Salvation for a Skeptic's Soul

“The movie is the rival of schools and churches, the feeder of lust, the perverter of morals, the tool of greed, the school of crime, the betrayer of innocence…They debauch the minds of children, inflame the lusts of youth, harden the hearts of sinners. They are a trap for souls, a mocker of God, a curse to America!” – John R Rice in What’s Wrong with the Movies? (1938, 1964).

I Want To Be a Filmmaker!

I grew up in a Mennonite Brethren community. One of the key markers that distinguished us from those around us was that we didn’t go to movies. There were others markers also, of course, like not dancing or playing cards. My church’s take on movies, and that of my parents, could quite accurately be described by Rice’s statement.

How was it then that I ended up spending most of my life making movies?

By the time I arrived at Tabor College, I had seen fewer than a handful of movies in theaters. What I had seen was the Ken Anderson variety of Christian film with predictable storylines and the occasional Moody Bible Institute film that claimed to prove the existence of God through science. While I found the Moody films at least mildly interesting, other so-call Christian films of that era left me cold and unmoved. They contained nothing that I could identify as relevant to the questions I was asking.

In college, all that changed. A screening of Dr. Zhivago captured me. I remember sitting in the theater at the end of the movie deeply moved, and whispering to myself that I wanted to make movies that could tell such powerful stories. At that particular moment, I had no clue as to what went into making a movie. And I had no idea how to learn how to do it.

The country was at war with Vietnam. It was clear that my turn to help out Uncle Sam was coming. I sidestepped military action by volunteering with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). My new bride Mary and I moved to Akron, Pennsylvania, and I took a position as the agency’s first staff photographer. Omar Eby, my boss, approached my desk one day with a big stack of files and informed me that I was now in charge of audio visuals, which included the creation of film strips and slide shows. I loved it, and I realized I had suddenly found my passion.

MCC was an early adopter of the motion picture. With my volunteer stipend I purchased an old 16mm camera. After some negotiating with MCC, I had film to shoot of their program in Atlanta, Georgia. Plus, I had a pair of rewinds, a Moviescop and a synchronizer for editing. I was becoming a filmmaker!

That first documentary was agony, although I didn’t know it at the time. I sat in front of my rudimentary editing setup with Documentary Filmmakingby my side and slowly put that first film together. In the end, it was good enough that I was given the job of creating films on MCC domestic and overseas programs. It wasn’t Hollywood, but I was getting a good introduction in what it meant to make a movie.

By the late 1960s, emerging technology was making lip-sync films--until that time the purview of Hollywood--available to most filmmakers. Equipment manufacturers were rapidly reducing the size and cost of the equipment needed to keep the picture and sound synced together. My entry into filmmaking happened to coincide with these new developments, making it significantly easier for me to engage in international filmmaking.

While the cost was coming down, the equipment still proved far beyond the reach of an MCC volunteer. But being part of MCC provided an advantage in that Jerry Barkman, a fellow Tabor College graduate, happened to be a volunteer in Hong Kong, the duty free capital of the world. A 16 mm movie camera designed in France and manufactured in England could be purchased in Hong Kong for 1/10 of what it cost in the U.S. With Jerry’s help I soon owned the latest iteration of the new lightweight sync cameras.

Later, I travelled to India to cover MCC’s program there, at a time when the country was in the midst of one of its recurrent famines. Journalists were being blocked from covering the effects of famine on the people. When I arrived at the border, I had broken my camera down into its component pieces and had put the body in one pocket of the jacket I was wearing, the lens in another, the film magazine in another and the miniature Nagra recorder in yet another. In such a disassembled mode, border agents did not recognize the camera as anything to be concerned about. The miniature recorder attracted more attention; they had never seen one, and finally decided it must be a Dictaphone. I was waved through. A few years earlier, equipment size would have made entry impossible.

Cinema Institute

If MCC made my entry into filmmaking possible, it was clearly storyteller John L Ruth who started me down the road to creating documentaries for the mass audience. John and I were both enrolled in a film training program called Cinema Institute put on by producer Irwin (Shorty) Yeaworth. Shorty maintained a motion picture production facility in eastern Pennsylvania that had become famous for The Blob, a show that featured Steve McQueen in his first film role. Dinosaurus and 4D Man were other science fiction titles by Yeaworth that made heavy use of special effects.

Universities were just beginning to add film majors to their curriculums. But most were caught in the same dilemma as Temple University, which offered a Masters in Radio, Television and Film but had no facilities to give their students hands-on film experience. Shorty stepped into the vacuum with Cinema Institute, where for six weeks students could be part of actual film crews creating films for Yeaworth’s clients. Students were assigned a role on the crew that included producer, director, cinematographer, sound engineer, script writer, editor, etc. John, who had written a screenplay for Christopher Dock High School’s bicentennial celebration, had decided to get it produced through Cinema Institute.

We two Mennonites in the school soon connected. He needed a cinematographer for his movie, and I signed on. Shorty Yeaworth kept a steady stream of Hollywood movie types coming by the school to interact with students. I was reminded often of the wish I had breathed a few years earlier. I was now beginning to make good on that wish.

The collaboration with John Ruth led to our first major documentary production together. He and Professor John A. Hostetler decided the time was right to do a documentary on the Old Order Amish. John Ruth negotiated a leave of absence for me from MCC to be cinematographer and the de facto editor of the The Amish: A People of Preservation. For 18 months we worked together nearly every day as we cruised the Amish communities in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, looking for filmable scenes, and later spent months editing our raw footage into a film. The result earned John Ruth the Best Newcomer Award by the Grierson Documentary Film Awards and earned the documentary a CINE Golden Eagle at the Council on Non-Theatrical Events competition. It was aired by one of the major networks and excerpted on CBS 60 Minutes. Encyclopedia Britannica, the distributor for 15 years, told me it was one of their bestselling films.

Working with John Ruth was a great learning experience. I had more technical experience than he had. But he was the storyteller, the writer, the conceptualizer of the film. So we learned from each other. One could not help but be impressed with his single-mindedness. When he was on a roll, time ceased to exist. While I learned much from his discipline, there were times when I wished I could keep a more normal schedule. While film, and in particular this film, was important to me, I wasn’t sure it should obliterate all other aspects of my meager life. To be fair, John was coming to my editing location, so he had none of the distractions that normally come at you when you are home. I learned later that when John was home, he, too, had lots and lots of distractions, for he was a popular pastor and conversationalist. He was in high demand.

The Amish documentary also came at a time in my life when I was getting restless with my work at MCC. I sensed that the agency had taken filmmaking about as far as it was willing to go. I found myself wanting to move to a higher level of professionalism. The decision as to what that next step would be was weighing heavily on me. Mary and I were eight years into our marriage and had postponed starting our own family in order to take advantage of the travel and film experience offered by MCC. It had been a good run. But time was moving on. Mary was teaching school and beginning to think that if we were going to have children, it should begin soon. From my conversations with the Hollywood types with whom I had engaged at Cinema Institute I was beginning to have doubts that it would be a good idea to try to start a new family while breaking into the feature film business. I found filmmakers to be rather cynical about the business, and although they were quite young, they seemed to have already experienced a lot of burnout.

Having grown up in rural America with close family connections, both Pennsylvania and California seemed rather distant, and I was wondering what the close-knit community I experienced as a child would be like as an adult. Spending so much time in the Amish community, trying to interpret their lifestyle and belief systems for a mass audience, tweaked a bit of nostalgia in me. Feature film, it was clear, was a very communal art form. And it demanded specialization. I was having a hard time deciding just where I fit in. Cinematography seemed to be my strong point. And while the cinematographer brought a lot to the look and feel of a production, the point of view lay elsewhere. If one wanted to make a statement with film, one needed to be somewhere in the screenwriting or directing roles. But if one specialized in those aspects, the cinematography which I found very appealing would be lost. In documentary production I had been doing everything from writing right through editing, all aspects of production that I enjoyed.

My decision was complicated further by the invitation by Ron Sutton, then director of the American Film Institute (AFI), to apply to become a fellow in their new Conservatory program. AFI had recently begun a collaboration with film industry unions to provide a channel whereby young talent could gain entry to the unions and, thus, to jobs in the film industry. Ron was on the lookout for young talent who showed aptitude and who may have an interest in pursuing a career in motion pictures. My work behind the camera had caught his eye.

It was a tempting offer. In the end I declined and made the decision to return to my ancestral home to raise our children among close relatives. Returning to Henderson, Nebraska, I thought, would likely be the end of my motion picture dreams. Mary and I started a photography studio, a product with more potential customers in that geographical area than motion pictures. But within a few years, much to my surprise, I had discovered enough demand for film that we ended up selling the studio to devote full time once again to documentary film production.

Soon thereafter we collaborated on The Hutterites: To Care and Not to Care which Buller Films Inc., our new company, produced, and I was credited as cinematographer and editor. John Ruth acted as producer and writer. With this film we had managed to document two of the world’s unique Anabaptist plain people, a singular feat. The Hutterites were more willing participants that the Amish, and by the time we finished we had filmed in nearly twenty different colonies.

Transition from Film to Video

During the 1980s a new technology began to threaten the livelihood of filmmakers. Video was moving from the world of black and white to color. Equipment that had formerly filled a truck was now small enough to carry on one’s person. The U-matic ¾ inch video format was becoming standardized in television stations across the country. Stations with production facilities and producers using the new format were putting a lot of pressure on filmmakers. Video was fast. There was no film to process. One could immediately review what had just been shot. And editing was quick. Video required no long lab processing times. Transition effects from one scene to another, in film primarily limited to the straight cut and dissolve, were proliferating in video. Now one could slide, do page turns and dozens of other effects that caught the eye of the viewer.

For me as a filmmaker, the transition to video was difficult. The quality of the video, compared to film, was horrendous. It was like looking at film through waxed paper. Lighting effects, due to video’s inability to portray the subtle differences between light and dark, became almost inconsequential in video. Image sharpness, so critical to film, had to be set aside in favor of just getting an acceptable image on tape. To give one’s time to a form of communication of such poor image quality demanded giving up several of the great advantages of film.

Further, customers for sponsored film had different expectations than did those for video. Film was a mysterious medium. Few understood what went into the creation of film. For those businesses or agencies that needed a film produced, it meant finding a filmmaker who could be trusted to carry your vision through the darkness of production to the light of the screen. A script could make sure the right concepts were being addressed, but it said little about how a film may look in its final form. All of that you entrusted to the filmmaker. By the time a film was in a form that a sponsor or customer could view, it was usually too late to make many changes. Changes, due to laboratory time and fees, were expensive and time-consuming.

Video customers, on the other hand, could be part of the entire process. They could weigh in on every shot of the production. They expected to sit with you as you edited the program. And they were more willing to try something, and then change it if it didn’t work. So the need to clearly think through all aspects of production ahead of time waned. The mystery of production evaporated. While video proved more transparent and more democratic, it drove many filmmakers crazy. Film had required clear, critical thinking – to the point of having the entire film in your head before ever turning on the camera. With video, clients often went into the process with very little forethought, choosing instead to try this or that, and then if it didn’t work, try another this or that. In the end, the image quality was poor and missteps along the way were covered up by special effects and transitions. A new cinematic language was being written.

I likened the difference between film and video this way: With film, it was like someone ordering an exotic automobile. One decided on the make, placed the order and then waited. When it arrived, it may have lacked an option or two that the customer had specified, but its sleek, inspirational lines, its flawless paint, the way it squatted on the pavement inviting a ride of a lifetime, completely captured the customer. He was ecstatic that the auto had arrived and he could now get behind the wheel of this exciting new purchase. And driving it was exciting beyond measure.

Video customers, on the other hand, were like someone going to Walmart, purchasing a blender, taking it home, throwing in some eggs and cream and making their first eggnog. It wasn’t that great, but it was good enough. And it was instantaneous.

Video was not destined always to be of poor quality. But the growing pains toward excellence created concentric rings of consternation. First there were format wars. One manufacturer would come to market with an improved format. Shortly afterward another manufacturer bested the previous format. And the formats were not compatible with each other. The equipment was still much heavier and bulkier than for 16mm film. But it was clear that film would be relegated to an esoteric, specialized medium and that video was the wave of the future.

Second, it was expensive. As part of my decision-making process regarding how fully to embrace video, I had the University of Nebraska school of business do an analysis of what it would take to put in place a competitive video studio. What came back carried a price tag of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. I decided to give up production until the format wars subsided and equipment became more portable and less expensive. That precipitated my opening a printing business in Omaha and later taking the CEO position with Family Life Network in Winnipeg. It took most of a decade before the video world settled into digital formats that rivaled the look of film and the equipment became manageable, both physically and financially. When it did, I moved to Third Way Media, where we dived headlong into a decade of documentary video production. Some of those productions are described at http://www.thirdwaymedia.org/?Topic=303_Third+Way+Video

My Most Memorable Production

Of the dozens of documentaries with which I’ve been associated, a few stand out.

In 1982 I was asked to do a documentary on Church World Service (CWS) work in Cambodia, then named Kampuchea. It became the most difficult film, emotionally, in which I have ever been involved.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party of Kampuchea, having taken control of the country in 1975, had been overthrown by Vietnamese forces just over two years earlier. During his reign of terror, 20% of the population had been executed in an attempt to return the country to an ethnically pure, agrarian state. The purges extended to anyone with education, even anyone wearing glasses, because if one wore glasses it must mean that the person was literate, and literacy was unnecessary in the new Kampuchea.

For more than five years the U.S. had experienced a complete news blackout of Kampuchea. No news reporters were allowed in or out of the country during the Pol Pot era. After the Vietnamese took over in 1979 the blackout continued. Now I was being invited in as the first western journalist/reporter since 1975 to have access to more than Phnom Penh. Prior to me the ABC bureau chief in Bangkok, Thailand, had been allowed into Phnom Penh for a few hours but had not been allowed outside the city. That was the extent of western reporting for more than half a decade.

Prior to that time, Cambodia had been much in the news as the recipient of U.S. carpet bombing raids as part of its Vietnam War adventure. During that time, Cambodia had seen a steady stream of western reporters moving through its borders. But now Pol Pot had managed to completely seal off the country from western eyes.

Church World Service work provided an interesting view into the vagaries of international development under communist regimes. Westerners were not allowed to roam freely in the countryside. So development work by westerners in the country was out of the question. CWS had engaged the services of two Cubans. One was the chief hydrology engineer for the city of Havana, a Methodist fellow who was offered by the Castro regime to CWS to help rebuild the irrigation systems destroyed during the Pol Pot era. Kampuchea was desperate to get its rice production back on track, and extensive irrigation schemes were essential for that to happen. Meanwhile, people were starving from the war-induced famine.

The second worker was a young Cuban veterinarian charged with revitalizing the use of draft animals in food production. Draft animals, mostly cattle, had been slaughtered for food under Pol Pot and were now in short supply. Disease was decimating the few remaining animals. Since these two workers were from communist Cuba, they were allowed free access to the countryside.

It was the task of Larry Hollon, director of communications for CWS, and me to give a context for this work and help interpret Kampuchea to an American audience.

According to the U.S. State Department, Kampuchea was off limits. Americans were not allowed to travel to a handful of communist countries, including Kampuchea. But once we had an invitation from Vietnam, now in control of Kampuchea, it was rather amazing just how easy it was to enter the country. Getting back into the U.S.was another matter.

We flew to Bangkok, Thailand, and there booked an Air France flight into Vietnam. We were met at the airport in what had formerly been Saigon by a governmental representative who had been the chief information officer for the Viet Kong. He seemed to know nearly every U.S. reporter of any repute, having met them during the war years in North Vietnam.

The Air France flight into Ho Chi Minh City missed the flight to Phnom Penh by one hour. The next flight would leave five days later. We spent those days in what had been formerly Saigon during what must have been one of its bleakest times – it was still recovering from the American war, the Ho Chi Minh government now in charge was still finding its legs, and the city was in desperate straits. We could only assume that keeping us there for five days was one way the new government had of raising foreign currency, since our food and lodging were all paid in U.S. dollars. The only thing cold to drink in the hot, humid country was local beer, and it was $6 a bottle.

Arriving in Kampuchea, we were immediately struck by the destruction precipitated by Pol Pot. Phnom Penh, with its striking architecture and many temples, had once been known as the Jewel of the East. Everything relating to its former glory had been destroyed. The story of Pol Pot’s destruction had not been told in the West, and I was not prepared for its devastating completeness.

There were few foreign workers in the country at that time--so few that they could be housed in two French Colonial era hotels that had undergone moderate renovations for that purpose. We would be served dinner each evening in the hotel restaurant. The restaurant dining area consisted of several large round tables with white tablecloths in an otherwise lackluster room. Above each table shone a small light bulb below a slowly rotating ceiling fan. The table cloth was covered with small, black, dead bugs that had been fried by the lone light bulb.

The waiter soon brought out French baguettes. Cambodia had once been a French colony, and the French had left behind certain architecture and the rudiments of French cuisine. I had a young French Mennonite sound engineer with me. It was his first trip into the undeveloped world. When he saw French bread, he lit up. We broke the baguette into equal pieces. When the Frenchman received his, his face fell. Inside, the crusty bread was filled with flour weevils, which he began picking from the bread. Soon he had nothing left but the thin outside crust. Larry Hollon and I were veterans of the third world by this time, and we just ate ours, weevils and all.

When we arrived for dinner the next night, our French friend removed the salt and pepper shakers from the table, took the table cloth off and gave it a good shake to rid it of the bug carcasses so he could pick his weevils on a clean tablecloth. That became a regular routine during our stay at the hotel.

Over the course of the next weeks, we were accompanied on every journey into the countryside by a government assigned minder. The minder spoke English and served as translator. Rather than limiting our ability to make our film, she cleared the way to get scenes that would have otherwise been impossible. If local people proved suspicious of Americans with a camera, she explained who we were and what mission we were on. Generally, that alone was enough to engender willing participation. Yes, there were a few things that we were not allowed to photograph – like the ubiquitous Communist party gatherings in local areas where people were encouraged to embrace the party line. It didn’t make a difference in our story.

We discovered Vietnam aggressively rebuilding a devastated society. The cities, emptied under Pol Pot, while lacking in basic infrastructure, were again filled and bustling. Rural areas left to deteriorate under the former government were being redeveloped. Irrigation canals were being rebuilt. We saw evidence of rice production everywhere. Schools were in session. Khmer art forms were staging a comeback. And the country was trying to come to grips with the destruction under Pol Pot. Nearly everyone in the country had had close relatives killed during that era. The wounds of such genocide were still raw.

To begin to heal the wounds, the government implemented a search for graves. Pol Pot’s executioners had carried out their grisly tasks out of sight of the displaced population. Graves filled by mass executions had been filled and by this time were covered by grass or weeds. Local people came to suspect certain locations as graves due to the ground settling. Those assigned to the task began digging, and far too often soon came upon the sordid remains of these executions.

Thus it was that I became the first western journalist to photograph what later became known as the killing fields. From large earthen cavities first came armloads of rib bones. Then arm and leg bones, tossed carelessly up onto the earth. Then followed, reverently, the careful exhumation of skulls, placed in row upon row, many rows deep, next to the open grave. Many of the skulls still carried the traditional Khmer scarf that had been used as a blindfold at the point of death. Often those killed had been simply hit on the head with a blunt object; bullets were considered too expensive to use in such massive killings when it could be done more cheaply with the butt of a rifle. I was overcome by the smell of death, at once both sweet and sour. I could only photograph a few minutes before I had to find my way upwind to stop my incessant gagging. The row upon row of hollow-eyed skulls provided a powerful backdrop to a horrible end to millions of Khmer people.

Pol Pot forces were at that time not completely subdued. We traveled roads that, while nominally in the hands of the Vietnamese during the day, were controlled by rebels at night. By 4 p.m. we wanted to be off those roads because rocket attacks on any moving vehicle were common. Unsecured roads were marked by the traditional sign for poison – skull and crossbones. But these skulls and crossbones were real. A short search and they would turn up anyplace – another reminder of the recent brutal past. Using them as road signs pointed to the callousness brought on by that past.

One school had been used as an execution center. Pictures had been posted in the school of everyone whose throat had been slit. We were invited to photograph this site. By this time I had seen enough destruction and I was emotionally spent. I declined the invitation. That school later became famous when its existence leaked into the western press.

Upon re-entering the U.S, with my raw film, I was stopped by border agents in New York City. When asked where I’d been, I told them the truth. Since Kampuchea was off limits for Americans, my filming there raised immediate red flags. The film was confiscated by U.S. Customs. I was told that I would need to have the film processed in New York and pay for one of their agents to review every scene to make sure it wasn’t pornographic. The expense was unthinkable. After conferring with Larry Hollon, whose office was in New York, I decided to let him work out the logistics of getting the film released for processing. I returned to Nebraska.

For two weeks Larry tried every angle to get the film cleared through customs at the World Trade Center. But no one was ready to take responsibility for releasing this film. It went into a bureaucratic black hole. In the meantime I did some research on what might be possible. I found that one could ship products not cleared by customs to any federal office by placing a bond on the items. I check in with the federal building in Omaha, Nebraska, and was assured they could clear incoming items. Larry promptly placed a bond on the film and sent it to me in Nebraska by way of the federal building in Omaha. Soon I received a call from a customs agent asking if I could come to pick up a package. When I arrived he asked what it was. I told him it was 16mm motion picture film. He stamped my forms with his official stamp and handed me the big aluminum case of film.

It would be nice if that was the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Both Larry and I had our taxes audited that year. Later we found out that the Kampuchean ambassador to Cuba had gotten a copy of the finished film and was showing it to large audiences in Cuba. The CIA had been following this. A tax audit apparently was considered an appropriate form of intimidation.

After the film was processed, I thought the national press might be interested in an area of the world that had received so much coverage during the Vietnam war, but had been under such an extended blackout. I called to set up appointments with reporters for NBC, ABC and Public Television. I could not get an appointment with CBS. I traveled back to New York and in each office put my film on their editing machines. In every case, the reporters soon had tears in their eyes from the scenes they were seeing. Several had been war correspondents assigned to Cambodia during the U.S. action there and had had close friends killed while covering the war. And while telling me that this story needed to be told to the American people, not a single one could move the story forward. I was discovering a troubling aspect of American news coverage.

For a news story to get to air, a reporter needed to find a producer who would finance the creation of the story. No producer appeared willing to take on this one. Although Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government ceased to exist in 1979 when the Vietnamese threw it out, its representatives continued to occupy the Kampuchean seat at the United Nations. This was defended by Washington as payback to Vietnam. They viewed the new Cambodian government as a Vietnamese puppet government. Further, China was a key backer of Pol Pot, and Washington was intent on improving it relationships with the Chinese. Backing an illegitimate claim to a U.N. seat seemed a small price to pay for Washington’s strategic designs. As a result, the press knew that if it took on this story – a story that showed a view of Kampuchea contrary to what official policy required-- it would pay a heavy price. They were not willing to pay that price over a mostly forgotten country.

I learned two things from that experience. One, our news is offered to us in much the same way that our entertainment from Hollywood is offered. Without a producer willing to put up the money, no story gets told. It all comes down to money. Second, what story gets told is largely dictated by the risks the press is willing to take. Governmental policies effectively set the boundaries for these risks. So we, like so many other societies, are told mostly what our officials want us to hear.

Upon completng The Jewel Reclaimed, a documentary which I wrote, filmed and edited, I submitted it to the Council on Non-Theatrical Events for their Golden Eagle awards. It won the CINE Golden Eagle in 1982 and both Larry and I were on hand in Washington, D.C., to accept the award. I attended with a formal tuxedo shirt, a bow tie and cummerbund beneath a black leather jacket. Years later I would still be accosted by people who approached me and asked, “Aren’t you the guy who wore the black leather jacket to the CINE ceremony?”

The Changing Documentary Genre

When I started documentary filmmaking, the term documentary meant something different from what it has come to mean today. The term was closely tied to the role of journalists – to present the facts in an unbiased manner. While reality always deviated from the ideal, it was still the task of a documentarian to as much as possible present an unbiased view in a documentary film.

Later it became fashionable to create documentaries with strong points of view. Michael Moore lifted this form of documentary to new heights with his Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko and many others. Over time I adjusted to the new definition of documentary but was uncomfortable with how far some filmmakers were willing to bend the genre. My belief in a practiced journalistic observation continued to inform my documentaries.

Still, point of view must to be recognized as a key determinant of the way a documentary presents a topic under investigation. When Third Way Media, the electronic media arm of the Mennonite church, began the production of Waging Peace: Muslim and Christian Alternatives, the shape of the final product was somewhat predestined by the bias we brought to the original conceptualization. We sought to address a problem: that the peacemaking efforts of both Islam and Christianity were being ignored in the press. That thesis shaped everything about the documentary. The documentary would be offered to ABC and NBC affiliate stations; therefore it also had to meet network requirements.

Although we were aware of some joint peace-building efforts, we were largely blind to the extent to which these efforts had grown. The discovery, or preproduction phase, led to many more stories that appeared interesting and filmable. The stories we selected determined in large measure the storyline as well as the point of view of the documentary. While we could choose to challenge the basic assumption of certain stories and offer contradicting stories as counterweights, these collected stories would take the audience in a specific direction. This is where we were allowed to shape the point of view that the documentary would take.

While story selection would play a key role in the message of the documentary, that fact would not be the only determinant. Shoe-horning the documentary into a format acceptable for national broadcast for ABC Television would create additional challenges. Their Broadcast Standards and Practices, many pages long, delineate in detail what you are allowed to show and not show. One would think that producing a documentary built on a strong ethical framework would help avoid most pitfalls. But not so. ABC does not see our documentaries as news. Rather we fit under their entertainment guidelines. The marketing and protection of their brand is uppermost in their minds. This means that not only can we not defame someone, but our documentaries can not be controversial. Controversy extends to such things as a Christian and a Muslim in intense dialogue about an issue on which they do not agree. In the news world, these kinds of dialogues are commonly shown. If we wanted to submit such a scene for approval, we would first need to make sure both parties signed a media release giving us permission to use the material. Then ABC lawyers would determine if the conversation fit their definition as controversial. By contrast, news content requires no such releases.

We also could not show any national logo on a shirt, cap or sign. Neither could we show an Internet address. This also extended to signs seen in street scenes. How many streets in America can you think of that contain no national logos? Or how may caps or shirts that display no logos? The rationale for ABC is that if they display a national logo, the company behind the logo needs to pay for it. They see the use of such logos in our documentaries as giving free airtime to companies who should have to pay for such displays. This immediately shapes our documentaries. If any logo is present in any conversation that may enlighten the topic, the footage gets thrown out.

People who have something to say on the topic at hand may also be off limits. If the person has said something in the past that could be considered controversial, the footage gets killed. If the person has national political aspirations, the footage usually gets thrown out because if the person runs for political office, it could be seen as ABC giving them free air time to make their pitch. Again, they should be paying for that airtime. Or during a campaign the rival candidate could ask ABC to give them equal free time to make their own pitch.

We often ask ourselves why we fit under their entertainment guidelines when documentaries by their nature are much more aligned with the news world. But then, we don’t make the rules. One of the important lessons to be learned when dealing with national networks is to abide strictly by their standards and practices.

All this, before we even begin videotaping, dramatically shapes the final outcome. So with what’s left, production begins. Now a whole new set of challenges comes into play.

First, what stories does one pursue? What aspects of peace building does one follow? Can the players tell their stories convincingly enough to make good television? Many individuals and groups do wonderful and meaningful things, but if they cannot engage the audience, it won’t make the final cut.

Second, the questions one asks often determine the content of the story. Knowing enough about the topic to ask good questions goes a long way to getting beneath the surface and finding the emotional links so important to great storytelling.

Third, the physical environment plays a role in helping the audience connect with the story. If the television frame is cluttered and poorly lit, it plays an unconscious, and often even a conscious, role in determining what the viewer feels and thinks about the story. I’ve often tried to separate those I interview from their surroundings, lighting them in an attractive fashion and making sure the sound track does not have competing sounds. It provides them with more authority than sitting behind a desk in a cluttered office. On the other hand, sometimes it is important to see the individual in their surroundings, which lends credence to their words. Then other times one really has little choice in the matter.

Fourth, something called production value comes into play. This amorphous concept refers to where the look and feel of the production fits on a scale that begins with amateurish production and ends with the eye-popping appeal of a very expensive, carefully crafted production. Lots of things fall into this category--like how much of the production is shot from a tripod; how well the scenes are lit, if a high definition digital format used; the look of the graphics used in the film; the appeal of the storytellers; the arc of the story itself; the finesse of the editing. One always strives to make the film look better than the budget would indicate. It’s the Mennonite way!

In Waging Peace, which I produced, directed and wrote, we were constantly cognizant of the ability of the individuals to tell their stories. Sometimes this was determined in phone interviews with individuals. We also searched out previously videotaped interviews where people told stories, which allowed us to form judgments as to the storyteller’s effectiveness. After we arrived on location, we sometimes uncovered media-savvy people who had an uncommon ability to tell their personal stories, but had seldom done so before.

We also did extensive phone interviews prior to going to the locations to tape stories. We did pre-interviews with key storytellers, gathering as much information as we could so we would be well informed. Pre-interviews also allowed the storytellers to refine their ability to tell their stories. Sometimes one story would dovetail with another, and when we arrived for videotaping, we could ask questions that brought out these symbiotic relationships.

Sometimes travel restrictions meant we could not carry all the lighting equipment we would like, and we were limited in the way we could shape the shadows that are so important in photography. Often the ideal background to an interview was so noisy as to make it impossible to conduct an interview. Then we compromised.

Filmmaking is a series of compromises. The ideal with which one begins is often so diluted by the end of production that it is difficult to recognize the initial vision. The ability to compromise while maintaining the original vision is what separates great filmmakers from ordinary filmmakers. One is always being forcibly moved somewhere along this scale.

I sensed that this documentary needed at least a short nod to the problem we were addressing. Having nothing that indicated the kind of intense negative feelings present in this country toward Muslims simply felt like an incomplete story. While in California taping the Claremont School of Theology section, I decided to go to Temecula where a Muslim group had purchased land across the road from a Baptist church on which they hoped to erect a mosque. The pastor had been very outspoken about his opposition to having a mosque in such close proximity to his church. The Muslims were not backing down. The imam and the pastor had been shown on CNN in a faceoff with each other. I thought it would be interesting to interview both individually to get their side of the story. In particular I wished to interview the pastor on what he saw as the peacemaking efforts of his congregation.

The imam readily agreed to an interview. The Baptist pastor was more difficult to access. Calls to him went unreturned. Finally I decided to attend his Sunday evening service in hopes of scoring a conversation with him, if not a taped interview. The door of the church was guarded by an ex-marine who made it clear that no one other than regular congregants was welcome. After the service I managed to find another door and introduced myself to the pastor. I explained what we were doing, and asked if I could interview him on his view of biblical peacemaking in the midst of conflict, using his opposition to the mosque as the case in point. With a little prodding, he agreed to an interview and signed a media release. His fear, naturally, was that someone from the media was going to take him to task for his opposition. I, rather, was interested in his view of biblical peace-making. That was something he was willing to talk about.

His interview and the story of his opposition to the mosque created something of a controversy within the production team. Some felt strongly that it should be removed on the grounds that it was giving space to the kind of tension we were trying to address. As the editing continued, it became apparent that only Mennonites were feeling uncomfortable with this scene. Others were feeling strongly that it was essential to show in a sensitive way the tension that exists between Muslims and Christians. Without this scene, the whole film felt flat. The scene stayed in. It was done in a manner that met ABC criteria. We were not putting words in the pastor’s mouth. He was allowed to say what he wanted to say, and I did not use his words or actions to disparage him. His saying that the peacemaking passages of the Bible did not mean Christians should not engage in conflict when there was a disagreement was enough by itself to make his, and my, point. Maybe Mennonites, with their strong feelings about peace-making, are prone to wish away the conflict rather than address it head on.

The most important thing I learned from producing this documentary is that when Muslims and Christians say the word peace they often mean quite different things. That was a new understanding for me. For Christians, peace is the absence of conflict. Christians from the beginning have emphasized the faith community as a place where all are equal, and peace reigns. It is seen as a refuge from the injustice of the worldly kingdom. The injustice of the world is a given. It will remain. But in the faith community, an alternative exists.

Rather than peace being the absence of conflict, Muslims see peace as the result of justice. Rather than the faith community being a refuge from injustice, it is a place where injustice is corrected. A member of the faith community, or Uma, is required to address injustice whenever injustice is encountered. In several interviews imams suggested that to correct injustice, one needs standing, a legal term that gives one the power and authority to bring suit – to seek redress. Without appropriate power, in their view, injustice will continue uncontested. The essential argument among Muslims today is whether injustice is to be corrected violently or nonviolently. The two faiths see power and the use of power somewhat differently.

What Documentary Filmmaking Has Meant To Me

I sometimes think that veering from a track toward feature film to documentary was inevitable. The observatory aspects of the documentary suited my personality better than feature film. By nature, I am an unwilling participant, choosing rather to be an observer. During the late 60s and early 70s I lived near Washington, D.C. The demonstrations both for and against the War in Vietnam kept building, drawing larger and larger crowds. I attended, but always as a photojournalist. Participation would have meant that I had thrown myself in with a particular viewpoint. Although I was strongly opposed to the war, I was skeptical of being part of a group where crowd mentality took over. I valued my independence.

The same thing was at play in my documentaries. I remained skeptical, and was more comfortable as an observer, telling the story from the sidelines. I valued my independence to make judgment calls on the topics I was covering. While it would have been great to construct a story dramatically, the documentary just seemed more in tune with who I was.

The greatest thing about documentary is that it demands a willingness to learn something about a great variety of topics. This presents a constant intellectual challenge. One must explore a topic in enough depth to be thoroughly conversant and to be able to bring some objectivity to the topic – not to be duped by any one point of view. At the same time, it demands a focus. Focus depends on a point of view, without which one ends up with an unfocused document that says and means little.

I began with a quote from John Rice that casts movies in the role of perverter of morals and a mocker of God. For me, movies and my own filmmaking have been something quite different. Films, both dramatic and documentary, have been places where I’ve learned a lot about who God is and what constitutes moral and immoral behavior. Rather than being a trap for my soul, they have liberated my soul. The series of documentaries on the Amish and Hutterites have made me appreciate more the role of tradition in my life. The series of documentaries done with Third Way Media on tough family issues have given me insights into the trials those struggling with depression, suicide, substance abuse, poverty, mental illness and incarceration experience. In every story I see a bit of myself. From every story I learn a little about how to relate to those experiencing similar problems.

A few years ago, I jumped into a cab in Chicago. A young woman was driving and we were soon engaged in conversation. She was a student, working her way through school. She asked what I did. After explaining I was a documentary filmmaker, she asked if she may have seen any. I suggested that Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide had been playing on ABC and NBC recently. She was strangely silent for a few moments after that. Then she revealed that her mother had taken her life two weeks prior. We engaged in a wonderful conversation about the difficulty of coming to terms with such a death. Had I not produced that documentary, I would have sat in stunned silence. Living with the production of that program for a year, interviewing all those people who had experienced suicide in their families, gave me the tools to ask the right questions and not give trite answers.

That’s what makes producing documentaries worthwhile – what it does for me. Anything the audience gets is a bonus.

About the Author

Burton Buller

Burton Buller, a native of Henderson, Nebraska, now living in Massanutten, Virginia, began working with film in 1968 for the Mennonite Central Committee. His subsequent work has included being CEO of Family Life Network, Director of Third Way Media and now as managing partner of Buller Films. He is past Chair of the Electronic Programming Committee of the National Council of Churches. His films have won nineteen awards, including the Cine Golden Eagle, and have been broadcast on CBS (“Sixty Minutes”), ABC and NBC and on the Learning, Discovery and Hallmark channels. Burton is a graduate of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and the University of Nebraska (M.A., Journalism). He attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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