Thursday, June 12, 2008

Documenting Lives

Shannon and I watched "Capote" this past weekend (thank you netflix!). All we had really heard about the movie was that it was good, and Oscar worthy. So we sat down, and pressed play.

There's something I've been subtly exploring and thinking about that this movie brought out. The difference between a documenter's (whether a journalist or writer, filmmaker, reality tv producer, or photographer) and their subject(s).

It's an odd relationship.

The documenter's goal can be ultimately selfish. He/She wants to complete a project in a demanding medium documenting the life or reaction to life of someone else. Most of the time the goal is not to befriend someone, it is not to get to know them better, or really help them, the goal is simply to document.

Here are my examples:

Reality Shows: In my short career, I've watched a few interviews conducted and I've noticed that Producers are very adept at drawing out the individual while keeping their own lives at arms length from the subject. They don't get too personal. Some use a gushing tactic to pump up the ego of the subject into a false sense of importance, to allow them to say what they were actually thinking because, obviously, it's important to the audience.

The subjects/contestants/reality stars can be skilled character craftsmen. Once comfortable with his interviewer, I watched one subject proclaim, "I have some GREAT one liners for you! Just wait!" before the camera had started rolling.

Positive reinforcement can be a great motivator in this way. If it cracks that candy-coated shell we all walk around with, all the better for the viewing audience and choices for the Story Editors.

It can work the other way around, though I wouldn't use this tactic: negative reinforcement. I've seen other producers (on a completely different show) use this to get some interesting interview responses. One interviewee was pissed off at the producer and gave an almost hilarious interview simply because all of her answers were coming from a place of anger.

Another problem the documenter runs into is being objective. Journalists probably struggle with this the most of all people that document. That's their ultimate goal, objectivity. Filmmakers, like Michael Moore, don't have to worry about that as much, they can pick a side and it seems already know the result of their search before they start. Or...well...already believe whole-heartedly that their hypothesis is correct.

I'd say that's probably true for most of the documentaries I've seen. The hypothesis is generally correct, and even if the evidence might prove otherwise, the filmmakers will manipulate you to feel the same way they do.

"My Kid Could Paint That" was interesting in the way that the filmmaker really couldn't make up his mind. He had no idea what was happening. No clue. The only real conclusion you can make about these people is that it's unsettling what happen and is happening with their daughter, but you feel the torment of the filmmaker. You want to believe the family SO much, but all your better judgment tells you not to.

So herein lies the truth, for me anyways...documenting someone else's life is TOUGH on the documenter. It takes a toll on both parties involved, but at the same time, it's an odd and beautiful connection that two people or a group of people can share and then share with the world.

I think that's the world I want to be in.

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