Episode 9 or ‘The Personal Documentary’

5 07 2010

Yes, this episode is short.  No doubt about it.  When we began this project the only rules were:

  1. We’d make a film a month.
  2. No film could be shorter than 3 minutes.

So, technically, yeah this film meets those requirements.

At the same time I’m a little fearful that people will somehow feel gypped by this piece and feel that it somehow doesn’t measure up to the bar we’ve set with the previous eight episodes.  The feeling feels negative but I can see that that’s actually a very good thing.  This project is a far different animal than what it was when we began it.  The response to the films has exceeded my expectations and at times the filmmaking has exceeded what I thought Michael and I were capable of.  And now we give you this episode which on some level is just me cleaning the house. “Are they putting us on?  Is this some kind of piss-take? Is there actually something there?” No. No. Yes.

Already this is sounding like a defense which is not what I intended to write when I sat down to do this post, so let’s start at the beginning.

The opening of the film comes from Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March and this moment of McElwee’s friend Charlene making a strident and valid point about the nature of love forever changed the way I saw both documentaries and relationships.  I’d seen plenty of non-fiction films but this was doing something entirely different: there was no social issue driving the film, there in fact didn’t seem to be anything driving the film other than a certain longing and existential pain and despite that (because of it?) the film flowed easily and through restructuring the seemingly mundane pieces of his own life McElwee made something universal and epic that — with both irony and sincerity in the same breath – equated his search for romantic love with Sherman’s war path through the South.

It struck me as remarkable that it was even “okay” to make a film like this.  Up to that point so much of what I’d seen was staid, poorly-shot films about uprisings in foreign lands heavy with statistics and burdened with good intentions; that to see Sherman’s March was akin to discovering that connected to the house you’ve lived in all your life there’s actually another room.

I came to discover that the Personal Documentary was a genre unto itself.  Folks like Alan Berliner and McElwee were actually in the canon and they had created a tradition that now led to films like Caveh Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict and Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Jay Rosenblatt’s remarkable short films.

More importantly Sherman’s March let me know it was alright for a nonfiction film to involve itself in nothing more than looking at people and emotions and the way lives are lived and could take the seemingly simple pieces of our own existence and rearrange them into something telling and worthwhile.

As part of this project is to try on different traditional documentary styles and to borrow different voices and see how they feel I was aware from the start that one-month would involve making a personal doc.

There’s something else at work too: For anyone who’s been with this project from early on, it’s clear that the subjects in the previous films have – to varying degrees – let their guards down and been honest about their own difficulties and feelings.  Using these conversations, sifting through them each month to create these films, hearing these interviews over and over and all the while not sharing anything about yourself… well, you can only do that so long without feeling like a parasite.

The result of all this is Episode 9.


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