Dedicated Observers

I had just returned from filming a family of seven for a fundraising video for the Centre for Autistic and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) and wondered why I had such an enjoyable time. There were no interviews, no prompting, just me capturing their everyday lives, honestly, in real time.

Back in my days of illustrating children's books, much like a photographer, I had to be content with the drawn and painted image of a book cover on a single, two-dimensional plane. But I always wanted to move inside the picture and see what the image would look like from different angles.

That is the joy of cinema, film, video, documentary — I can move around a subject. That's motion pictures and that's why I love filmmaking so much.

As my time in the publishing world decreased, I worked part time as a photo technician for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), also assisting with photo/video slideshows and authoring DVDs.

I bought a video camera and travelled with my wife Julie on her sabbatical from MCC as she studied the ancient art of kalamkari textile block printing in India. We filmed and documented the process. And with assistance and guidance in rhythm and editing essentials from MCC, I produced a seven-minute piece that ended up being used by Ten Thousand Villages in their stores, where they sell kalamkari products. This was a grand beginning for me in videography and documentary.

I absorbed much about videography at MCC but always asked why stories relied so heavily on narration and very little on first person voice. Why am I being told by an unseen voice what the story is about, when the subject in person can tell their story in their own words?

Narration and interviews are, of course, just one way to tell a story and one we as viewers are very accustomed to. As with an illustration, I wanted to see more.

Julie and I learned about storytelling and filmmaking by attending film festivals and watching many a movie. Not just documentaries, though. A festival is an immersive time when you get to experience the scope of what can be done, should be done and, most important, should not be done. We garnered most from a poorly made film.

I'm always surprised by how few films our fellow documentary filmmakers watch. How else can you learn?

At MCC I grew as an editor and storyteller, producing small pieces for resource generation. A favorite of mine was the Penny Power video "Rhythm of Change." It was a step up from what I had done in the past because it showed that I could structure a sequenced story. No interviews or narration, by the way.

So MCC asked me to work with a Kenyan filmmaker on a video about grassroots African peacemakers. I had travelled a little on other projects, as an assistant, but this was my first time as producer and videographer.

I remembered that when I was an assistant, producers seemed to forget to enjoy the experience, saying that there's a job to be done first. I was determined to do both on my African trip.

In Uganda we gathered stories of a rehabilitation program at a Catholic girls’ school. The sisters were helping young women recover from their forced time spent with the Lord's Resistance Army. They were abducted as children and forced to be soldiers and sex slaves.

This posed a great dilemma for me and my Kenyan producer. We were two fellows about to conduct interviews in a school of mostly women, talking about a delicate issue. I don’t normally encourage the use of male interviewers. That's why it has worked so well for Julie to be a face in my story-gathering. But Julie wasn't there in northern Uganda. So I asked the school's headmistress Sister Josephine toguide the interviews, which she did with great success.

Although I had promised myself to be part of my environment and enjoy the time, I was not able to do that as much as I had hoped. I had become more of a location producer and had to slip into cruise control to get the shots quickly. In Nigeria's Plateau state, I filmed recollections of Christian and Muslim conflicts and subsequent forgiveness. In the Rift Valley, I filmed the story of Kenya's historic tribal warfareand the beginnings of peace tree museums to teach students of their past. In Gulu, Uganda, I filmed the thousands of children who each night took shelter in a local hospital grounds to escape the threat of abduction from their villages. But at that time I rarely stopped to think about what I was viewing. I find that it is not until I return home and begin editing that I realize the true extent of my experience, and then the emotions flow.

Julie and I have been blessed in our time working with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As with African peacemaker stories, the loss from natural disaster requires a greater level of sensitivity in one's approach to story- gathering. Filming in a disaster area usually involves spending enough time with MDS volunteers and with homeowners to become a familiar face. Interviews require few questions. Julie listens with little prompting and without interrupting. It's her gift of ease with people that makes a homeowner's time of sharing more comfortable and expressive.

We have also found that with longer times spent on location, we can move away from having to use a narrator and let people tell their own stories. Ideally interviews would be omitted. And that's an arena we have explored with our personal projects — how to tell a story that relies on observation.

In 2006 a group of friends, along with Julie and me, followed a small class of fifth graders as they imagined, designed and built functional chairs, using only cardboard and glue for the documentary The Sitting Machine. In concept, it was a fine idea, with all the ingredients that Julie and I wanted to see in a documentary — creativity, the process from A to Z and children's imaginations.

After shooting with three cameras for seven months in the classroom and at home with families, we “wrapped” in March 2007. It was a beautiful journey discovering what a group of children could create as they learn by doing.

Then we had to find the story and distill over 200 hours into a 90-minute movie. Two years later we premiered it at the Philadelphia Film Festival, becoming a top ten audience favorite. But then nothing. The film went nowhere.

Upon finishing the film, we had shown it to a select group of film and non-film friends who were positive and helpful in their critiques. We also shared it with a former Sundance programmer who would have liked to have seen interviews with parents and their reaction to what their children had learned and created. Although that was a valid observation, it was completely out of context with the film's approach of being from the children's point of view. Families were featured. You just needed to invest your time and listen and see the interaction between parent and child.

Are we, as viewers, too conditioned by interview-style or narration-driven storytelling to be able to follow a more observational, vérité-style documentary?

Julie and I have had to learn to balance our own filmmaking flavor with our client's tastes and needs and produce something that everyone is happy with. For instance, as I recently reviewed the footage for the Center for Autistic and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) video, I realized that the sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic moments of family life Ifilmed will marry perfectly with the earlier interview Julie and I conducted. The mom talked of how all five children, three of whom are in the autistic spectrum, receive help at CADD and how the family is now in a good place after many years of struggle, hard work and controlled medicine. But, she admitted, there will always be difficult days and weeks.

I saw this in their youngest as he got frustrated and was helped to convey his emotion, in this case anger, by drawing with crayons in his coloring book. And then the joyous success with their eldest daughter as she happily completed her social studies homework. Seeing the children in action illustrated perfectly the words their mom had expressed. We were able to capture another story with authenticity.

We are dedicated observers who love and respect the people we film and edit. And telling their stories remains such a joy to be part of.

About the Author

Paul  Hunt

Paul Hunt, a videographer and documentary filmmaker, lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Julie Kauffman, fellow filmmaker and senior graphic designer at Ten Thousand Villages in Lancaster County. Julie has also designed several books including Simply in Season, Simply in Season Children's Cookbook and On the Zwieback Trail.

A selection of their video work can be found at: eastlemonfilms.comvimeo.com/user2212560/videos

All MDS videos can be seen at:http://www.youtube.com/user/MDSMennonite

The full version of The Sitting Machine can be seen at:http://vimeo.com/user2212560/thesittingmachine