt because I was pegged as a director in that film, it didn’t feel the same as my other work. 

Working the way we prefer to, there’s no way I could take on multiple projects. We bust our asses doing this stuff for so long. If we had the luxury of taking on multiple projects like that, would we do it? That’s kind of a question we have to ask ourselves—because of the money, because of the possibilities. But when you look at all of those people that are in that Oscar race, how many irons are in the fire for them to even get that one in there? It’s almost like this sort of battle of attrition. The more you do, the more chance you have and the more opportunity. That’s a crazy world where if you have six projects going; you are just CEOing them all. Because filmmaking for me is hard, right? I know I’m going to get gray and maybe shorten my life. There’[re] all kinds of things that I sacrifice to put one of these damn things out. To me, that’s what being an artist is. The other stuff is business. 

Iva Radivojević

(Evaporating Borders, Aleph)

Born in Belgrade and raised in Yugoslavia and Cyprus, Iva Radivojević is an artist–filmmaker whose art presents itself as a collection of fragments—observations, contemplations, poetry, images, sounds, melodies, languages—circling around displacement and belonging, seeking to connect to the metaphysical or the magical. Currently, she is working on Aleph, “a hybrid film, a dreamlike flow, structured as a labyrinth through which 10 protagonists guide the way.”

Up to this point, I’ve filmed everything I made except Aleph, which I filmed half of, then had a DP for some very specific things. The reason why I don’t do this for a living for other people is because, to me, that part is sacred. When I’m filming, it’s a very meditative, transformative experience. I started painting when I was really young, so to me, that’s just an extension. What kind of lens we use is like using different brushes, playing with the light, all that stuff. I also started in illustration, animation. 

The reason I brought a cinematographer for Aleph is because I wanted a certain look that I myself couldn’t achieve, mainly because I had to direct, produce, write and find the stories. I also wanted it to look in a specific way that I don’t know how to light. I always shoot with natural light, and I needed somebody who could take it to the next level. Also, visually, I wanted to experiment. That said, everything that had nothing to do with the protagonist was shot by me—environments and atmosphere. When you’re filming, it’s quite literally your eye or what you choose very specifically to see and observe. 

What makes the director a director? It’s the concept or the idea. From there on, the idea has to be executed, and you’re drawing on other people’s talent to make the idea happen. That idea is going to be changed or filtered through the eyes of those collaborators. I give big emphasis to the idea as the driving force, and I don’t take away the necessary labor it takes to produce that idea—credits are important. At the same time, there’s this insertion of yourself into somebody else’s work. What makes one’s opinion better than the other person’s opinion? I think there’s definitely a difference between an artist and a technician. 

I am actually very glad that I edited Aleph myself. It has very specific rhythms that I feel are in tune with who I am. I don’t know that I could relay that to somebody. That’s what editors need, a feeling of what it is that’s inside, and I don’t know how else to give them that unless I show them something that I’ve cracked out of the scene. I’m not saying that that’s how it should be, I’m just saying that’s how it is for me. I, in my own films, tend to go toward a certain kind of film. When I do see some films that follow these traditional three-act structures, or whatever it may be, of hero, journey, blah, blah, I give it respect because I can’t do that. I don’t know that if I tried I would be able to do that. I’ve been offered editing jobs of films like that, and I would say, “You’ve got the wrong person. You need a different editor.” Partly, it’s because I’m not interested. But I also find it to be a gift, the same way that it’s a gift when somebody can edit a trailer. I can’t edit trailers. My interest is in doing poetry. I think everybody has a creative expression. A lawyer has a creative expression when he or she goes to make the closing statement—she makes a whole narrative. She’s telling a story.

Elizabeth Lo

(Stray)

Elizabeth Lo is an award-winning documentary filmmaker interested in finding new aesthetic ways of exploring the boundaries between species, class and unequal states of personhood. Originally scheduled to make its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, her debut feature film Stray follows a trio of canine outcasts as they roam the streets of Istanbul, creating an intimate portrait of the life of a city and its people.

Especially in nonfiction, if I’m not shooting, I don’t really know what I’d be doing. So much of nonfiction filmmaking for me is discovery through the camera, and this encounter with things that are happening around me and working through it. If I’d have to hire someone to do that for me, it would feel weird. First and foremost, I just love it, I love the act. Capturing feels like a miracle to me. It’s gratifying, just on a visceral level. 

I don’t think I have a philosophical rationalization for whether it’s a superior mode or not—to each director their own strengths and weaknesses. I love observational filmmaking, and I think I am good at shooting. That’s why I do it. My films are less driven by interviews, more because I just get bored. There are so many modes of filmmaking that are so powerful and that I’m so moved by, but I know I could never do them. 

I’ve definitely thought about the limits it puts on the scope and how prolific you can be. At this stage, I both shoot and edit my own work, so a lot of time is given to a single project. It seems a natural progression in one’s career that you work with more and more people, and maybe bigger crews, but I have a feeling that that won’t be my path, either. I want to spend all of the time I’m physically able to, doing that. Another reason I love being behind the camera is I’m not a super social person and don’t love talking to people. So, the camera is a way to avoid that, maybe.

I feel so lucky to have been able to work on Stray as my first feature-length film. I learned so much about dogs, dog psychology and the capacity of dogs to understand and channel almost our innermost thoughts. I would discover all of this retroactively in the footage, or at the end of the day, reflecting on why animals behaved [how they did], and I would realize they were just channeling me. There is this moment where Zeytin [one of the main dogs] is wandering into traffic, in the middle of a really busy highway—at the time, I was concerned for her. On set, I was wondering, “Why is she putting herself in this dangerous spot?”—even though it was a great shot because it illustrated the dangers that these stray dogs live through and nodded to inexplicable behaviors. But when I was editing, she sort of looked back at me, like, “Are you getting it?” When I decided this was enough and walked away, she just followed. I realized it was her way to be, like, “Did you get the shot you wanted?” 

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