‘Hard Earned’ Shows the Challenges of Making a Living and a Life

Economic stories that focus on numbers — employment rates, job creation rates, wages, and inflation — fail to show the real price, the human costs, of financial realities. Hard Earned, an upcoming documentary series from Kartemquin Films, tells stories about people working to make a living and working to make a life following the economic recession.

Hard Earned is a six-part series that aired on Al Jazeera America. The series paints intimate portraits of people from across the country:

  • Emilia Stancati, 50, a tell-it-like-it-is waitress in Chicago and its suburbs who seeks higher wages, weekends off, and Harley riding time
  • Takita Akins, 24, and De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson, 23, who work at Walgreen’s in Chicago and juggle health, kids, and long commutes on public transportation
  • Jose Merino, 32, and Elizabeth Bonta, 27, who live with family members while they save for their own home in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Hilton Kennedy III, 20, and his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez, 18, who live in a garage in the Silicon Valley while preparing for their twins’ arrival
  • Percy, 66, and Beverly, 65, Evans who face working through their retirement years in order to keep their Milwaukee home

They want not extravagant but basic things that bring quality to life — to feel like they are contributing to their jobs, to have opportunities to move up, to get an education, to have their own safe home, to pursue their own passions, not to choose between health and work, and not to worry about money. They work hard to keep up, even try to get ahead, but it seems like something always gets in the way.

Their stories blow away any illusions about the challenges of trying to make a living in this country. The episodes show them balancing everyday decisions about home, health, work, transportation, and paychecks with decisions about finding stability and growing in professions, faith, and hobbies. These decisions and their outcomes give this series its depth and its strength.

DJ, for example, works as a wine and spirits specialist at a Chicago Walgreen’s for $10.50 an hour. That $10.50 an hour comes to $21,000 per year.

But like most everyone, DJ seeks more from work than just a wage — he seeks meaning and wants to make a difference. Beyond that, he wants to be a good role model for his family. He later lands an opportunity to work as a union organizer with a decent salary, but the opportunity comes with a heavier workload and the obligation to buy a car.

Like life, though, every story has uncertainties, upswings, and downswings, such as a car failing to start, a mortgage opportunity falling through, an unexpected expense throwing off the budget. One bit of news proves almost devastating for Hilton and Diana. But there are high points as well, with weddings, new homes, and unexpected opportunities.

Multiple other themes weave throughout the series, such as immigration, generational differences, and cultural expectations. Emilia struggled with arriving in the United States as a child who spoke no English and still struggles with getting along with her father and building a relationship with her daughter and grandson. Hilton, an American citizen by birth who grew up in Mexico, struggles with finding work and learning English. Elizabeth Bonta works hard to support and care for her ailing parents.

The series structure allows everything to unfold organically. Instead of one episode focusing on people in one location, each one weaves sequences from the different narratives throughout. The pacing allows time to get to know them and their circumstances, their hardships and their joys.

The stories drive the series, but relevant stats supplements them. Simple graphics show the difference gaining or losing a couple dollars per hour makes, or what taking on a second job means in terms of money and time. For example, one stat mentions how the number of midwage jobs before the recession was 3.8 million, but the number of midwage jobs after recession was 700,000. The graphics show the obstacles to getting ahead, with salaries dropping and costs rising. Getting ahead is expensive, but so is just getting by.

Different directors filmed the stories for this series. Ruth Leitman captured Emilia’s story, while Brad Lichtenstein captured Percy and Beverly’s story. Joanna Rudnick filmed Hilton and Diana, while Maria Finitzo filmed DJ and Takita’s story. Katy Chevigny captured Jose and Elizabeth’s segments. Even with this multi-director approach, they unite seamlessly.

For the most part, the directors remain in the background, letting their participants take center stage. Occasionally, their presence becomes known but not obtrusively. Off camera, someone asks the Percys, “How much do you still owe?” in reference to their mortgage. They reveal that after 13 years, they still owe the same amount they purchased the house for. At another point Emilia mentions her warnings to the filmmakers about her smoking, motorcycle riding, and truck driver language.

Elizabeth Laidlaw’s light narration provides facts, updates, and insights into their situations without offering judgment or evaluation. Her narration stitches these segments together across the episodes, providing cohesion.

The one word that kept coming back to me throughout this series — and throughout all the Kartemquin films I have seen so far — is dignity. An unfortunate shame can accompany talking about difficult economic situations, leaving people feeling vulnerable about circumstances that often lie beyond their control. The people in this series make themselves vulnerable in talking openly and honestly about their situations, and the series deeply respects that trust and their dignity throughout in letting them tell their own stories in their own ways.

Engaging the Battle for ‘Hearts and Minds’

For the years during the war and for almost a decade after, Vietnam remained an almost untouched subject in the American popular media. Extensive television coverage of men fighting in the bush provided a collective experience accompanied by newscasters’ observations, but not until the late in the 1970s did memoirs, novels, and films begin to delve deeper into the soldiers’, and the nation’s, experiences. Then came print releases of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. East-setting sun of John Wayne’s The Green Berets and the satire of Robert Altman’s MASH aside, Hollywood slowly but surely began to address the war with such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.

A theme running through many of these works is the credible voice of the soldier’s experience. By having been there, the soldier gains an authority not accessible to those who stayed in “the world,” to those who fought against American forces, or to those victimized by those forces. But this plethora of voices provides but one perspective on the horrors that occurred, and while these voices work toward one understanding, there are still many other uncertainties to contend with.

Peter Davis’s documentary Hearts and Minds was released in 1975 to much controversy after threats of lawsuits and changes in distributors. With the film, Davis, who formerly worked at CBS on the The Selling of the Pentagon, addresses three questions: “Why did we go to Vietnam?”, “What did we do there?”, and “What did the doing do to us?” Davis interviews American political leaders, American military members, Vietnamese leaders, and Vietnamese civilians to demonstrate the ideologies at work during the war, their application, and their effects on the tiny country and its venerable people. The film offers no definite answers, but it raised issues at a time when the American public was not quite ready to deal with them.

The title comes from a statement made by Lyndon B. Johnson: “[T]he ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” This statement establishes the war’s two fronts. One front is the actual combat between military forces in the name of suppressing or advancing a Communist regime. The other front is more local, more personal – it centers on the attempts to win Vietnamese citizens’ support to rally against the Vietcong. But this simple dichotomy only hints at the underlying complexities, and here is where Davis’s film begins its work.

Hearts and Minds opens with an idyllic scene of the Hung Dinh village, located northwest of Saigon. No voiceover explains the image; only a small title notes the location. Villagers work in the lush, green fields and walk among the small homes. Traditional Vietnamese music on the soundtrack adds to the calm. The shots and music create the illusion of peace – that is, until an armed American solider walks by.

Interviews, news and newsreel footage, and film clips introduce the Cold War mentality underlying U.S. politicians’ motivations for fighting in Vietnam. Much of this thinking relates to America’s growth as an international force after World War II, its vision of freedom for all, and its fear of Communist governments and their growing power. America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s when the United States financed 78 percent of the French war. French leader Georges Bidault reveals that the United States offered him two atomic bombs to help end the war, a fact never revealed in the popular press. Clark Clifford, aide to the president 1948-1950, explains the involvement as a sense of power and a vision of progress, one that ostensibly extends to all nations. Daniel Ellsberg, a former aide to the Defense Department, notes how the “covert aggression view” helped put the Vietnam War in context of World War II thinking, thus making it more justifiable to the military and to the public. In an interview with famed economist Walt Rostow, Davis, off-camera, asks, “Why do they need us?” Stuttering in surprise, Rostow first replies, “Because they were subject to, uh, military attack from the outside,” and after more stuttering, he asks, “Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?” With these early interviews, Davis questions the certainty of purpose and intentions in the conflict.

Interviews with former military personnel provide another perspective on the war. While politicians and policymakers remained in “the world,” the military served “in country,” to use period jargon. Some enjoyed the thrill of combat, some saw duty as a job, and others fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Captain Randy Floyd of Oklahoma talks about flying planes for 98 bombing missions; shots of bombs being loaded and falling, and planes taking off and landing, illustrate his comments. “It was very clean,” he says. Stan Holder, a Native American from Arizona, talks about learning the traditions of warriors in his heritage and how he saw the Marines as a way of becoming a warrior. Robert Muller shares his thrill of shooting the enemy. Former Sergeant William Marshall of Detroit talks about the napalm drops and how he used a dead body to shield himself from the poison; of 35 men, he is the only one to have survived. Edward Sowders requests amnesty during Congressional hearings about dealing with those who fled the draft.

A brief sequence reveals the soldiers’ lives both off and on the field. Soldiers wander the Saigon streets, bartering for pictures and prostitutes. Children follow them around begging for money. Two men engage with prostitutes and discuss their women throughout. On the field solders use lighters to torch a straw roof while jets fly overhead and villagers huddle together in fear. When on the front line and asked his opinion, one anonymous soldier replies, “This whole thing stinks.”

Lt. George Coker, a prisoner of war from 1966-1973, displays an unshakable patriotism as he delivers several speeches throughout the film. The first speech is in honor of his homecoming to Linden, New Jersey; the town welcomes him with a parade, a band, and a red carpet. He talks to a women’s group about how the training for war begins at home; shot of a football game and its pregame pep talk help reinforce how the soldier thinking begins early. He also talks to a group of young Catholic school students. One student asks him, “What did Vietnam look like?” Coker replies, “Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive, and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Davis also includes the Vietnamese perspective on the war and its effects. Two older Vietnamese sisters, Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, lost their other sister during a bombing raid, and Vo Thi Tu also lost her home. As Vo Thi Tu points to her ruined house, she metaphorically says, “It’s like a bird and its nest. The way things are with the house in the rubble, the bird comes home and finds no nest.” Vu Duc Vinh, an anguished father, lost both his son and his daughter in a bombing mission. He demands to know, “What have I done to Nixon so that he comes here to bomb my country?”

Napalm did almost as much damage as the bombing, and children suffered and died from its application. “The girl in the picture,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc, was severely burned it, and a photographer captured her running and screaming with other frightened members of her village. Instead of being frozen in time, Davis’s moving image fully reveals the terror on her face. Another woman carries a young boy, who has patches of charred flesh hanging off his heels. Mui Duc Giang builds coffins for the children dying from napalm and from bombs; he had lost seven children of his own.

The Vietnamese people also endured gunshots and torture. In one particularly disturbing scene a suspected Vietcong stands with his hands bound; as another man walks by, he shoots the prisoner in the head. The body falls over and blood spurts from the fatal wound. Army Intelligence Officer Barton Osborn relates an anecdote about two Vietnamese men being tortured for information and one of them being thrown out of a helicopter (Sergeant George Trendell denies the veracity of the story).

Vietnamese officials and religious figures explain their people’s perspectives on the war and the Americans. Father Chan Tin explains, “The people of North Vietnam and South Vietnam fight only for freedom, independence, and national unity.” Thich Lieu Minh, a Buddhist monk, denies that his people are the savages outsiders perceive them to be. He, too, supports the pride in his nation: “Let me respectfully tell the American people that this is their dirtiest and longest war. The Vietnamese fight only in self-defense.” It is interesting to see the representation of the two religions – the Catholicism brought with the colonizers, the French, and the traditional Buddhism – both agreeing with what their country wants.

Americans also meddled in Vietnamese politics. Ho Chi Minh wrote seven letters to the United States government seeking its help, and he visited America in 1957, only to be dead in 1962. General Nguyen Khanh, president of South Vietnam in 1964-65, plays a tape of General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964-65, asking him to resign. Nguyen did and lived in exile in France.

For the most part Davis’s style remains unobtrusive, but occasionally the camera and editing surprise us. Throughout the interviews with the veterans, Davis uses close-ups to focus on their faces. While Robert Muller talks about a battle, the camera cuts from a close-up to a three-quarter shot, which reveals for the first time that Muller sits in a wheelchair. A slow pan from his feet up shows his immobile legs, forcing us to contemplate his loss. The camera pulls back to reveal that the animated William Marshall also lost his arm.

Lingering close-ups prove just as revealing. As Randy Floyd comments that Americans never have seen such atrocities, he pauses, sighing and wiping his eyes; the camera keeps him in a tight frame. Davis, again off-camera, allows him a moment or two of silence before asking, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from all this?” Floyd replies, “I think we’re trying not to.” Another longer shot of Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu forces us to watch them cry while trying to cope with their grief.

Davis’s style and politics manifest themselves particularly well in a sequence near the film’s end. At the numerous graves at the Nation Cemetery in South Vietnam, a child cries pitifully while a woman tries to crawl into a grave. General William Westmoreland comments, “Well, the Orient doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.” A wailing child and the general’s words echo hauntingly.

Hearts and Minds shows how the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of not only the Vietnamese people, but also numerous Americans, including former soldiers and politicians. The film shows the “enemy” as human, as people, not faceless strangers. It movingly shows how war destroys lives and hopes, on both sides, and at what price? Feelings about the Vietnam War today are mixed and strong, and, looking back today, still unresolved.

‘Grizzly Man’ and the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Grizzly Man (2005) is as much about the filmmaker-subject relationship as it is about the subject himself.

The subject is Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers living among them and recording more than 100 hours of video with them and himself. Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard met their untimely deaths when they were attacked by a bear in Alaska.

The footage Treadwell left behind becomes part of the foundation for telling his story in this documentary. It shows him as enthusiastic about the bears and about interacting with them. Treadwell brings a boundless energy to his excited commentary about the bears, their relationships, and the other wildlife.

Werner Herzog develops his own relationship with Treadwell during the documentary. On the one hand, he expresses a great admiration for Treadwell’s footage and the depths of humanity that the footage offers. In the voiceover he claims he found “a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.” He admires Treadwell’s tenacity and taking shots, in one case repeating a take 50 times. He also admires the way in which some of the shots take on their own life.

Herzog builds Treadwell’s story through interviews with friends, former girlfriends, his parents, and experts. They all note his exuberance, but some of them point out darker sides of his personality as well. Not everyone thinks highly of Treadwell. One of the first interviews with Sam Egli shows him stating, “He got what he was asking for,” for Egli thought the greater tragedy rested with Amie’s death.

But the larger meditation in this piece centers on Treadwell’s ideas about bears and rejection of humanity and on Herzog’s relationship with the subject of man and nature. One juxtaposition is particularly telling here. We see Treadwell over the moon about a pile of freshly dropped bear dung. “It was inside of her,” he exclaims as he touches it. This moment segues into looking at how Treadwell almost ignores the idea of death and its function within nature. Here, Herzog asserts his own view, stating, “He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” To punctuate his point, the camera shows a close-up of the dead baby fox’s head.

“He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” — Werner Herzog

In the end of the film, Herzog reveals that he has access to Treadwell’s final tape. Earlier in the film, he listens to the tape with Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, and he tells her not to listen to it, not to watch it, but instead to destroy it. She agrees with him. In these final sequences, we see Treadwell talking before the camera, filming an extended sequence of a bear, and revealing a third shot of Amie. We see or hear nothing of his final moments, but instead we hear the coroner recounting what he heard and how he interpreted it. Any closer would have been too much.

While Treadwell’s love of bears continues up until the moments of his death, Herzog remains unconvinced of Treadwell’s deeply forged connections with them. Instead, he observes over a shot of a bear’s face, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.”

“I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.” — Werner Herzog

I’ve always maintained that any documentary about nature is as much about humanity as it is about plants, animals, and the “world outside.” Each nature film tells us something about nature just as it does about the humans making the documentary about it. Grizzly Man drives this point home not only through telling Treadwell’s story, but also through Herzog’s complex relationship with his subject.

Getting Down in the Trenches in ‘The War Room’

In 1960 presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met on national television for the first in a series of debates. This meeting proved the latter’s downfall for while Kennedy, tanned and relaxed, impressed audiences with his confidence and poise, Nixon, pale and haggard, lost credibility because of his tired appearance. Unique at the time, this coverage only just hinted at the advertising machines political campaigns would become 40 years later.

That the media manufacture presidential candidates is no secret today. The evidence is everywhere, from reports on the exorbitant costs to scandalous exposés of politicians’ private lives. Almost all of it is met with a flash of public indignation and then forgotten until the next crisis comes along. What began as a novelty has become a standard cog in the media machine.

The War Room offers an inside look at presidential image production. In the cinema verite spirit pioneered in Primary, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker follow Clinton’s campaign staff and its tireless efforts to polish the image of a less-than-squeaky-clean kid from Hope, Arkansas, into a shine worthy of public vote into the Oval Office. The film chronicles the monkey wrenches thrown into the works, including Gennifer Flowers’s allegations, draft-dodging accusations, and other mud-slinging on platform issues. It also chronicles events from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic party nomination and the bus tour, the debates, and the victory on election night in November.

The cinema verite style allows the gradual discovery of just how much chaos rules in the “war room,” a staff name for the Little Rock, Arkansas, campaign headquarters. The Gazette building, a sedate concrete edifice with the name and year 1908 etched over the entrance, belies the flurry of activity inside. Instead of the slick, well-oiled, assembly-line production, we find typical office trappings but unusual office-type behavior. Desks, chairs, phones, paper piles, and houseplants fill the room, but so do cans and cases of Budweiser beer. Staff members eat popcorn out of unused coffee filters. Shelves holding several televisions help staff monitor the media’s coverage. Signs with witty and sarcastic phrases adorn the walls, including a Clinton baseball pennant and the phrase, “The economy, stupid.”

Taking credit for this rather blunt saying is James Carville, also know as the Ragin’ Cajun and manager of the Clinton production team. With his Southern affectations, quick mind, and dazzling one-liners, Carville is fun to watch. His speeches are punctuated with “y’alls” and exaggerated vowels, and even when he watches television, his animated face hides nothing of the venom, joy, dismay, or elation he feels. He shuns the jacket-and-tie uniform in favor of jeans and T-shirts with logos for LSU and sayings such as “Carville Speed Killed … Bush.”

Carville demonstrates his commitment to Clinton through the enthusiasm he brings to every meeting involving campaign decisions. While developing a quick television spot with a committee, he insists on including George Bush’s infamous sound-bite, “read my lips,” at least three times in the voiceover. The media representative on the phone protests about the length, but eventually revisions are made and the call ended. Carville launches into a brief diatribe about uncooperative media people but returns to his sound-bite hang-up, calling the phrase “the most famous broken promise in the history of American politics.”

His zippy one-liners are not limited to the war room. On a call with a KDKA talk show he responds to a question about Mary Matalin, his girlfriend (now wife) and deputy manager of the Bush campaign, and their differences of opinion on who is the better candidate. His lengthy response sends staff members working around him into fits of quiet, barely contained, laughter. The sequence ends with another brilliant bit of wit and wisdom: “Everybody’s got an opinion. This is the most American thing you can do.”

George Stephanopoulos plays the straight man to Carville’s one-man act. The conservative media manager, Stephanopoulos almost always wears button-down shirts and slacks or ties and sport coats. He is serious and formal but no less committed to Clinton’s success than Carville. In a television segment with Sam Donaldson he defends the accusation of Clinton having a character problem, referring specifically to his draft-dodging and martial infidelities. Without raising his voice or batting an eye, Stephanopoulos redirects the focus back to education and jobs. Even on election night, with the landslide victory imminent, Stephanopoulos calmly tells the future president the hopeful results over the phone. When he hangs up, a staff member mirrors many of our thoughts when she asks, “How do you feel? Are you happy, are you scared, or are you nothing or do you want to just like cry or what?” He smiles in response: “It’s just like floating.”

While most of the footage featuring Carville and Stephanopoulos is filmed in cinema verite style, the filmmakers also step outside their observational roles. They supplement this footage with television clips and shots of newspaper headlines in order to fill in some gaps in their timeline, and in doing so, also provide an additional perspective on events: the media’s. Television shots reveal much of the dings in the candidate’s reputation. One early segment juxtaposes Gennifer Flowers’s press conference (“Did Governor Clinton use a condom?” asks one reporter) and her revelation of their affair with shots of reporters asking Clinton for comments on the accusations. Nondiegetic music, including a pop song by Deee-Lite titled “Vote, Baby, Vote,” smoothes the continuity of looking at various newspaper headlines that chart Clinton’s rise and fall at both the primary polls and the public opinion polls.

One of the few shots of Clinton reveals him without the spin doctors in a tizzy trying to prepare his image for the camera. This close-up shows the humanness of the future president in that he wears a ball cap, an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt, a geeky digital watch, and running shoes. He holds a telephone receiver in his hand and drinks coffee while discussing his high school times with a reporter. As he hangs up the phone, he remarks to his campaign staff, “I bet I said something you could take out of context.”

Highlighting these imperfections in Clinton’s image is not meant as ridicule. Instead, the film tries to show Clinton as a person without focusing too much on the man himself – it leaves the image improvement job to the war room staff. Carville handles this job with Southern grace and charm and, for good measure, a rather amusing line. In response to the draft-dodging brouhaha, he reaches for the Tums and says, “What’s the matter today? Every time somebody farts the word ‘draft,’ it’s on the front page of the paper.” When Bush cancels a debate, he quips, “We ought to be on this thing like a stink on shit.”

Richard Leacock and Robert Drew started a tradition more than 40 years ago with their film Primary. With unprecedented access to the inner campaign workings, these two filmmakers followed Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they vied for the Democratic party nomination in Wisconsin. Instead of adding voiceover, they used the cinema verite style to provide an eye-opening experience.

Like Leacock and Drew, Hegedus and Pennebaker ran a risk in using this style for their documentary – the waiting game for something to happen. In The War Room Carville delivers. During one of the final meetings of the staff, Stephanopoulos calmly introduces Carville with a thank you. Carville gets up to give one final rally cry for the troops, but a close-up reveals his chin quivering as he speaks. A tear emerges and he wipes it away, still fighting the wash of tears coming on. He finishes his speech to applause, cheers, and chants of “one more day.” His overwhelmed reaction becomes the emotional climax for the film.

The filmmakers ran a second risk in making this film: Clinton losing the election. If he had lost, according to Hegedus, “the value of a film about a losing campaign staff wasn’t going to be too salable for us. There is a risk in any story where you’re following real life and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But the voters responded and elected Clinton by a “landslide,” in Stephanopoulos’s word. The film shows how an unconventional candidate needs an unconventional team, not the mechanical efficiency seen in the slick productions made today. And by mixing the cinema verite footage with television clips, newspaper headlines, and music, Hegedus and Pennebaker create a proper form in which to showcase Carville, Stephanopoulos, and the rest of Clinton’s staff.

An Invitation to Witness in ‘Cameraperson’

Cameraperson is an audiovisual memoir of documentary camera operator Kirsten Johnson’s 25-year career. It features a pastiche of images and occasional titles, but no voiceover or staged interviews. The film results in a deep meditation on creating documentary images and sound and their ethical implications.

Cameraperson opens with a title that reads

“For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.”

The footage comes from multiple documentaries that sharp viewers may recognize, including Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), among many others. Johnson also weaves in footage from her own life, particularly with her young twins and with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

The images range from the mundane to the near suspenseful. In Missouri, Johnson sits alongside a rural road while cars swoosh by and clouds build in the sky. Multi-pronged lightning strikes and Johnson gasps, though after the thunder rumbles through, Johnson sneezes twice.

A more suspenseful moment occurs in Yemen. She and the director ride in a car with a driver while trying to get footage of the Sana’a Central Prison without getting caught by authorities. She manages a couple angled views before soldiers stop them and demand they get out of the car. Then the sequence cuts to black, leaving the outcome of that situation a mystery.

Other scenes raise questions of what not to show. In an interview with a mass rape survivior, Johnson frames the woman’s hands, using an extreme close-up on her gestures and smoking. In another interview with a young woman seeking an abortion, Johnson again frames the woman’s hands, showing her fidgeting, crossing her arms, and plucking at the holes in her jeans. These setups capture these women’s experiences while retaining their dignity and anonymity.

Another kind of vulnerability emerges in an autobiographical documentary about mental illness and suicide and the living people it affects. As the participant talks about the effects left behind, she gets frustrated and angry, throwing items and papers across the room. She begins to cry, and slides off the bed to the floor, facing away from the camera. Johnson comes around the bed with her camera in hand, still rolling, but remains at a distance, not zooming in on the woman’s face.

The images also offer a sense of surprise and discovery, sometimes in powerful ways. In reviewing the evidence in the case of James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death, people begin to pull the chain that dragged him out of a bin. Instead of waiting for the chain to be unfurled, Johnson peers into the box, showing the chain’s weight and the death that it brought.

Johnson includes images of her family, such as her twin children and their grandfather as well as footage of her now-deceased mother. In various podcast interviews Johnson talks about how her mother always took her own pictures but she rarely appeared in anyone else’s pictures. She describes how her mother would have disliked appearing in these images, but these images show the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and its effects in those suffering from it.

While the images chosen for this pastiche are compelling, the role of sound struck me even more. Documentaries frequently are quite noisy with all the voices in the talking heads and voiceover narration, not to mention added music and location sound. Cameraperson eschews talking heads, voiceover, and music, relying instead on location sound.

The result is often quiet. In some scenes, insects and birds dominate the soundtrack. A sharp wind whistles through, throwing Johnson’s mother off balance for a moment. Snow rumbles off the roof in an almost “natural” punctuation to an intense moment in the autobiograhical documentary.

In other scenes we hear Johnson’s comments and her reactions to what happens before her camera. In one scene a toddler plays with an ax, and Johnson worries whether to intervene.

A series of images shows sites of mass rapes and deaths from around the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. As the series plays, a thudding occurs on the soundtrack. The thudding continues, creating a heavy rhythm that punctuates the weight of the images and their meanings, despite their current mundane appearance. The thudding turns out to be athletes diving onto a thick gym mat.

Sometimes you desperately want to hear the right sound. One particularly difficult set of scenes comes from a Nigerian maternity ward. According to the midwife, a mother arrived carrying twins. One twin was born without incident, but the other twin remained, requiring drugs to induce further labor. The baby finally arrives, but he struggles. As the midwife tries to help him, the infant is quiet — too quiet. The midwife sucks fluid out of the baby’s lungs, uses a device to get air into his lungs, and slaps him on the backside to help him further. These sounds are sharp and clear on the soundtrack, but their relative quiet is unnerving until the baby’s cry pierces the silence. After the midwife swaddles the infant, the quiet returns, this time with low car horns beeping outside. He is too quiet for someone just arriving in this world.

For those seeking a coherent message and smooth flow among the images, Cameraperson will frustrate. But neither of those are the point. Cameraperson invites us into Johnson’s world behind the camera. That invitation brings us into the ongoing relationship among technology, operators, and participants. It is an invitation to witness, and a privileged one at that.

Superglue-ing Dead Flies to Create Reality: Two Wildlife Filmmakers’ Memoirs

Nature documentaries can be amazing: The majestic scenery, the wild bird’s melodic call, the killer snake’s dramatic close-up, the lion’s gruesome assault on the savanna. But these documentaries’ awesome spectacles hide the obstacles that go into capturing them. While human participants generally offer some degree of decorum, animals don’t sign consent agreements or take direction.

Memoirs by wildlife filmmakers show just how challenging it is to navigate the line between the real and the visual while working with wild animals. For this post, I read two memoirs, Snarl for the Camera: Tales of a Wildlife Cameraman by James Gray and Shark Tracker: Confessions of an Underwater Cameraman by Richard Fitzpatrick.

The memoirs share themes. Both writers fell in love with animals and nature as children, and both studied everything they could about them, either through university studies in Fitzpatrick’s case or more independently in Gray’s case. Both books recount experiences with different species. Gray and Fitzpatrick face perils when the animals get shy or aggressive before the camera, and they also face equipment issues in getting just the right shots and hauling expensive equipment around the globe.

Richard Fitzpatrick’s memoir had “shark” in the title so of course I had to read it. A specialist in filming marine life, particularly around Australia, Fitzpatrick recounts meeting undersea creatures both exotic and mundane: great white sharks, grey nurse sharks, eels, squids, jellyfish, clownfish (like Dory), and pearlfish, which take shelter in a sea cucumber’s anus. While majestic sharks and other venomous creatures comprise some of his filming obstacles, what was the most troublesome? Spawning coral. He writes

Of all the events I have to film, coral spawning stresses me out the most. Getting the location, the timing and the light right is one thing — then you have to hope that the sea conditions will be favourable.

With four years lapsing before successfully getting that footage, no wonder it is so stressful.

Filming underwater with sea creatures poses multiple threats: oxygen depletion, decompression sickness, equipment failure, and animal attacks. Despite them, Fitzpatrick maintains an energy and excitement about interacting with and filming these creatures. He also recounts a couple of occasions when he plays jokes on other scientists and divers, not to mention his own injuries and hospital runs.

Not all of the challenges in filming wildlife come from the animals. One incident in particular caught my attention because it resonates with Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about Tilikum the killer whale, his horrible living conditions, and his killing of his handlers. In 2003 Sea World in Australia planned a shark exhibit, and Fitzpatrick was asked to examine the condition of a captured tiger shark. He concluded that the shark, which was held in too small of a space for it to move freely and thus was damaging its body (and probably its mind), should be let go. The backlash he experienced was swift, isolating, and defamatory. Even Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, accused him.

While Fitzpatrick’s recollections focus mostly on filming under the sea, Gray’s memories stay mostly on dry land. Gray offers experiences in filming a wide variety of animals from around the globe: polar bears, panda bears, caimans, fiu-fius, stick nest rats, gibbons, and vultures. What I appreciate about Gray’s memoir is the level of detail he provides in his writing. He delves more into the process of getting just that right shot, which often results from a series of near and far misses and a handful of successes.

Some of these processes might raise an eyebrow. In one assignment, Gray needed a shot of a cricket with a fly on its back. Crickets jump, and flies, well, fly, so how … ? Gray explains their staging:

We put a dead fly on the back of a live cricket. At first the cricket’s movements unseated its jockey, but with the application of a drop of superglue, we had that shot.

In another assignment, Gray needed to film human lice laying eggs. He jokes about his previous experience with lice as a parent: “Poisoning them, squashing them and eliminating them with eye-stinging shampoo were more in my line.” But then he learns that in order for the lice to breed, they need a steady diet of human blood. To feed them, Gray volunteers his own arm as a food source, and he donates his own hair stuck in plasticine for their egg-laying site. The jokes continue: “Lice that refuse to breed sounds like a dream come true for people working in public health, but for me it was a problem.” This kind of humor weaves throughout the book.

Gray in particular focuses on equipment and its uses in getting just the right shot. He mentions using a wind-up Bolex for his first film. Weather hazards affect camera performance, and some shoots require getting down into the mud or freezing in arctic winds. Getting aerial shots from a helicopter require rigging the camera with bungees. Gray also explains something he calls “camera courage,” which arrests the dangerous reality of the animal on the other side of the lens, rendering it a “harmless” image instead. This courage appeared while he tried to film a panda and an elephant, but someone pulled him away just in time.

The biggest surprise of wildlife filmmaking to those used to seeing the drama and glamour of nature documentaries? Waiting. According to both Fitzpatrick and Gray, waiting is the hardest part. Fitzpatrick notes the “hours of utter boredom that come hand in hand with shark research. Discovery Channel never show that side of things on their ‘Shark Week’ documentaries, but in reality waiting makes up larger proportion of the job.” Gray recalls days of strategic waiting for hearing mating calls or capturing polar bears emerging from their winter dens.

Both authors share concluding thoughts in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick ends with “Richard’s Rules,” which include treating airlines with respect when checking in camera cases, wearing “rubber gloves when handling electric animals,” and staying “away from the pointy end of a shark.” James ends with a rumination about his intentions toward becoming a cameraman in the first place: “In light of my experience though, I’m not quite sure how much I have been helping to save the world, and I’m even starting to wonder whether being a cameraman puts me on the side of the good guys at all.” He also wonders about these wildlife films just being free adverts for the tourism industry.

Book Goes Behind the Scenes of Oscar-Connected Documentary Productions

Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.

Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.

For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.

To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.

Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.

While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.

Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.

Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.

These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.

Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.

The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.

Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.

New Documentary Offers Advice for Thriving with Age

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, from HBO.

Popular media and culture celebrate youth. Soft news stories show us how to feel young and look young in 73 easy steps. Rates of cosmetic surgery increase each year. If 60 is the new 40 and 50 is the new 30, then 41 must be the new minimum drinking age. Time to get your new fake IDs, folks.

Of course, none of these ideas focus on actually staying young because reality and science fiction haven’t caught up to each other or the naked mole rat — yet.

But, a fascination exists when octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians do, well, anything: dancing, running, writing, sky diving… Betty White continues acting in her 90s, starring most recently in Hot in Cleveland. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a reputation for being a “badass” in her 80s as she continues to write strongly worded dissents and inspire jabot-ed Halloween costumes. And as Norman Lear complains in HBO’s new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, people shouldn’t be surprised he can still touch his toes at age 93.

Directed by Danny Gold, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a life-affirming and witty documentary that provides an elegant and positive way to think about aging with vitality. With the help of his nephew George Shapiro, Carl Reiner, 95, is our host in examining how people in their 90s not only live, but also thrive.

Ida Keeling took up running at age 67 to cope with her sons’ murders. Now 100, Keeling continues running and breaking records.
The documentary offers a series of portraits and interviews with nonagenarians and a couple centenarians. We meet 100-year-old Ida Keeling, who took up running after her sons’ murders to cope with depression. She was 67 at the time, and now she continues to break records with running at her age. Yoga expert Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, learned to tango. Ray Olivere continues painting portraits, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin continues sky diving and living in the house he built with his own hands.

The portraits and interviews also offer a who’s who in entertainment: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Stan Lee, Irving Fields, Betty White, Patricia Morison, and Harriett Thompson. All of them continue to engage life. Carl Reiner and Betty White write books. Tony Bennett still sings, and Irving Fields still writes songs and plays piano at a hotel. Harriett Thompson runs marathons.

Dan Buettner serves as the longevity expert in this documentary. He cites five keys to vitality:

  1. Physical fitness
  2. Cognitive awareness
  3. Life informed by passion and values
  4. Contribution
  5. Ongoing achievement

Reiner adds a sixth item to that list: A sense of humor. Along with all the stories, so many of them have jokes. So many jokes. Fyvush Finkel, 92, cracks, “Half of my life is gone already.” In a conversation with Betty White, Reiner says, “You don’t lose your interest in sex but you lose your power.” Even the title comes from a joke by Reiner, though it is thrown on its ear when Reiner sees an older picture of himself in the obit for Polly Bergen.

Rounding out this gentle documentary are a bouncy jazz soundtrack and animated bits from “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketch done by Reiner and Brooks in the 1960s.

Aging terrifies many of us, but it shouldn’t. While this documentary won’t undo the deeply held ideas about growing old, its light-hearted approach does offer a better way to think it.

A Simple Question Belies Depths in ‘The Jinx’

Sometimes an interview question seems so simple that it belies the cultural depths that inform it.

A question like this appears in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Murders of Robert Durst (2015). This six-episode HBO series retraces the unsolved murders linked to Durst through archival footage, reenactments, and interviews, including with Durst himself. Throughout the episodes, Jarecki asks questions from off camera in order to move the inquiry along.

The second chapter, titled “Poor Little Rich Boy,” addresses the traumas of Durst’s childhood and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie. According to the “official” story, Kathie took the train back to New York City, arrived at her apartment around 11:30 p.m., called Robert to let him know she was there, and called her medical school to report her absence the next day. After that last call, she disappeared. After a few days, Durst filed a missing persons report. Kathie’s friends, however, believed that Durst killed her, and they undertook their own investigation into the situation.

Part of Jarecki’s revelations include details about Kathie’s dealing with abuse that escalated during their marriage. It included hitting, kicking, shoving, a forced abortion, and monitoring that required Kathie check in with Robert via telephone wherever she went. Her friends recounted Kathie’s fears over Robert’s potential anger. Kathie also had filed for divorce, but Robert had refused.

The question comes in an interview with Kathie’s friend Geraldine McInerney. With the documentary’s uncovering of these abusive behaviors, they had become the elephant in the room. Jarecki asks, “Why didn’t she leave?”

McInerney pauses for a moment and then replies, “I don’t know. I think she was afraid of him.”

While the question fits the context of the series, it also points to the myths surrounding domestic violence. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Domestic Abuse Project offer information that counter these myths. A hashtag campaign, #whyIstayed, also raises awareness.

Several reasons exist for why people stay in domestic violence situations. Some survivors remain unaware of options available to help them. They face cultural, religious, and familial pressures. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and depression entrap them. Some abuses they endure ensure they cannot leave, such as tight control of finances, transportation, social activities, and communications. Many stay because of their children.

Leaving can pose more dangers to the person’s safety than remaining in the abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone who leaves an abusive relationship is 75 percent more likely to experience separation violence or even be murdered by the partner.

Jarecki’s investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Robert uncovers parallels these issues. The physical altercations increased over time. Robert monitored her movements, such as his calling during the party at her friend’s house the night she disappeared. Kathie’s friend recalls her being rattled by those calls. Another friend questioned why Kathie had to call and check in with Robert when she out.

A tougher decision becomes another example. Kathie got pregnant in the late 1970s, and Robert offered her the choice of the abortion or divorce. In his interview with Jarecki, Durst claimed that he was jinxed and didn’t want children. We have no insight into Kathie’s thoughts.

The police response to her disappearance also suggests the legal issues that might arise in domestic violence situations. Those who claim abuse sometimes struggle with police believing their stories and their seriousness. In the series the police do ask about the state of the marriage, but they figure she left of her own free will. Even with Kathie’s friends telling them about the situation, the original detectives make no further investigation in his disappearance and close the case as a missing persons file, not a murder.

The divorce filing, which had happened three days before, might have been the final straw as it represented a move to freedom and thus posed a threat to Robert’s control over her.

These comments here are not to say that Jarecki’s posing of the question furthers the myths of women staying in domestic violence situations. The question fits the context of the film, and it is a question many viewers might have had. What’s better, though, is how the film answers the question through its investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Durst and the points it raises about that relationship.

Constructing Conversations about Race in ‘Trick Bag’

Kartemquin Films’ Trick Bag: A Black and White Film tackles a tough subject: race issues in 1970s Chicago.

Their 1974 short film shows a series of interviews among people across Chicago during the early 1970s. These people, mostly youth, gather at parks, on street corners, and in people’s homes. Race issues dominate these interviews, though intersectionalities with class -— a theme across Kartemquin’s catalogue -— also appear. Brief sequences of well-chosen music and some voiceover comments set up each scene and its key idea.

Unlike the usual lone talking head, this short approaches these interviews as conversations. In a kitchen, for example, several men sit and talk about their experiences while serving in Vietnam. Each of the men, who remain unidentified, share comments and anecdotes about what they went through there. An African-American man talks about how he had time served and rank and yet white men still got promoted over him. A white man shares his story about being harassed by a higher-up. While the camera cuts from speaker to speaker, we also see and hear some reactions from the others in the room, such as a reaction shot of a man nodding or a two-shot with another man laughing.

Other scenes offer more insights into the interactions among the people talking. One girl early in the film talks about bringing an African-American woman to her apartment before attending a show, and the landlord calls and tells her to have the woman leave immediately. The girl refuses to remove her friend, and the landlord gives them a 30-day eviction notice. As she talks, several people laugh almost nervously, making her smile as she talks though the man framed in the shot with her listens intently without much facial expression.

A conversation outside a Schwinn bicycle factory shows the most exchange among the speakers. Some start the comments, and others chime in to agree. Still others raise different points to the conversation. Shots show some people talking and other people listening, such as an African-American man talking and a white man listening.

While the sequences are set up as conversations with multiple people present, the editing still focuses on one speaker at a time for the most part. The conversation approach complements the discussions about race and class within the film in that it sets up a flow of honest, direct exchange. No sugarcoating happens here; the problems are clearly stated. One man says, “They say there’s a race problem between blacks and whites. It’s not really as much a race problem so much as it is a class problem.” After talking about the differing treatment of African-American and white factory workers, another man says, “You know who really gets [deleted]? Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

The comment that most stuck with me was this one: “We’re losing like 5-6 dudes a year.” That’s a sobering comparison to the number lost each day in Chicago. It would be interesting to hear what these conversations sound like today.