Posted by: Alison Gammon | February 28, 2010

Directors’ panel tells why ‘There Are No Small Stories’

Aspiring filmmakers eager to illustrate global issues affecting people today can take tips from a panel of directors who have the techniques down. In this morning’s “There Are No Small Stories” panel, four directors shared how they portrayed global issues through one individual or one family’s story.

“If you follow the subjects over time, you can illuminate the global issues through that person and what they face,” said three-time Oscar nominee Julia Reichert, who facilitated the discussion.

Directors Laura Poitras (“The Oath”), Lixin Fan (“Last Train Home”) and Carlos Hagerman (“Those Who Remain”) discussed some difficulties they faced in drawing the line between filmmaker and friend as they developed relationships with their subjects.

Poitras doesn’t make eye-contact with her subjects when filming in an effort to “be observant when filming.” Fan said he also tries to not make eye contact, however, it was especially difficult for him because unlike the other directors on the panel, he was of the same ethnicity as his subjects. In one case, Fan struggled to make an ethical decision about whether or not to step in on a physical altercation his subjects were having. His close relationship with his subjects and the separation as a filmmaker was in jeopardy was conflicting, and in the end, he went with his instincts and separated the physical dispute. Though the fight was indeed difficult for those involved, it was a “lucky break” for Fan and his crew.

While Fan got a lucky break in capturing the intimate fight, other unexpected changes in direction can force the filmmakers to alter their original ideas.

“Sometimes what you want to tell the world doesn’t align with the people you are filming,” said Poitras. “You have to change your story.”

So for inspiring filmmakers hoping to get a few pieces of advice from the veterans, here’s a summary of what I learned from the panel:

  • Build relationships with your subjects, but separate that relationship when filming by resisting eye contact.
  • Be flexible and open to change- your story may take an unexpected turn and you’ll have to go with it.
  • Be prepared to challenge assumptions- what you learn may completely contradict what you though you knew about a subject.
  • Bring your personality to the way you work.

Finally, remember that there are no small stories; as Fan told one aspiring audience member interested in a health care film but lacking experience and resources, “every small story can reflect much bigger issues.”

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