I recently returned from the 20th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham NC where I saw around 18 films in four days and came away exhilarated and inspired. Here’s some information on just a few of the films that made lasting impressions on me.
Strong Island- Unflinchingly honest. Inventive. Hard. A soul bearing journey through grief as the filmmaker investigates his brother's murder, 25 years later. Combining the personal with the political, Strong Island looks at the corrosive effects of loss, racism, and institutional injustice. The film won the Charles E Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award. It also has a distribution deal with Netflix.
Quest - Intimate, courageous and affirming. We follow the life of the Rainey family in North Philadelphia as they navigate challenging circumstances, supported by their love for one another and the community they create. The film won the grand jury prize for best documentary and the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights at Full Frame and is racking up awards and appearances at other festivals across the U.S.
Plastic China- One of the most painful films I saw. Two families living in a plastic waste recycling facility in China, where they sort through mountains of trash shipped over from Europe and the USA . Imagine your worst nightmare of a hazardous dump. This is far far worse, yet is punctuated by the laughter and fragile hope of the children who work and play there. Part of the film’s effectiveness is that although it is about our runaway consumer culture and its attendant waste, it never directly mentions these things, or overwhelms us with statistics. Instead we see how these families live and begin to understand our complicity in creating their circumstances. The film won Honorable Mention for the Full Frame Environmental Award.
Of course many, if not most documentarians, hope their films will motivate people to take action. The films I saw make me want to finally attend one of the Showing Up For Racial Justice meetings in Asheville, take steps beyond recycling to cut down on our household waste, and re-examine my commitment to building community. Perhaps they will inspire you as well.
I'm back in a darkened theater in the middle of a tech rehearsal with actors. Which means I've had nothing in my stomach all day but two and a half donuts and coffee. Ahh the perils of live theater. I’m creating the video design for Asheville Creative Arts production ofThe Red Riding Hood Show at the Magnetic Stage in Asheville, which runs April 5-9.
Earlier this spring I filmed four short scenes inspired by the silent comedic chases of the Keystone Cops and Roadrunner and Coyote. The actors were fun to work with, full of great ideas, and willing to look foolish. That part of my job was fairly straightforward.
The other part of the video design was to figure out a way to simulate the appearance of live video streaming onstage. That meant trying out various forms of technology to mirror the phone’s camera to the projector and troubleshooting moments to create the most effective visual images. We settled on a mirroring app, Reflector 2, that we've been exploring for the past week. It’s been an interesting marriage of my old and new professional selves.
In my old life I've logged a lot of time in dark theaters, rehearsing with actors, going through the dreaded load in and tech. There is comfort in re-engaging with these rituals. To be familiar with each stage of the process - the first read through, rehearsals, blocking. At the same time it’s a relief not to be in my old role of director. Instead I have one simple job. To supervise the video. So in between scenes I can sit in the dark, writing this blog. Waiting for my part.
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I just uploaded a story to Cowbird, a five year old public storytelling site that combines personal reflective stories with photographs, hoping to archive the collective wisdom and insight of human experience. It's a lofty goal. This is only the second story I've shared at this site, only to discover that today is the last day they will accept new contributions. In the face of more popular storytelling technology, like Facebook, they are closing down and turning their resources towards archiving the nearly 100,000 stories they have collected. It makes me a little sad to think that I barely dipped into this "public library of human experience" as Cowbird's creators call it. I can however go back and read all I have missed.
But I really wanted to talk about the necessity of telling my own story since I am in the business of helping to collect and tell those of others. I've long felt this was imperative. That to do otherwise is to become a kind of voyeur, encouraging others to stand in their truth and risk being vulnerable, when I don't have the courage to do that myself. So that's where the discipline comes in. Personal storytelling as a practice.
Today's Cowbird story, The Vase, could be transformed into audio voiceover for a digital story, if I wanted to take more time and continue to develop it. But for now I just want to act on this storytelling impulse and share this tiny moment, this thinnest sliver of insight. I'm happy I got it in under the wire.
You can read the full story about my mother's black vase here at Cowbird.
I recently took the Hood Huggers International tour to learn more about Asheville’s historically black neighborhoods. The brainchild of DeWayne Barton (also the co-founder of the phenomenal Go Green Opportunities) Hood Huggers takes participants on a personally narrated tour from site to site in a small van. Starting at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, the gymnasium of the former African-American high school for Western NC during segregation, Barton anchors the tour in personal stories. Holding his mother’s yearbook, he talks about the complex feelings expressed by former Stephens-Lee alumni. There is pride about the caliber of the education that students received (many of the faculty held Master’s degrees and were better educated than their white peers ), anger over the loss of this important icon and gathering place for the black community ( the school was bulldozed in 1975), and sadness over the continued disappearance of both real estate and history in Asheville’s black neighborhoods.
Stephens-Lee, the “Castle on the Hill” is a great place to get an overview of the changing face of Asheville- especially the east end
and south slope neighborhoods which are dotted with cranes and other signs of the building boom which has swept the city in the past decade. From this vantage point, Barton recites poetry, tells stories of prominent black leaders and landmarks, and points out the many neighborhood spots that have been erased-including an African American neighborhood that sprung up adjacent to Asheville’s former slave market. And that is just the beginning.
Facts, figures, and stories abound. We drive to a parking lot, the site of Asheville’s first black hospital, hear about a religious leader whose work nurtured U.S. diplomats, visit a church built by a prolific African American architect. Some of the buildings remain, many are gone, erased as part of the 400 acres bulldozed during Asheville’s aggressive urban renewal campaign, or lost to recent gentrification, which is pushing smaller businesses and marginalized communities out of the city they call home. Even with the buildings razed, as long as there are people like Dwayne Barton to collect and tell their stories, a ghost of their presence remains. How fortunate we are to have people in our community like him, who recognize the value in preserving the stories of our past as we navigate the place Asheville will become.
A couple of weeks ago I took an online class offered by the Center for Documentary Studies on branded docs. Before starting the course I thought I knew what branded documentaries were. I had no idea.
It is easiest to explain what branded docs are by talking about what branded documentaries are not. They are not ads designed to directly sell products. They are not the same as product placement. Branded docs are short documentaries funded by a product or organization about a subject matter that aligns with a business' values, mission, or goals. They might tell the back story or history of an organization, like the IBM Centennial Film, They Were There- People Who Changed the Way the World Works, directed by Academy Award winner, Errol Morris.
But the ones that are attracting the most attention right now, are not as directly related to a business or product. Instead, they build credibility and pique the interest of potential customers through association. Branded docs might present a portrait of an artist or althele, or document a way of life or subculture, or call attention to a social or environmental cause.
Up There, a 12 minute branded doc that was commissioned by Stella Artois, documents the dying art of sign painting in New York City. It just happens that the sign these craftsman are painting is of a Stella Artois beer. It's a brilliant move. In a market abuzz with alternative craft brews, Stella Artois could seem too corporate. But the film links the brand's values of heritage, craftsmanship and tradition with the tradition of hand-sign painting itself- one that requires apprenticeship and is worth preserving.
The outdoor clothing design firm Patagonia goes one step further, having sponsored four branded docs in the past two years that champion environmental causes. They even produced a full length documentary, Damn Nation, that premiered at the South by Southwest film festival. It is easy to imagine that Patagonia's customers who buy outdoor clothing would have an interest in environmental stewardship, which is one of Patagonia's core values.
In an increasingly saturated media market, it has become more difficult to keep people engaged with content. Branded docs are one way to build positive relationships with likely customers, and keep them on your page.
Today I went to a social media marketing workshop led by Sarah D. Benoit sponsored by the Western Women’s Business Center and Carolina Small Business Development Fund. If you’re like me, working to grow a small business, probably the last thing you want to do is add one more thing to your to-do list. I certainly heard that from many of today’s participants. There was a lot of "I don’t want to do this.” “Why can’t we go back to the good old days?” “I don’t understand it.” “What am I supposed to say?”
Like it or not we can’t go back. Specific social media platforms may come and go (MySpace anyone? ) but it’s the village square now and if you want people to find and hopefully utilize your products and services, you’ve got to show up. Because I work with small businesses and have a lot of friends who are artists and entrepreneurs I know this is a struggle. But what if it didn’t have to be ? What if we could find a way to make marketing fun? Impossible you say? I’m not so sure.
Let’s try a little re-framing exercise. Have you ever worked on a project or seen a piece of art or eaten a meal or heard music that you adored? That you just wanted everyone else to experience? That you couldn’t wait to tell people about? What if we could harness that kind of natural enthusiasm about our own work life and share that with the people around us? I’m not talking about the “Hey here’s a picture of my really cute dog” or “I’m so mad at the political scene” kind of sharing which dominates my personal Facebook feed. We’re talking about marketing a business after all. But that doesn’t mean that your business social media stream has to turn into a used car lot- constantly hawking your wares. In fact, if you primarily use it for that kind of self promotion, it’s likely that no one is going to tune in at all.
If you are doing work you love or offering a service or product that you passionately believe in, why not share a piece of that passion? It doesn’t have to be a long post like this one. (Whoops.) But it has to be authentic. Maybe it’s a link to a great podcast you heard, or a memorable experience you had with a client, or a snapshot of a work in progress. I’m going to start thinking of it as the work story I might share with a friend at the bar, after a long and productive day. In his book Show Your Work Austin Kleon lists lots of fun ways to share what you do. And like Sarah D. Benoit, Kleon dispels the myth about using social media to sell things. What we’re really doing is creating community. Stepping away from our desks to stretch our legs in the village square, stopping by the community well to get a sip of water, and having a chat with whoever we see there. Just checking in and telling them what’s going on.
Sarah H Benoit shares her social media smarts.
Right company is more important than will
Years ago my friend Curtis introduced me to this concept, in the context of the importance of nurturing relationships to help maintain a spiritual practice. I think about this now after returning from a week at the Kopkind Colony/Center for Independent Documentary Film Retreat or Magic Film Summer Camp as I prefer to call it. So many sweet connections with deeply gifted filmmakers. Inspiring and sometimes difficult conversations, startlingly beautiful work, deep wells of stories, laughter, and friendship.
It's funny how you don't realize something is missing from your life until you stand in the thick of it. I hadn't noticed my aching need for a community of artists, of filmmakers specifically, who were engaged in figuring out the work, until I was plopped down in the middle of them on an old hippie commune in Vermont. And it made me remember my other tribes, the people and places where I found such refuge in community. My Big Shed/Digging In family and the rest of the crew at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. The visionary artists and activists at Alternate Roots. The creative pack of actors, playwrights and directors at Trinity Rep. Deep binding friendships from college.
And the one thing that made these relationships possible was the gift of time. Taking a week out of my so-called "real life" to attend a retreat, staying up late at night to talk, sharing breakfast with a friend. When I was younger, time seemed expansive. There was plenty of time to go to school, do my homework, play with friends. The same held true in college, living together, taking classes, eating, laughing, talking. But now in my fractured life, with all it's instantaneous media distractions, I have to make real effort to stay in relationship. To maintain and nurture community. To feed it with the gifts of time and attention.
We do ourselves and the world a great dis-service when we think we can or have to do it alone. Inspiration doesn't necessarily come when we sweat out a product alone, turning ourselves into art martyrs out of some mistaken concept of creativity as suffering. Sometimes the good stuff only comes when we find our tribe, and toss our creativity lightly back and forth among trusted hands.
I’m listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s audiobook, Big Magic, again. This morning I heard one of my favorite quotes, the one where she talks about the discussion she has with the fearful part of herself that makes itself known whenever she embarks on a new creative venture. I like how Elizabeth addresses the fear directly, as an entity that is outside of herself, who will always pipe up with a barrage of unhelpful advice, when faced with something new. A new job, a new street, a new relationship, a new artistic project. "Dear Fear,” she begins.
She doesn’t try to ban the fear, she accepts its presence on her creative journey. She bids it welcome and tells it she knows it is trying to protect her and that it will insist on coming along for the ride. She does, however, set several important ground rules. First and foremost she does not let it drive.
I walk the tightrope between the opposing forces of risk and fear. My fearful side is quite noisy, but I am learning to coexist with it, instead of trying to stuff it in the trunk or letting it plot the course. (Seriously, my fear would never let me leave the house. It doesn’t think it’s safe to go anywhere.) I used to wonder what happened to the part of me who travelled in Greece alone and once hopped on a train hoping it was going in the right direction. But I realize that I drew on that part to switch careers in midlife, after earning my livelihood in theater for 25 years. My risk-taking courageous side accompanies me every time I take a new class, or apply for a grant, or figure out a new skill on the computer. I have a desire, an impulse, an inkling and my inner adventurer whispers in my ear, “Why not?”
When I consider the films that I’ve made with Mountain Girl Media I can see that I’ve chronicled the stories of other people’s adventures. The impulse to solo hike the AT, to take a beloved hobby and turn it into a business, to do something significant about the environment. Fear isn’t our only companion on the creative journeys we take. Curiosity, excitement, and joy, all come along for the ride.
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren't just for entertainment.
Don't be fooled
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
-From Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony
This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a three day art and story making workshop with Mary Lounsbury, the founder of Mythos-Sphere, which brings people together to share the joy of creative expression in community. Held on the beautiful grounds of Warren Wilson College, workshop participants wrote, drew and explored inner archetypal characters and stories, all while dipping in and out of the spring woods and gardens that surround the campus.
It was a lovely chance to drop into a world of myth and meaning, play, reflection and renewal. To let some of our deep stories, the ones we don't even realize that we are carrying, bubble up. To investigate their meaning, in community.
So what does this have to do with digital storytelling? A few things I think. All artists have to take the time to fill the well, to rediscover and be excited about their own creativity again, so workshops like these are soul-filling. And then there are the stories. I don't think we truly appreciate all the ways that stories instruct our lives. I am inspired by the stories of hope I hear, haunted by stories of tragic failings, challenged by stories of truth. What a gift it is to take three days off and pay attention to the characters and patterns of stories - to bow to the heroes, the so-called villains, the tricksters and shape shifters. To recognize them in my own life and in the stories told by others. So it doesn't matter if the story appears in a film, a play, or a book. Because a good story is like a map. It takes you from one place to another and prepares you for the journey.
Last week I went back to Durham for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. My first day I saw six films and almost went to a seventh but thought better about it. Seeing good work is always inspiring and I quickly identified a unifying theme, the art of obsession.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith chronicles a time of fertile creativity in a New York City building where jazz greats collide and play music until dawn. All of this takes place in the same building where the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith lived. From 1957-65 Smith took tens of thousands of photographs and made miles of taped audio recordings of the goings on in the building.
The film is a part of a much larger project which involves the task of archiving all of Smith's material and has spawned an audio series, an exhibition, a book, and now a documentary film.
What struck me is that the entire project is fueled by obsessive drive - Smith’s to ceaselessly record images and sounds, the musicians' to play and create, the documentarians' to sift through stacks of photographs and recordings and to craft stories we can follow. Their work sifting through all this data is like someone blazing a trail through the stacks in a hoarder’s apartment.
Forever, Chinatown, drops us into the obsessive world of Frank Wong, who spent decades making intricate dioramas of the Chinatown of his youth. An aging optimist in the midst of a changing San Francisco, Wong's lovingly created, hyper-realistic dioramas present an idealized version of Chinatown tha_t may never have existed.
Uncontrollable obsession is a central theme in Off the Rails, which follows the life of Darius McCollum, a man arrested 32 times for operating a subway car or bus as he impersonated an NYC transit operator. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, McCollum's obsession with trains is both his joy and his downfall.
I think documentarians have to be a bit obsessive. You have to fall in love with your subject, whether it is a person or an object, and be willing to compulsively learn more and more about it. When the folks from The Jazz Loft Project started sifting through the 44,000 pounds of W. Eugene Smith's photos, notes, and tapes in 1997, I'd be willing to bet they had no idea that they had stumbled into their life's work for the next 18 years. If they had, would they have started? Obsessions are like that. You never know where they will lead.