Challenge

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I already told Ben G. this joke, but it's the only joke about documentary film I know:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in documentary film?
A: First, you start with a large fortune...

I've been thinking about this since this morning, when I had my first chance to talk (albeit briefly) one-on-one with each of the new teachers. The very first one, a young woman, said straight out that she didn't care to participate and that she hated the "commercialization" of (in this case) the Teacher Corps. That's not a direct quote, but my interpretation of what she said. And there was no hostility in the statement, just a simple rejection of something behind the concept -- her idea of the motive behind it perhaps, or the motive behind film/video/television in general. She referred to negative experiences with the media in the past, and having had plenty of bad experiences with the media myself (from the other end of things, I assume) I can't say I blame her.

The irony was that in telling me she wanted nothing to do with my film, she ensured that I noticed her immediately and liked her right away. She was thoughtful and honest and willing (very, very willing) to challenge people around her. I love that and I want to meet more people who approach the world that way. But it leads me to think that it would be helpful if I discussed briefly my own motives. I spent the morning asking each of these new teachers, "what brought you here? What do you hope to accomplish during your time in the Teacher Corps?" In short, what's your purpose? And it's a question that could equally apply to me, so I'm offering my own answer.

I know this much: I'm not cut out to be a teacher -- or at least, not a public high school teacher in the delta. There was a brief moment when I considered applying to the MTC myself, but the impulse was driven by my desire to be of use to the Corps, not because I particularly wanted to become a teacher. I recognized immediately that an ambivalent teacher would be of no use to the Corps. But I continued to nose through the then-first-year teachers' blogs for the next few months, and one evening, on an impulse, I left a casually supportive comment on one teacher's blog. Within hours I found myself quite unexpectedly pulled into the possibility of making this film. It was not so much a matter of me making a proposal as it was a happy intersection of circumstance. But I discovered that I could be of use to the MTC using skills that I already have in a medium and artfom to which I've already devoted myself, so I was eager to provide whatever service I could.

This film isn't for me, it's for the Teacher Corps. This is their film, not mine. At present, the Corps has left its creation in my hands, but at the end of the day my mission is to serve the larger interests of the MTC before all others. It's not wholly about charity, of course; the project will also (I hope) serve some of my own interests, but they're predominantly intangible. For me, this project is an opportunity to prove my ability to handle a large-scale documentary production, a chance to gain experience and put some of my theories to the test, and above all, to dig deeper into my chosen medium. What it emphatically is not about is money or commercial success. My cinematic roots lie in generations of filmmakers who turned away from the industry and set out to make films of substance, films that generally only a small, dedicated audience would ever see. I'm not interested in some reality-television version of the MTC (sorry, Ben; I know how you love your reality TV), and in spite of some of the language in the release form I don't expect anyone to ever "buy" any part of this film. I do hope that people see it, provided it goes forward; and if people like it, if I find that I've made a film with some narrative or artistic merit, obviously that would make me very, very happy. But foremost I want to produce a film that advocates for the Teacher Corps, and my interest in getting it seen comes from my desire to see it serve the Corps as well as possible. Any concrete benefit that derives from the film belongs completely to the MTC, not to me. All I'm asking for myself is a chance to make a better filmmaker of myself through applied practice, and a chance to use my training and abilities to help and further the MTC's goals in whatever way I can.

I didn't have time to go into any of that this morning, though. I have no desire to push anyone who doesn't want to be involved into participating; this is an inherently intrusive, sometimes tension-filled process that only the willing should undertake. But I hope I get a chance to talk to her again and throughout the year, without the camera if that's what she prefers -- and not just about this film project, but about her experiences. I can tell she's going to have some interesting things to say, and I want to understand her point of view. I need as much honest input as I can get if I'm going to be true to the teacher's experience of the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

As far as on-camera subjects go, though, I think I'm going to be spoiled for choice. This is a very thoughtful, well-spoken group of people embarking on an intensely challenging period of their lives -- it's an innately interesting situation. So much so that I'm having to reconcile myself to the fact that there's going to be more going on than I can reasonably hope to capture. One of the hardest things about documentary, especially at the beginning, is that for all your planning and plotting and tentative ideas about the arc of the story, the film in many ways has its own mind and its own will. Documentary isn't so much about directing as it is about guiding when you can or, more often, just hanging on and keeping an open enough mind to see what's in front of you. But there's no question that in many ways I'm going to be looking to the teachers to help me find a handle, and I want them to feel confident that we're all working towards the same ultimate goal.

Speaking of which, I hope everyone reading this makes note of their ability to post comments and feels free to use it. And if comments don't suit you, I love to get email and I do my best to answer promptly. I want to know what people are thinking -- and by that I mean what they're really thinking. I'm going to trust that nobody is afraid to pose a challenge or to disagree with me and lay out all the reasons why. In fact I am actively inviting you to do so. Thus far, I think it's safe to say we're off to a good start on this point.

PS: Oh, and also, for anyone who uses an RSS feed reader, this blog does have a feed.