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Doco makers tell it like it is

Last night’s Writers Room in Auckland saw Doc Edge’s Dan Shanan MCing a discussion with documentary filmmakers Annie Goldson and Sumner Burstyn.

The audience included a good selection of Auckland’s documentary filmmaking community as well as Script to Screen’s broader church of emerging filmmakers (doco or narrative), writers and other non-rugby types. After Shanan’s tongue in cheek aside that it appeared Jews did indeed control the film world, the panellists got down to the serious discussion of success, politics and money.

Shanan opened with the question, When do you feel a project is a success? Goldson responded with “Never”, although she went on to acknowledge that with her most recent film Brother Number One, she was pretty happy with it. “There are only a couple of shots I would change,” she said. “Sometimes it’s fortuitous that things come together. I’m pleased with it.”

Burstyn was more pragmatic. Acknowledging that she and Tom self-funded their films, “We have to make a profit or we don’t eat.” Their previous two films have made money, so they’re not starving.

Moving on to broader success, she noted a moment in Berlin last year where This Way of Life screened in competition and came away with a Jury Prize, although that was not the success in her mind.

She described Berlin’s very film-literate festival community and said that, following a screening and Q&A session, she and TWOLsubject Colleen Karena were approached by a woman “dripping in diamonds”, with tears ruining her make-up. The woman thanked Colleen and said, “I know our lives are different but you’ve told my story.”

That, for Burstyn, was success – the film being seen as being about struggle and not about an East Coast Maori family.

“What about the Oscars?” asked Shanan. Burstyn shook her head.

The discussion turned to film and TV, what the differences were in producing for each, and why there seemed to have been a marked increase in the popularity of theatrically-released documentaries in the last few years.

Both panellists noted that there was a lot of “factual” programming on TV. “A paucity of documentary on TV contributes,” Goldson said. Burstyn was more direct. “We’re not that dumb. We want to see something intelligent.”

In the commercial TV world, there’s little perceived value in “real” documentary. After it had won in Berlin, screened successfully at the NZFF and other international festivals, TVNZ offered Burstyn $600 to give it a small screen outing.

The ethics of making documentary films also came up for discussion, the decisions made along the way about what will or won’t make final cut.

Goldson and Burstyn offered different experiences of this, particularly in reference to subject’s rights to influence the end result – a timely subject for discussion with the newly-released BSA report on reality programming.

Goldson gets release forms signed and only invites subjects to see the film when it’s in reasonable shape. She maintained that she retains editorial control (and does much of her editing herself) but is open to negotiation with subjects.

Burstyn offered two completely different experiences. On This Way of Life releases were never signed up front and the Karenas didn’t see the film prior to public screening. In fact, it was in the foyer before the film’s opening at the NZFF that Peter Karena handed the signed releases to Burstyn.

On her current film, working title Yolanda’s Last Portrait, two sets of releases were signed by the subjects, one written by Burstyn and, later, one by a lawyer. However, since one of the film’s two main subjects (a brother and sister) had become mentally ill since the signing of the release, it raised questions of their competency at the time the releases were signed.

While the signing of releases gives filmmakers legal rights to use footage as they see fit, there are decisions beyond what best tells the story to consider. Burstyn acknowledged that there were omissions in the story-telling of This Way of Life (particularly around aspects of the relationship between Peter and his father) that were omitted because the Burstyns took the decision that to include certain shots and information would have an unduly negative effect on the Karena children.

This led into a discussion – given this was a Writers Room session – of how much writing was invloved in the development of a documentary. Again, the two panellists offered different views.

Goldson said she did a lot of research prior to shooting. “I do think in narrative terms and develop the story, turning points… I think a lot about structure. It gets lost in the edit, but when you get lost it’s good to go back to the structure.”

She also said that she remained open to change but found that having a solid original framework to reference was helpful.

Burstyn told of a very different approach on TWOL, where the footage (acquired over three and a half years) was labelled and put away but not viewed. Only when it came to editing was it all looked at, allowing “the gods of documentary” to reveal the story to the filmmakers.

She also said that on Yolanda, she and Tom started with an idea of what the story was. “Two thirds of the way through the edit, we realised we’d got it wrong.” The film is now going in a different direction and even the original title is up for debate.

In response to a question about use of re-enactments and other “devices” such as animation, Goldson took a long view, saying they were part of the toolbox. Such things could be viewed as manipulative, but everything a filmmaker does, framing a shot, choosing a lens, cutting or letting the camera keep rolling, adding music, editing, could be seen as manipulative. Any finished film, narrative or documentary, is the result of one person’s interpretation of events.

She also noted that, historically, documentarians had to use re-enactments because the ability to be somewhere with the gear set up at a given time was a much more arduous task. Nowadays, the toolbox is enormous – and a lot lighter.

Burstyn didn’t use reenactments for TWOL, but was lucky in that she lived very close to her subjects. When key events took place, such as the Karenas house burning down or being demolished, she was notified by neighbours and able to be there and shooting very quickly.

For Yolanda, she was using animation, “because one of the subjects is a visual artist, but it’s manipulative. But just because we can doesn’t give you the right. The first responsibility is to the subject.”

Annie Goldson’s Brother Number One opened at the NZFF earlier this year. It will have a wider theatrical release early next year. “We were going to do it now but there’s some sporting event on.” It’s currently confirmed for other international festivals, but announcements are embargoed.

The Burstyn’s This Way of Life screened at several international festivals last year and on MTS. The DVD is available from Cloud South’s website.

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