May 2, 2021

Documentary Therapy

What began as a chore became a idea.

Some years ago, I was invited to lead a workshop while I was working at a film education company.

I had had a mixed experience with this organisation, finding teaching children who often had a better smartphone than I did to be relatively redundant considering their snapchat feeds were infinitely more interesting than the old school principles of cinema I was attempting to teach.

The workshop represented an opportunity to branch out from this, however I was ambivalent about it. It involved driving to Wolverhampton, a good 4-5 hour drive from London where I was based, staying for 3 days with the people I was teaching, and wasn't much of a payday. I was broke, a little pissed off, and still had some hangups about what a real movie director would be doing (sipping cocktails in LA perhaps?). Why me? I had been trying to finish a short film, and at that time was unappreciative of the fact that a break from the process might actually shift my thinking enough to push through a creative block.

The thing that really sparked my interest, however, was that this workshop involved working with deaf children. My only experience relating deafness to film had been watching sign language interpreters sometimes appear in a bottom corner of a screen on television. So you could say I was a little ignorant.

By now I've seen a number of interesting pieces of on-screen depictions of deafness. Rob Savage's zombie horror Dawn of the Deaf comes to mind, as well as Aziz Ansari's Master of None episode New York, I Love You, and more recently, the Riz Ahmed starring Sound of Metal. All of these, however, were made by hearing filmmakers.

I wanted to know how deaf people interacted with the filmmaking process, and I especially wanted to know how these young people would differ from the hearing kids that I was used to teaching.

I was blown away. By the end of the weekend I was giving a tearful final speech to the group, relaying my admiration for what they had achieved. Their earnest and focused appreciation for the tasks I had given them produced a deserved response: three powerful documentaries that powerful meditations on how easy it is for people with a perceived disability to become marginalised in every day situations. They grasped the techniques quickly, partly because their visual instincts were so advanced, but also because they had a story they needed to tell, and had been given a medium through which to tell it.

At the time, I left feeling buoyed by the experience and inspired by what I had seen. These kids, given the opportunity and tools, had been able in a weekend to produce more creativity than I found I could muster in a month! On top of that, they had done it while having a perceived impairment in a key sense for cinema: sound. Was there something in this? Was there some way this format could benefit others?

Precedent

During days spent at home in 2020, I watched a brilliant film called It's a Hard Truth Ain't It.. Set in a prison in the United States, it passes the cameras and the storytelling over to the prisoners themselves, so they are able to dictate how their lives are portrayed. The filmmaker. Madeleine Sackler, leads workshops in cinematography, sound, and writing, aiding the men in the process. What emerges is a nuanced and heartfelt retelling of their lives that deeply humanises them. It hands the narrative agency back into the people who need it most: the subjects, and ensures that they are able to process their story as it is being reconstructed.

The idea

Which brings me to the concept of some workshops I will begin running this summer: Documentary Therapy.

The premise is simple:

  • Teach participants the basics of storytelling and technique in Doc filmmaking.
  • Give them some tools and a time limit, within a space or (if necessary) virtually.
  • Allow them the freedom, with some guidance, to go out and craft the film that they feel best represents the story they would like to tell.
  • Review and reflect upon the results of each persons film, and what they can take away from the experience.

In a world in which we have so much technology, and so many stories, often visual, floating around us twenty four hours a day, this feels like it can offer the opportunity, especially for marginalised groups, to be able to use this technology to escape others' (often non-representative) stories, and ground ourselves in our own unfolding one.

I'll update as it progresses. Email me at sam@lapazfilms.com, or call me on the numbers in the contact page, if you have any suggestions or would like to get involved.

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