This is the second part of the article on Steve James at this year’s Doc Edge Festival and Screen Edge Forum. Part one is here.
James presented a masterclass on “The Process of Storytelling and of Discovery” on day two of Screen Edge. Using clips from a number of his films, he explored his own methodology of filmmaking. That methodology varied considerably from film to film, depending on the subject matter.
On Hoop Dreams the focus changed. It started out as a much smaller project, its focus on a single playground. When a talent scout offered Arthur Agee, one of the kids James had already shot, the chance of a college education, James’ plan became to follow Arthur for four years, and see if the scout make good on his promise. To hedge their bets, the filmmakers also selected a second kid, William Gates, in case Arthur’s story didn’t work out.
James admitted they didn’t think through what would happen if they decided to drop one of the boys.
Practically, four years was a lot of time to cover. They planned to shoot one day a month, and increased that when funding made it possible. In the second year, they shot 40 days; in the third, 100. That condensed to the opening 40 minutes of the three-hour film.
“I like long films. If it works, it pushes beyond – it makes for a more immersive, profound experience.”
That extended production period and run time shouldn’t suggest Hoop Dreams was easy to finance. In the early 90s its sports-related subject matter wasn’t considered sufficiently serious for a feature documentary. Paying jobs had to be found as well, and the whole process took seven and a half years.
James used a number of clips from the film to support his belief that the more time that’s taken over something, the better it gets – including the filmmakers, he suggested! He preferred to interact with his subjects rather than behave as a fly on the wall. That led to some discussion about the role of the documentarian and where the line is drawn between observation and intervention. In the case of a clip James shared showing one of the families at home by candle-light, because the power had been cut off, there was some compromise. Shoot the family in their miserable circumstances, and then help out by paying the power bill.
In the case of a clip James shared showing one of the families at home by candle-light, he’d arrived at the house unexpectedly to find the power had been cut off. There was some compromise: Shoot the family in their miserable circumstances, and then help out by paying the power bill.
On interview techniques, James’ opinions matched closely those of fellow Screen Edge guest Robert May – that a rapport needed to be built with subjects before one got to the good stuff. May spoke about interviews running up to six hours, the first half or more of which was an interviewer and subject getting to know one another.
While James didn’t seem quite as structured in his approach to interviewing subjects as May, James did acknowledge that there was considerable art to them – not least knowing when to shut up and let a subject tell their story. There were also times when one should not be filming, he acknowledged.
After the death of Roger Ebert, the subject of the film Life Itself, Roger’s wife Chaz called Steve and invited him to come over. When he arrived, he put the camera bag down in the corner and left it there the whole time.
“Sometimes it’s important to experience the moment, not capture the moment.”
James addressed the issue of POV and how to establish it, which he said was not by being fair. While he didn’t aspire to impose a POV as forcefully as a filmmaker like Michael Moore, it was present in Hoop Dreams, although often it’s subtle and in the background, relying on the intelligence and integrity of the audience to understand it.
The first attempt at cutting Hoop Dreams was very fair – spend five minutes with Arthur, five with William, and so on. It didn’t work or engage the audience, James admitted, because it wasn’t telling either boy’s story. Subsequent cuts, allowing the movement between William and Arthur’s stories to be determined by the events, were considerably more successful.
James made Hoop Dreams with Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx – three white filmmakers in the very black suburbs of West Chicago. Almost 20 years later, James returned to shoot another basketball-related doco, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, for ESPN documentary series 30 for 30.
Despite James’ own history in the locale and his having been a basketball player, neither trumped the race card. He worked with a white camera op to shoot interviews with white people, a black camera op when working with black people. Even so, one woman initially refused to talk because he was white, saying, “You can’t do justice to the situation.”
A 2.5 hour masterclass isn’t the ideal environment for an in-depth exploration of challenging ethical questions, although James clearly disagreed with the woman’s assessment. If the logic is extrapolated, only women can make films about women, children films about children, gay people films about gay people.
By such logic, who gets to make Stevie, James’ film about sexual abuse of children?
James made it clear he didn’t want to make exposé films, saying they felt like a lie. Indeed, to some extent Stevie explores the ethics of documentary making while he is trying to show the reprehensible actions of some people – without judging or excusing them.
On the subjects of endings, James was ambivalent. Sometimes, he felt, there was a natural end point. Having shot through a year for The Interrupters and used the four seasons to give some shape to the film, there was a reasonably obvious point at which to close.
In Hoop Dreams, the boys’ statements made natural ends: ”Don’t forget me when I make it to the NBA.”
”Don’t forget me if I don’t.”
Both examples also satisfied James’ preference for an ending that’s not an ending – one that leaves the door ajar. “Usually you don’t want it to feel like an end, because life goes on. You want to leave the question: What will happen to…?”
Sometimes there was a need for a more definitive ending. There’s no ending more definitive than death, and that was the subject matter of Life Itself.
As the subjects and subject matter of James’ films were different, so were his approaches to them. Which was what he promised going in, and delivered. No easy solutions but, if there were, the good documentaries of the world wouldn’t stand out from the rest.
James did stand out – and not only because of basketballer’s physique.