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“A Few Weeks Into Filming, My Father Died Suddenly” | Victim/Suspect Director Nancy Schwartzman

Victim/Suspect (Photo: Courtesy Sundance)

Every production faces unexpected obstructions that require creative solutions and conceptual rethinking. What was an unforeseen obstacle, crisis, or simply unpredictable event you had to respond to, and how did this event impact or cause you to rethink your film?

A few weeks into filming Victim/Suspect, my father died suddenly. My entire world crashed around me, and it felt like my soul had left my body.

Thirteen days after my father’s death, I flew to location and filmed a key interview with one of our incredible participants. Through intimate vérité, we captured the legal defense team working on her case and the emotional moments with her family before and after trial. Filming in those immediate days was a balm. I devoted everything to the moment, losing myself and my own pain in the interview, the family scene, and the emotional arc of the story. But the “in-between” moments – waiting for the rain to pass or adjusting the camera – were unbearable. In the wake of my father’s sudden death, the conceptual rethinking for this project was, how am I going to survive this process?

As documentary filmmakers, it is our job to be open, present, and receptive. To lose ourselves in others, to immerse in their truths and stories, and to expand and hold space for the entire picture. Yet, grief took over and clouded my capacity for logistical details, dates and time zones, and the grind of production. I lost sleep. I lost my appetite. I had to be judicious with my attention so I could be present for the raw emotions unfolding and stay open to the bigger picture of how the storylines would hold together. We had over a dozen more shoots planned to capture Rae going after leads and meeting with experts, colleagues, victims, families, and cops. I am unspeakably grateful to the incredible “Victim/Suspect” team who held me up, while we crafted this film.

In this era of collective grief, all of us are holding losses, fears, and disappointments while we make our films. Documentary filmmakers are choosing to bear witness for others, to get closer and immerse into their lives and relationships while simultaneously melting into the background. But there is no “objectivity” — we bring ourselves and our humanity into the room.

Filming in the aftermath of a personal loss helped me crystalize what was at the core of the story. By losing my own father, I was more attuned to the father and daughter relationships in Victim/Suspect. The anger I felt at my sudden life-changing loss, helped me understand how to harness the anger provoked by the police interrogations. I found my passion by capturing Rae’s unstoppable fight for the truth. Knowing that her work could bring some measure of justice was the higher purpose and the light that guided all of us to the finish line.

See all responses to our annual Sundance Question here.

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