When a Project Births You

September 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The other night I was telling a colleague about the many trials of documentary filmmaking.  One of the problems with this format is that quite often, people who are not oriented towards making films are drawn into the genre, usually by virtue of a powerful story or message they are longing to bring to the world. Because technology is more accessible than ever before, it is quite easy to assume that anyone can make a film.   I once heard Margaret Atwood tell the story of a friend of hers, a doctor, who mentioned to her that when he retired he would “become a writer.”  She replied, “when I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.”  Just because a medium is accessible to you does not mean that you are going to gain any immediate mastery over it.  Owning a scalpel does not mean you should operate.

One of the things about documentary that most people forget is that it is an art form, much like writing or music, it is at its core a creative pursuit and requires a certain creative agility. The problem is that many people who arrive at the door of documentary are oriented towards different modes of expression in the world, say, as in my own case, journalism, environmentalism, or education.  These are important aspects to bring to the genre and to the telling of stories, but all too often overlook the artistic quality that is required to bring a project home.

One of the problems I encountered with my own film –and I can assure you there were many– was that I was not confidently rooted in my artistic sense of self.  I had been trained as a producer, academic and journalist, and was successful at raising money, generating ideas, and writing film proposals.  In retrospect, I also had a strong artistic vision for the film and for how the story should be told that was poetic, intimate and sweet; however, perhaps tragically,  because I lacked an artistic identity, I also lacked confidence in my vision — which I consequently turned over to the hands (and fists) of others.

My advice to new filmmakers is that you first become oriented in your artistic self and make this the starting point for where you are headed- this is where your power ultimately lies. Usually, the artistic orientation you will discover is something very personal, very tender, and intimate.  In the case of my film it was the tender memories of my mother and grandmother when they drove me that spearheaded my fascination with a female taxi driver in Casablanca. It was the intimacy of the car and the relationships that unfold between women while driving, it was the sweet and complicated empowerment of a woman in the driver’s seat her life, with the car as her shelter, the car as her witness.

I am grateful for my film project for many reasons.  Most of all, I am grateful that through the disappointments and travails of it, I unintentionally came to identify as an artist.  Much like pregnancy wherein a woman births a child and a child in turn births a mother, I  birthed a film, and my film birthed in me a new identity.  This is not to claim any great talent, I believe the merits of our artistic works are not really our business if we are doing our best and turning up for our work with our whole hearts. We become artists not only through the practice of our chosen art form, but through how the process of creating in and of itself changes us.

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