As the mainstream media shuts down foreign bureaus and cuts back on investigative journalism, “documentary film is filling that void,” says Matthew Heineman, 34, as he and his fellow documentarians gathered at THR‘s Documentary Roundtable. Heineman’s own film, City of Ghosts, focuses on the citizen journalists who risked their lives to get word out from Raqqa, Syria. His fellow filmmakers are no less engaged with real-world issues: Cries From Syria, from Evgeny Afineevsky, 45, recounts the country’s searing civil war; The Final Year, by Greg Barker, 54, offers an inside look at the Obama State Department; The Force, directed by Peter Nicks, 49, chronicles problems within the Oakland Police Department; and Step, from Amanda Lipitz, 37, tells how being part of a girls’ step dance team instilled confidence in a group of Baltimore high school seniors. In Strong Island, Yance Ford, 45, throws a light on the justice system by revisiting the murder of his own brother; while Jane, by Brett Morgen, 49, recounts how primatologist Jane Goodall found her calling and became a lifelong advocate for African wildlife.
Are you ever conflicted when you’re shooting a scene where things aren’t going well for your subjects, but you know it’s going to make a great movie? Greg, that must have happened when you were filming the election night party at the home of former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem are there expecting to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s election, but it didn’t turn out that way.
GREG BARKER As a filmmaker, obviously I could see how it was unfolding. There were people who didn’t want us in that room. They thought it was too political. But, clearly, I knew as it was happening that it was a momentous scene. But that’s what we live for, right? To get those moments when things are unfolding in front of the cameras, which we then share with an audience. Do you ever pull back, is it too intimate? That wasn’t the case at that time. But I think we all wrestle with that question.
Amanda, in your film, you’re dealing with high school girls in a step dance group, and some of them go through rough moments. Did you ever feel like, “Maybe I should shut off the camera”?
AMANDA LIPITZ I never felt that way, and the girls never asked me to shut it off because I think I had gained so much trust between all of us and their families. They felt safe, and they knew I wasn’t going to use it in an exploitative way. I had made over 30 short films about first-generation students going to college and girls’ education. And so they knew and had seen my other films. They saw kids who looked like them, mothers that reminded them of their mothers. And they knew the tone of my storytelling.
Peter, your film follows the Oakland Police Department. Initially it looks like it’s going to be a positive movie about police reform, and then events take it in a different direction. Was there part of you that said this makes for a better movie?
PETER NICKS When we went in there, part of our pitch was, “Hey, your story hasn’t been told. You’ve been flattened out into a two-dimensional narrative. We’re not going to make a commercial about this department, but we promise to tell your story.” This was a department that was in an active process of reform. There were many people inside that department that did not want us there. But what I like to say is that we promise to humanize, but humanizing means unpacking you in your full three dimensions. So when things went so horribly wrong [three successive police chiefs resign in the wake of a department sex scandal], does it make a more dramatic film? Absolutely. But it was something that weighed on us very heavily.
You touched on the subject of how you win the trust of your subjects. Matthew, your film is about the citizen journalists from Raqqa, Syria, whose lives were in danger. How did you persuade them to work with you?
MATTHEW HEINEMAN Trust is everything. That’s the bedrock for the types of films that I have made. These guys are members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of activists who banded together to expose the atrocities in their hometown after ISIS took over. I really wanted to make this a character-driven, intimate portrait of this group as they were on the run, as they were moving from safe house to safe house after members of their group were killed and they were forced to flee. That access doesn’t come overnight. It doesn’t happen just by calling them on the phone and saying, “Can I hang out with you for a weekend?” It happens through weeks and months of rapport and trust-building. And becoming part of the fabric of their daily lives. There is a scene at the end of the film where one of our main characters has a nervous breakdown. And going back to the first question, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to film because as a human being all I wanted to do was give him a hug, comfort him, be a friend, but my job was also to capture this moment. I filmed it as one 90-minute take. And then afterward, I gave him a hug and we stayed up all night talking about what he had gone through.
YANCE FORD My biggest challenge in making Strong Island was having to decide to shoot my mother dying in the ICU. It took me a while to hear the neurosurgeon say, “It’s inoperable,” and to understand that “It’s inoperable” means “She is going to die.” When I put those two things together, I immediately knew as a director my main character’s arc was playing out in front of me and that I had a choice to make, right? And I also had this tug of, how can you be talking about your mother as a character when she’s dying? But how can you not talk about your mother as a character because she is the tentpole character in this film? So I blocked out five shots. Four of them made it into the film. And I realized that the solution to the problem that I was having I could solve in the edit. The ethical decision for me would be made in the edit. If I didn’t have the material, I wouldn’t be able to make the choice.
Evgeny, in Cries From Syria, you talk to a whole range of Syrians and refugees and in particular some very young children.
EVGENY AFINEEVSKY I had the same situation like Matt because you’re building this relationship with all these characters. In certain situations, people didn’t want to trust us because of my background being Russian-American. For them, Russians are literally killing their own brothers and sisters. And up until 2013, people were believing that America will come one day and will help do some change like they did in Tunisia or in Iraq. For them, they felt like the Western world betrayed them. They all were looking at me. Why? Why should we trust you as an American who basically neglected us for a long time? And I was explaining: “I can’t be responsible for my government. I am responsible for my people. So I want to bring your story to my people because we don’t know anything about you.” I started the movie in 2015, and I started major shooting only in 2016 because it took time to research, to get close to my characters. I had a character with whom I spent all of Ramadan in order to make him comfortable with me in a room and being in front of the camera and opening his heart. It was a long journey. With the kids, I was in situations where I was giving them my cameras just to play with and feel comfortable with me and ask themselves questions.
Brett, you faced a different challenge in making a film about Jane Goodall since she has had a lot of experience dealing with journalists and filmmakers.
BRETT MORGEN Totally different experience than what you guys are talking about. Jane Goodall had no interest in participating in the film. And to be quite candid, when I was first approached, nor did I. But once I was able to look at the footage [shot by her then-husband Hugo van Lawick in the ‘60s], I knew instinctively that what I’d have to offer in the canon of Jane Goodall films was going to be quite different than anything we had seen before — which is to create a very immersive experience, to invite the audience to feel what Jane felt when she went to Africa for the first time. But she didn’t know that. To her credit, when you approach Jane to do a three-hour or two-day interview, she’s got to save the world, she’s got a lot of other things that are far more important in her mind. It became a little bit of a Frost/Nixon thing. The first question I asked her was, “Do you get tired of telling your story?” And she looked at me and said, “Well, it depends on who is asking the questions.” And I went, “Touche.” To jog her memory, I showed her a sequence of Hugo and Jane falling in love through the lens of the camera. She had never seen any of the footage before. She had no idea it existed. And you can actually see in her eyes, her kind of warming up. But to be totally honest, it wasn’t until she saw the film for the first time that she embraced me. I don’t think our interview would have been good if she was as warm and fuzzy with me then as she is now.
LIPITZ I have been thinking about all of your films, and I realize the common thread between all of us is the mothers in our films — the mothers who hold up the pictures of their sons who died in Black Lives Matter and Jane Goodall and the chimpanzee mother and Samantha Power and the mothers in Syria and Yance’s mother. That is the common thread, and it’s so interesting that these mothers, these women, are the ones holding these communities together.
Yance, Amanda speaks of mothers, and in many ways yours is the most personal film here in that it’s about the murder of your brother and the effect that had on your family. Did you have to convince your mother and sister to sit for those interviews?
FORD I didn’t have to convince anyone who participated in Strong Island to sit for the film. For 15 years, they lived with the silence of what had happened to my brother and their inability to tell their story in a court of law beyond a grand jury. They felt very much that they had been disregarded and that the evidence that they had to offer was not of interest to the police during the investigation. Participating in the film became their way of providing testimony in a way that they hadn’t been able to during the proceedings after my brother’s death. My mother, especially, when she found out I was making the film, she never said no — either to an interview or to us using her home as a staging ground. We shot for hours, for days, in and around the town where I grew up, and we always used her house as a place to keep our gear.
BARKER All of us face this dilemma as filmmakers, particularly when we are making films about people we know. Yours is the most intimate case of that. But we all have to decide, how do we push these relationships with people that we spend a lot of time with and often come to like. In my case, I’d known Samantha Power for 15 years. She and others were very uncomfortable with the amount of time I was spending on the whole Syria question [as it relates to U.S. policy] because these people are also politicians and government officials with an agenda, trying to define their legacy. Ultimately, people can say, “You’re pushing too hard, stop,” and that’s always the risk [we take] to get what we need, to push through that barrier. But I so felt that in your film, Yance. It’s just this intimacy with your own mother and yourself. And your honesty about yourself in the film was just kind of groundbreaking and really brave.
MORGEN One of the big challenges we all have is we have ongoing strong relationships — I lived with Bob Evans for a year when I was doing The Kid Stays in the Picture. During the time that we’re making these films, the people are family to us. We spend most of our waking hours with them. One of the hardest things about being a documentary filmmaker is then you have to go on to the next film. Particularly when the subjects aren’t celebrities, they have to go back to their day-to-day life and you go off to do another film.
Before we sat down, Amanda showed me that she’s still getting text messages from the students who are in her film.
LIPITZ We have a text group, and they knew I was coming here today and they were texting me “break a leg” in little emojis. As documentarians today, we have a very different responsibility than 20 years ago. It’s an incredible time to make documentaries because millions and millions of people see these movies now. And a lot of times I don’t think subjects know what they’re getting into. My girls certainly did not think that anything that has happened with Step was going to happen. When I made the film, I made it so that they could go back to their hometown with their heads held high — that was the only thing I wanted for it. And I just think, now you have a responsibility that you didn’t have before.
MORGEN You’re asking your characters to go on a leap of faith with you, which is what I always tell people up front.
Matthew, Raqqa has now reportedly just been liberated. Have you been in touch over the past few days with the subjects of your film, and how are they responding to the news?
HEINEMAN We have a text group, too, and we text almost every single day. The news that Raqqa has been liberated is quite bittersweet. It’s good that ISIS is gone, but what’s next? What’s the plan? I don’t see much of a plan. One of the big, poignant themes in my film, especially now, is that ISIS is an idea. You can’t fight an idea with weapons, with bombs, with guns. So how do we fight the things that allowed ISIS to flourish in the first place? How do we combat that? I think that remains to be seen, and one of the sad realities is that this is not a happy ending right now. I wish that weren’t the case, but I think they’re not going home anytime soon.
What social impact do you expect your films to have?
AFINEEVSKY On my previous movie, Winter on Fire [about the Ukrainian uprising in 2013], with all the social media that we have been able to create around the movie, I learned this year that the movie, like a baby, started to take its own steps. [In] Venezuela, [they were] using this as their mantra for the revolution this year, and I was like, “Wow.” I all of a sudden got a call from Brazil, where opposition used it last year to impeach the president. And I was like, “Wow.” So nothing to do with Ukraine, nothing to do with the European Union, all of a sudden it’s doing some changes in Latin America. So the social component exists.
NICKS Now, if you’re not satisfied with how the mainstream media is talking about an issue, all you need to do is go out onto social media and you can see these dynamic conversations happening. And when our films come out, we have to think about how do our films fit into those dynamic conversations and how can we use that to kind of pour a little bit of gasoline? And that’s what I find to be particularly exciting. Those conversations and the reimaginings of these films taking place in social media are incredibly important — especially now where we have such divisiveness. We need to get to a next level of the conversation.
FORD Strong Island is a personal story, that’s true, but the end of the film is a really pointed question: How do we decide whose fear is reasonable? Since 2012, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, we have been confronted with more and more of these self-defense cases. And every single self-defense case, the narrative is the same now as it was with my brother’s case 25 years ago, which means that we have a serious problem in our criminal justice system. That now is being backed up with data and scholarship. They’ve crunched the numbers, they have the data that proves that the implicit bias or the explicit bias is there and that it is influencing the way that our criminal justice system arrests people, sentences people. And still, because we live in an age now where reason has somehow become a pariah, it’s partly my responsibility to use the film to say, “OK, if this sounds familiar to you, it’s not an accident.”
What is one piece of advice you would give to a young documentarian just starting out?
FORD Summon your courage. I think that more than anything else, it’s courage.
HEINEMAN It’s sort of a cliche documentary maxim, but if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way. That’s good advice for life, and I think that’s good advice for filmmaking.
NICKS Finding ways to get perspective — whether that means recognizing that the work that you do is so demanding, you need to take care of yourself, your relationships, your friends, your family; but also really getting perspective from listening and really absorbing as much as you can.
AFINEEVSKY For me, documentary filmmaking is to take the camera and just to jump into a jungle and to start to document these things. And then to find the points that I personally can connect to.
LIPITZ My first piece of advice, and this is my first feature film so I say it humbly, is just start shooting. That was the piece of advice given to me. I felt a little frozen. Don’t worry about it. Just go.
MORGEN I will turn it to an aesthetic place. People forget that film is 50 percent sound and 50 percent image. I look at every shot as a world of opportunities. And I think that oftentimes a documentary, because the word “document” is germane to documentary, people think that you can just document, cover the action. It’s our responsibility as directors to bring as much as we can, to make that as complete an experience as possible.
BARKER In terms of starting out, what I would say is be honest and be authentic. Be clear about what your intentions are with the film. And then for me, what I always ask myself is: Why this film, why now? Am I speaking to this moment? And given the moment that we all find ourselves in, that question for me is more relevant than ever.
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.