Focus Pull

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Gradually my ideas about this film are coming into sharper focus. I'm actually a little worried, inasmuch as I'm not worried at all about the film. Usually I'd be a nervous wreck at this point, so this sense of general calm about the project ahead of me is a little perplexing. I think it has something to do with the unknowability of the big picture; my ideas about the film are becoming clearer, but the film itself is still mostly a mystery. It's down to the basic difference between dramatic film and documentary -- with a typical narrative film, you write a screenplay and build a very clear vision of the film in your mind, and then set about planning every aspect of the production in painstaking detail. By the time you set out to shoot, the enormity of the undertaking is so clear and present in your mind that it becomes overwhelming -- you can barely focus on the task at hand for the tight ball of anxiety and expectation you're carrying around in your stomach. Documentary, though, releases you from all of that -- since you're dealing with real people living real lives, there's no pre-determined arc, no well-defined image of what's to come. All you have is what's in front of you at any given moment and some loose theories about how it might all fit together. Obviously you have to enter into any film with some plans and expectations, but you're forced to remind yourself along the way that in dealing with the spontenaity of reality, you can't cling to your plans too tightly -- to do so could blind you to events playing out in front of your lens if they don't match your preconceptions. The need to keep the present and immediate future foremost in your mind keeps you from falling into the anxiety trap.

The downside is that it becomes too tempting to forget about the long term structure of the film. To counteract that, I've been spending a lot of time working out structural ideas, playing with my assumptions, and digging into background material. So far that's mostly been about books -- I'm reading a lot about race and class, and doing some research into prominent black writers and artists from the delta. (I'm counting on some as-yet-undetermined delta poet to provide me with a title for this film eventually -- 'cause so far, nobody has any ideas.) I'm digging into the blues more than I have in the past since it's such a major part of the expression of delta culture. And I'm trying to learn more about contemporary equivalents of the blues -- the kids are into rap, so it's time for me to learn more about that, and hopefully isolate some delta-specific examples.

I'm also at the point of deciding upon specifically which of these new teachers I want to focus. The problem, of course, is that by choosing one, I might appear to be rejecting another, which is emphatically not my intention. Every one of these teachers will over the coming year be living a story worth telling. My problem is, I'll only have enough time, money, and tape to tell one or two of those stories, so I have to choose. So far I've narrowed it down to four. Tomorrow I'll be revisiting the teachers as a group with the goal of a) spending some time with them without the camera, because the camera can be as much an obstacle as a tool; and b) confirming my choices in my own mind. Then I'll approach those four and ask them whether they want to participate, and explain what it would mean for them, because it's important that they know what to expect. That in itself has the potential to narrow my choices further; if not, I'll be taking some time to film each of them before paring the group down to one or two -- or three at most. It's going to be a tough choice since they each have something to bring to the project that none of the others can bring. The good thing is that, by adding real people to my ideas about the film, the film itself becomes clearer in my mind. Formulating questions for a specific person is hugely easier than formulating questions for an abstract concept of a teacher.

Meanwhile, I'm also trying to figure out this short spec film we're working on. It's hard because, again, it's a story worth telling, and if I'm going to do it at all I want to do the best job I can of telling it. At the same time, it's not my primary story, and in the time I've alotted to it I can't really expect to do tell it completely. On some level I view it as a dry run -- a chance to work out how to approach the larger project and address any technical or conceptual issues that crop up. On the other hand, if the possibility of pursuing the larger project pivots on the spec film, then it's absolutely necessary to hit my stride as soon as possible so that it's as good a pursuasive tool as possible. It's tricky to take something so seriously when you expect that ultimately it will become peripheral. The alternative, of course, is to assume that it will have its part to play in the main film as well -- as with everything else in documentary, you can't really know what's most important when you begin. You just have to deal with each moment as best you can and trust that it'll all work out in the end.

PS: I still haven't gotten around to fixing those IE issues yet. Sorry. I'll do it over the weekend, probably.