Capturing a true story is far more arduous than many might realize. In a narrative film, the filmmakers have total control over the story. Each scene, sequence and act leads to a climax that they craft along the way. The documentarian faces a different task, one that requires a balance of objectivity and subjectivity while trying to piece together a coherent and engaging story from the past or their present in an attempt to discern facts from truth. As legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog said, his famous “Minnesota Declaration” to Roger Ebert, “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.” The documentarian must ascend beyond the mundane facts at hand to capture the imagination and ignite within the viewer a thirst for truth. We spoke with several documentary filmmakers about their recent work and what they love about their job.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a filmmaker.
Right before I moved to Houston, I have a music venue in Madrid that I own, and I have live music seven days a week most weeks. And I continue writing all the time, meeting really interesting characters … I was getting older and it was then when I decided this is not what I want to do with my life. I want to be a filmmaker full time and I wanted to go to film school. So I really wanted to go to NYU… I kind of made a plan—I going to go to Houston first and get credits, then transfer to New York… I started working with a bunch of artists in the Montrose area in Houston, and we have started doing video art, experimental pieces. I got involved with public access TV in Houston … That’s when I started learning. I was coming at it as a storyteller by going through public access. That’s what I learned to do it as a job…And that’s how I started… I was not interested in documentary all this whole time, all I wanted to do is narrative films. That’s really still the plan. This is just a detour. But then I met my ex-wife and she had moved back to Houston and she went to school in Berkeley and she started doing documentaries when she was there. She was working on a story there and that’s how I got involved – “Oh, I can help you.” And then I discovered documentaries. I’ve never realized how much I will enjoy doing it, meeting real people and getting to really know them.
What do you think are the essential elements to a good documentary?
Honesty—I think that’s really important. Not every filmmaker is honest. I think the ones that are really good are pretty honest. They’re honest with themselves and with the people they are talking to. And the ones that really focus on one thing, they try to answer one question…What makes you go to do a documentary is something that you need to learn. There’s this one question that you need to figure it out, and then you pursue that question. The problem that most people have— people will start with a question and then they have another question and they have another question and they try to keep following all these questions instead of being focused. So I think being honest, having a good reason for doing it, like a good question—something that you really want to learn and then to keep focus on that path.
Do you have trouble shifting between documentary or commercial and narrative work?
I can switch from narrative work to like commercial work, documentary, because to me, everybody is the same. Like whether your story is real or fiction, you’re still dealing with real people and the actor or the person you are talking to, they’re all real, you know. I don’t see any difference between fiction and documentary in the way you treat people, the way you talk to people, you know, it’s all the same. So I always brought that here. Like I refer to people that are my documentaries—I don’t refer to them as subjects. I refer to them as characters—they’re characters in this story that we are creating together.
LISA MARIE EVANS
IG / @LISAMARIEFILM
What’s your favorite part of your creative process and where does your inspiration come from for each project?
I learn by doing. I’m continually trying new applications and participating in shows and collaborations to encourage me to expand my practice and art form. Understanding my creative process has been a process within itself. I’ve learned that when I’m not hands-on creating something, I’m absorbing and observing my surroundings and that is just as important. My favorite part is when inspiration and creativity strike.
I use my work as a tool to educate, enlighten and inspire. It has saved me when I’ve needed to process deep sadness, cruel irony, simple humor and utter beauty. My inspiration comes from the need for expression and human connection.
Do you feel that being a creative person requires that you give back or tell a particular story? Is there a certain responsibility to society with being a creator? Why (or why not)?
I first began DEI work 20 years ago with the National Conference for Community Justice (NCCJ) in Kansas City. I am a lesbian who came out in the 90s and it’s been a cornerstone of my work to ensure that queer stories are documented, given avenues for expression and are celebrated.
I think there’s a certain responsibility to society by having been created. Right? As humans, I think it’s essential that we ask ourselves how we’re giving back and continue to find ways to do so to enrich the society in which we live. It makes us better humans, individually and collectively.
What was your role in “In Her Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction”? How did you get involved with the film?
In “Her Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction,” is a feature documentary examining the history and impact of lesbian fiction from the 1920s through the 1990s. I am a director on the film. I spent hundreds of hours conducting online research, visiting archives across the states, studying LGBTQ history and reading lesbian fiction. I packed lighting, camera and audio equipment in a suitcase and traveled across the states to film and interview the authors, including Ann Bannon, also known as the queen of lesbian pulp, Rita Mae Brown, Dorothy Allison, Jewelle Gomez, Lesléa Newman and Katherine V. Forrest. I also flew to London to interview Sarah Waters. I am also the editor, animator and web designer for the film.
After Nancy Garden passed away, authors Sandra Moran and Marianne K. Martin felt an urgency to ensure the stories of lesbian authors were documented. They developed the outline for this film as a presentation for the 2014 National Women’s Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Tragically, Sandra was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and passed away less than a month later at the age of 46 in November 2015.
Sandra’s widow, Cheryl Pletcher, continued with Sandra’s passion for this project, focusing on the business aspects. Cheryl and I were introduced to one another through a mutual friend. We FaceTimed with Marianne and began filming about a month later. Cheryl Pletcher is a project manager and the producer. Marianne K. Martin is an author featured in the film, a publisher, a researcher and a co-director. We continue to feel Sandra’s guidance every step of the way.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
IG / @AKABRADFORD
What inspired you to work in documentary film?
My path to filmmaking was anything but linear. I rarely read fiction novels growing up. I was a math and science nerd, and spent the majority of my time in college studying physics. But I suppose the ultimate thing that inspired me to work in documentary film was and is the ongoing process of reconnecting with myself and my own history. My family is from Jamaica and without realizing it, I estranged myself from my own family’s culture at an early age to feel more at home in America. But it was once I started my work focused on international development in that latter half of college and when I came to the Clinton School of Public Service that I gained an appreciation of just how impactful the stories that we tell ourselves are in shaping our own world and lives. Having the opportunity to be exposed to so many different ways of life helped me realize that the way we see the world is all relative—it’s built off of the stories that shape our history, what is kept or omitted from the stories our families, what we choose to believe that creates the story of who we are. To me, these stories are the backbone of all of the decisions, policies and terminology that guide and determine our futures. We can use these stories to divide each other, instill fear and perpetuate the power dynamics that mark the conflict in our world today. Or we can use the stories to expand our understanding for each other and take from the best that we all have to offer. I didn’t know it then, but this applies to myself and my own family and is something that has drawn me into filmmaking even more, the longer I learn about the art form.
What would you describe as your visual style and can you name any direct/indirect inspirations?
Working with the Renaud Brothers helped me understand that story is king and thus, listening is the greatest asset to documentary filmmaking. So I like to bring that reactive approach to my shoot style and let the energy, mood, or what is being said influence how I capture the scene. For that reason, I like to film on primes, stay close to the subject, but shoot wide to add context. As I’ve developed my own language, I would say that my style is moving toward a more hyperrealism than straight vérité approach. My own life is riddled with false memories or disjointed thoughts connected more by association, importance and relevance versus time. So in the latest project that I completed with Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onourah, Legend of the Underground, we brought those more narrative elements into the documentary. We lit rooms to create certain moods and worked with the subjects to create spaces where they could express aspects of who they are that they were not allowed to express in everyday life in Nigeria. In that sense, we shot poetic sequences that were a reflection of what they said without being recreation or a true vérité scene. True to form, I still like to shoot in a way that does not get in the way of unfolding like it naturally would, but I also enjoy collaborating with subjects to bring parts of their story to life that are often hidden. A few sources of inspiration for this are Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Khalil Joseph’s Fly Paper.
How has your career afforded you the opportunity to travel the world and what countries have you been able to visit?
Filmmaking has definitely given me the opportunity to travel, which is one of the aspects that I love most about my career. I’ve worked in 25 countries, which have all been very unique and influential experiences. A few that really stick with me are: Mangrove crab collectors in Ecuador, the battle for Mosul in Iraq, the last two northern white Rhinos in Kenya, the rehabilitation of Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia, women community leaders and farmers in Nepal, child migrants making their way to the U.S. from Honduras, the underground nonconformist community in Nigeria and visiting Cuba with the New Orleans Preservation Hall Band.
What are your connections to Arkansas and how did your time in the Natural State impact your career?
Arkansas is where I actually found the path for my passion for filmmaking. I came to Arkansas to attend the Clinton School of Public Service with the intention of building a career with the U.S. State Department or in International Development, but I was surprised in how the program actually encouraged me to start applying my love for filmmaking to my work. Through the Clinton School, I worked with NGOs like Heifer International, and gained a new appreciation for storytelling’s role in building social movements, shaping politics and its use in connecting or dividing people around the world. As my capstone project, I worked with Heifer International and the Arkansan filmmakers, the Renaud Brother’s (Craig and Brent Renaud) to produce a documentary about the communities Heifer works with across the globe. The experience was so fulfilling that it solidified my pursuit of film as a lifelong career. Eventually, I began working full-time with the Renaud Brothers, who became some of my most impactful mentors and helped build a foundation in documentary filmmaking. In that sense, Arkansas was really where I was supported and awarded the opportunities to build my career in film. Between the Clinton School, Heifer International and the Renaud brothers, I found a community of people who mentored, guided and provided opportunities to get my footing in the industry including video work for the Clinton School and IPSP projects, Capstone and employment with Heifer International, volunteering with Little Rock Film Festival and working with the Renaud Brothers on my first feature film, Meth Storm (HBO).
What’s it been like to work on projects for companies like HBO, Vice and The New York Times?
I’ve been really fortunate to work with companies like NYT or HBO who have such strong editorial guidance, resources to help you follow the story authentically and the reach to make sure the story is seen. Like anything else, it’s been a learning process. With greater resources comes much greater responsibility and pressure. More people weighing in on the creative and influencing how the story is captured and told. I’ve had to learn to set boundaries, find confidence in my own intuition, and find the appropriate ways to communicate with crew and EPs, who have very different interests. At the same time, it has also been humbling to work with extremely talented people who have creative tendencies or feedback that have greatly expanded my mind in terms of how stories can be told.
Of the documentaries you’ve worked on, which one has had the biggest impact on you?
I can’t say that there is a single project that impacted me the most, but the latest project, Legend of the Underground, is where I felt myself grow most holistically as a filmmaker. Though the story specifically follows Nigeria’s penalization of nonconformity through strict anti-LGBT laws, the film on the whole is about being yourself. And I felt myself equally inspired by the people we were following, to do the same for myself and filmmaking style. Probably more than any other project, this project really broke me down in order to build me back up. I had to unlearn many of the stylistic approaches I absorbed in the past in order to match the vision of the directors and capture the subject’s lives in a way that was authentic to their story and did not inadvertently feel voyeuristic or portray them as “less than” despite the fact that their society saw them that way. It was also the first feature documentary that I DP’d and it really pushed me to follow my instincts and be more confident in delegating my vision to a broader team. In many ways, it feels like the culmination of my career thus far and has in the process helped me internalize that anything is indeed possible with the right community and when you put your mind to it.
Do you have any current projects lined up?
Yes, I’m currently completing a semi-scripted comedy series with Higher Ground Productions and Netflix as a Director of Photography and am continuing my work as a director on a documentary series about conspiracy theories this fall with Radical Media.
What’s one story you’d like to tell that you haven’t yet?
One story that I have yet to tell is one of my own family and family’s experience immigrating to the U.S. My sister and I are actually writing a narrative film based on that story, which draws on our Jamaican ancestry, Pan-African activism of our elders and the alienation that can occur when trying to assimilate to a new culture. Though it’s rooted in our own history, I think the idea of losing yourself and your own identity is quite universal across different cultures and generations.
Notable Works: Still Missing Morgan (upcoming TV series)
IG / @devo92857
Do you prefer documentaries or narrative films as a filmmaker?
I prefer narrative films over documentaries generally; fiction rather. However, the storytelling is what fascinates me. At the end of the day, it’s the complexity of the narrative and the characters involved. In many ways, Still Missing Morgan became such a complicated and unique story after we began production, that the challenges involved had the potential to not only be an engrossing story with intricate characters, but an impactful story within the real-life scenario. We had an opportunity to provide a resource to possibly help the family of a missing child through telling this story on a large scale.
What inspired you to make this series about the Morgan Nick disappearance?
Morgan is a year older than I am. I was directly impacted by her story as a child, she was taken five minutes down the road from where I grew up. Her kidnapping was talked about as the standard example by parents, of why you should stay close and not run off while at ball games or events. I’d always had her story in my mind. I didn’t know the details but as with everyone who knew of it, we hoped it’d be solved within our lifetimes. And I also hoped I’d be able to tell that story when the time came. It wasn’t five years after my wife and I had moved to Los Angeles that I got a call from an executive producer wanting to do the same and knew of my work and connection in that area. I never pictured it being in documentary form, but also never pictured the direct impact of our filmmaking aiding in the case.
What were some challenges to making this in terms of research, access, evidence, and witnesses?
Challenges were vast, especially coming from a narrative film realm. Nothing can be “make-believe”—you can’t just add a scene here and there to connect two arcs, you can’t write a script for your subjects. Once you get past that you see the real difficulties, yet uniqueness, of this series. Morgan’s case is an open case. It’s never been closed; it’s worked every day, which means you cannot file FOIA requests to see evidence or the vast case files that exist on her investigation. The efforts that have been ongoing for 26 years is all behind a locked door inside the Alma PD. That said, it took us 6 months of meetings and communication to get to know the current and former investigators within the case, as well as numerous discussions with FBI Agents involved to follow them real time as they investigate, execute and seize evidence over the past two years. Movement has been busy since we’ve been following them; all unbeknownst to the general public. It was also very important to me and our producers that the family be involved. It’s their story and we couldn’t tell it without them. We wanted our efforts to aid them in a way that other resources they’ve had in the past couldn’t. That alone makes it such an important project for everyone on our crew. It gives a different feeling of value to when you step on set.
DIANA MICHELLE HAUSUM + PAUL SUMMERLIN
Notable Works: “Breathing In Eden;” It’s No Secret (upcoming)
What got each of you into documentary filmmaking?
Diana: As a documentary photographer, it was just natural for the progression to go into moving pictures. I feel like I can tell more of the story this way; and it becomes more intimate and personal. I am hooked on documentary filmmaking and experimental films. To me, it is the ultimate art form.
Paul: I had only been involved in producing a few music videos and podcasts before this project, and honestly, a documentary was the furthest thing from my mind until we started talking about it.
When you started on your upcoming film, It’s No Secret—a documentary on Paul’s journey with mental illness and healing—was there an overall story arc you wanted to follow or are you just taking it as it comes to shape it in post-production?
Diana: When we started all we did was record and shoot, record and shoot. After a couple months Paul could see a backbone for the arc of the story. Since then we have kept things fairly open as far as what may be discovered along the way which could be incorporated to enhance and deepen the film. It didn’t take long to realize that there were several avenues to the project worth pursuing that were beyond the initial feature, which is probably wrapping this year.
How has collaboration gone so far?
Diana: Our collaboration thus far has been extremely magical; even though it has not always been smooth sailing. We both have strong personalities and we want what we want. Sometimes if there is a conflict, whoever is more passionate about the issue or has more background in that area gets their way at the moment. It is a constant changing back and forth process. I love this collaboration even if it is not always easy. If it came too easy, it would not be as good.
Paul: It has been a most unexpected challenge and illuminating learning experience. It bears mentioning that neither Diana nor myself were big fans of collaboration as a rule, and would in most cases prefer to work alone. This is clearly a situation whereby without the collaboration the project would never have seen the light of day; and in this case, 1+1=3.
What are your long-term plans for the film?
There is much more to come. We see the overall project as a ‘docu-series’; more documentaries, more experimental shorts, more interactive and crossover uses, etc. We plan for this to be an ongoing project because there is so much potential and possibility. Most of all we just want to help people.
Notable Works: The 24
You’ve done a lot of commercial and television work over the years, but The 24 is your first feature documentary. Tell us about the film and what you learned making it.
The 24 hours of Horseshoe Hell is the most amazing and incredible event that I’ve ever been to…It’s the world’s only 24 hour rock climbing competition. Climbers come from all over the world to a place in Jasper, Arkansas, called Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. They start rock climbing at 10 a.m. on Friday morning and climb for 24 hours straight until 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. Some really big names have competed in this. Only place in the world that this happens.
When you’re rock climbing you are literally hanging off the side of the wall filming. I was a rock climber in high school and college. I probably haven’t climbed in 20 years and I was back trying to climb…Plus the endurance aspect of it. It’s just as much a physical competition as a mental competition.
I utilized drones a lot. Parts of it were hard for the drone because so much trees and stuff that could get in the way. Some of my favorite shots in there are drone shots. For the actual day of the event I had myself and two cameramen that came out and helped me for a little while. It was like 32 hours awake probably with getting there and the awards ceremony.
If I could do it all over again—I was learning how to shoot this as I was hanging from the wall shooting. I hadn’t really filmed anything hanging off the side of a cliff before. That’s the bottom line—I hadn’t done it. Getting practice filming climbers prior to the event itself would have helped. Also, if I could actually get up there I could have had some better shots. I wish I’d had more crew to help me through that whole process. But I was paying for this out of my pocket. You do what you do.
This started out as a story about a climbing competition but ended up a story about the rock climbing community. Climbers it’s a community I like. Those people kinda took me in and made me part of their family and opened up themselves and their event up to me and trusted me to tell this story in a way that they wanted the story of The 24 to be told. I was very thankful about it.