Passions: Documentary Filmmaking

iStock_000004892147XSmall_1_.jpgby Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

In my opinion, the best documentary films are compelling because they allow a glimpse of otherwise inaccessible lives and lifestyles. Think of some well-known documentaries and the stories they tell: the journey of the son of a famous yet enigmatic architect trying to piece together the story of his father’s double life (My Architect); the struggle of quadriplegic young men and their quest for the wheelchair rugby Paralympics gold (Murderball); the differing expectations and, ultimately, life paths of upper and working class Brits over the course of 40+ years (The Up Series); the determination and quirkiness of a group of humans so intent on winning a new 4X4 truck that they ignore basic physical needs and stand for days in the heat hanging onto the vehicle as if for dear life (Hands on a Hard Body).

The truth is that I’ve been collecting subjects and planning out documentary films in my head for years. Maybe other people do this; however, I think it’s particularly odd because I am an energy/international business transactions attorney by training, who, until about a year ago, had no knowledge of how to actually make films.

A documentary filmmaking class at NYU changed that, and earlier this month, some classmates and I embarked on my first attempt to put what I’d learned into practice. The International Documentary Challenge, an international contest in which 130 teams from around the world research, write, film, produce and edit a short documentary in 5 days was my trial by fire.

I know it sounds a bit crazy: my very first documentary and I’m accepting the extra pressure that accompanies the very tight timeline? That said, I found the tight timeline permitted me a certain liberty from my own high expectations. It allowed me to accept that I could not possibly make a “perfect” film. It also forced the team to make quick decisions about everything including subject matter, where to film, and what to include in the film, rather than agonizing over them. And it actually gave me the impetus to do it now rather than allowing me to succumb to inertia, telling myself that I’ll do it some weekend when I can find the time, when I’m less tired, when work quiets down. Here was a built-in deadline – no ifs, ands or buts.

The contest is set up to provide information on an as-needed basis. The final product must be within one of eight genres; however, the contest administrators assign each team a choice of only two of those genres, along with a theme to be addressed in the final 3- to 7-minute film.

In anticipation of this, we held several meetings of our 6-member team to discuss ideas and resources available to us. But, mere hours before the contest began, creative differences caused us to lose half our team (and with it the equipment and several of our planned documentary subjects). Still, we pushed on and, in the end, found the 3-person team better allowed each of us to have our say.

On the first day of the contest, we received our choice of genres–art or sports—and chose art. We set about crafting a film featuring the work of Japanese artist Naomi Namba, who exclusively paints pictures of aggressive-looking wolves. Over the course of two filming days in her single room art studio/apartment, Naomi told us her story, including her path to the US and her struggles to be emotionally strong enough to survive here. She spoke of her difficulty in adjusting to the competitiveness and toughness of New Yorkers and cited this as her inspiration for painting pictures of wolves. “Wolves are smart, tough, untamed…I want to be like them…I paint wolves as sort of a self meditation: You can be strong! You can be strong!” she explained.

After our fabulous editor had an initial go at the footage—eliminating large chunks of scenes that didn’t work, cleaning up dialogue, and crafting a story arc—the three of us gathered in front of the computer to smooth things out. Over the course of nine hours on that Sunday evening, we debated over each tiny detail. Why don’t we add her voiceover over that footage? Should we start the end credit music a half second earlier? Should we hold the frame on the art for a bit longer so that it doesn’t feel too jumpy? Should we speed this up or slow that down? Does that scene move the story forward or stop it in its tracks?

Our final product clocked in at just under 7 minutes. On Monday at noon, with the demands of our day jobs pressing, we packed up the film and sent it off for judging.

We will find out at the end of March whether our film was chosen as one of twelve finalists to be shown at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. Although I recognize that as a novice filmmaker it is highly unlikely that the film will receive that honor, I’ve already won. No matter the outcome, I can now proudly say that after years of just dreaming about it, I am a documentary filmmaker.