Capturing emotions – filming cinema vérité documentary

CBC’s one hour documentary “Company Town” has been gathering laurels and invites to film festivals since its release last fall. I even see that the film will be screened in a real movie theatre… with people in it… at a film festival in New York city. It is a welcomed sign of change from the online film festivals of last year.

As happy as I am to hear about the positive reviews and awards, my mind today is on the people who let me film them when they are at their lowest. It got me thinking about filming people as they live their lives and how important it can be for a documentary film to give space to let the audience actually see the subjects live. I can add more depth to someone’s story than I can with just interviews stitched together with pretty b-roll.

Filming people when they are at their lowest can be one of the most difficult things to get on camera. Walking into a room full of union workers, who are losing their jobs just before Christmas, with a camera on my shoulder could be easily construed as opportunistic at best and exploitive at worst. Though the film’s director, Peter Findlay, did an amazing job getting access and preparing everyone for our arrival into their lives, it is safe to say that I didn’t feel super welcomed by all and felt lots of trepidation by most.

You have to quickly navigate decades of mistrust, frustration and anger to get the lens into the right place, time and mind space to tell the story of what someone is experiencing and doing it in a way that the subjects stay in the moment and not in their heads.

It is the toughest thing to capture. You can interview them, you can film them yelling at meetings or walking down the street in slow motion, but to film someone coming into their home after a bad day and pouring themselves a stiff drink is a level of trust and acceptance that I have difficulty decribing on how it is gained.

I recently was asked if the size of the camera can distract, intimidate or draw too much attention. I used to believe that a small camera will somehow be less distracting, but after shooting what must be a 1000+ hours of vérité with every size of camera, I believe that it has nothing to do with the camera. If the goal is to be cinematic and supply the production with a fully realized “scene”, it is going to take some work and you are going to have to dance. You are never going to be a “fly on the wall”. If you are a passive observer, you are going to have some very frustrated editors, directors and producers when the footage hits the suite.

This kind of filming isn’t a passive exercise. You need to move to get all the pieces to compress time all while capturing the critical moments and dialogue. The camera being seen is the least of your problems as you are intently, with all of your concentration… staring at someone. Who has that happen to them in regular life?

Wouldn’t it be weird if a person watched you having a conversation with someone about a personal matter even if they didn’t have a camera? Would you let someone just come into your life just to watch you take care of your parent suffering from dementia… no, that isn’t normal.

The families on “Much Too Young” didn’t get used to the crew, they accepted them as collaborators to help them tell their story.

If I had to define what it is that makes it possible, I would say it is about the crew, not the equipment. Not having tech talk in front of the subjects for starters, definitely not communicating that the camera is “rolling”, and having a very talented sound recordist who’s heart is as sensitive to the story as their ears are sensitive to the cooling fans of the camera are all a good start.

I find that keeping the camera with me (when I am not filming) and just chatting with the participants helps them accept me AND the camera as a package deal. Getting acceptance doesn’t happen right away, and some people take longer to relax than others. I sometimes joke that everything I learned about filming vérité, I learned from training horses. How you move, how you communicate and what you have in your mind all effect who or what you are filming. You can read another post of mine about how you have to be the bubble.

Once you have the bubble, you have to have great support from the production office, fixers, local people acting as community liaison and when the need arrises when out in the public, a bit of crowd control and/or security. Planning, making friends and enrolling all come together to the moment that you have to just forget about all that and just encourage everyone to just to let things happen and trust that fortune will smile on the prepared. If the box is built right, then the content will appear to tell the story you are there to help tell.

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