By Stephanie Ornelas
In all things, to progress — to get better — means to listen and to learn. For documentary filmmakers, it’s paramount they listen to, learn from, and protect the people their stories are centered around.
“It’s a moment of learning, unlearning and reflection, and I hope, evolution. And while that process is difficult, and it’s messy, it’s also the nature of our field,” said Carrie Lozano, director of Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film and Artist Programs, as she opened Sundance Collab’s recent online event about documentary storytelling. “We can always strive to do better.”
Sundance Collab (in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program) offered a crucial and timely panel discussion about working with vulnerable sources. While one of the goals was to encourage a lively debate on the topic, Lozano hoped that viewers would leave the discussion thinking more deeply about the ways in which filmmakers work with vulnerable people — and what they mean when they talk about vulnerable populations.
The panel included Robert Greene (Procession), Daresha Kyi (Mama Bears), Daffodil Altan from PBS Frontline, and Gisela Pérez de Acha from the University of California, Berkeley, Human Rights Center Investigations Lab and Investigative Reporting Program. Moderated by Lozano, the conversation centered around specific considerations filmmakers take to protect the individuals whose stories and circumstances they aim to uplift.
For Altan, who often works with undocumented and traumatized sources, building trust means being completely aware of her role throughout the filmmaking process and meeting victims where they’re at, especially when there are boundaries and certain parameters that she cannot cross professionally.
“I come in as a person first — a person with lived experience. I also come into the situation aware of the profession that I’m in, both as a filmmaker and as a journalist,” says Altan.
“I’m coming from professions where there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of recognizing what the history has been when so-called storytellers go in and tell a story,” she continues. “Having that awareness is critical in how we think about and approach these stories.”
As a daughter of immigrant parents, Altan has a vital perspective on how filmmakers can approach trauma and vulnerability in their subjects.
“It gives me empathy, humility, and people can feel that. You have to think about where they might be,” she explains. “What point are they at in their healing process? It’s all about meeting people where they are. There’s a lot we don’t know. Be prepared to listen and to learn.”
Altan also talked about transparency and the significance of having an honest conversation with her subjects before beginning a project.
To protect both the victim(s) and the film, she explains how it’s critical that she’s made aware of anything that could resurface, for example, a criminal background or something like a domestic abuse allegation.
“I try to elevate a story so that it can be known in the world and so there can be potential change. But in order for the film to hold up, I need to know if anything has happened that could come back at [the subject] once this airs. Because that not only hurts the film, it hurts [the people involved],” Altran stresses. “Then we have a conversation. We talk about what happened and if it’s relevant to the story.”
Throughout the webinar, each panelist gave their own unique viewpoint on working diligently and compassionately with a film’s protagonists, based on their own projects, strengths, and lessons learned.
Director Robert Greene had a challenge ahead of him when he began working on Procession (available on Netflix), a film that centers around six men who, as boys, were sexually assaulted by priests associated with the Kansas City Diocese. When he saw a press conference with three of the six men who ended up being in the film, accompanied by their lawyer, Rebecca Randalls, he was moved by the story and proceeded with caution.
“I reached out to Rebecca. We started those conversations,” Greene says. “And it’s very important that we reached out to her first. It really was, ‘Rebecca, tell us what’s wrong with this idea,’ and that’s sort of how we approached everything.”
A huge takeaway for Greene was that filmmakers cannot take on this kind of work without the appropriate people surrounding them. Having the right team of collaborators was of the utmost importance, and those at the center of every film should be treated as such.
It’s critical to have the right producers as partners, as well as funders and supporters.
“It was all collaborative. This is a team effort. They are the filmmakers as much as we are, and that was the jumping point,” Greene adds.
Lozano asked Greene to share his thoughts on retraumatization — the return of trauma-related thoughts and feelings when a person relives a horrifying moment in their past — and what could happen as his subjects were retelling their stories.
“It’s certainly a question I misunderstood when we started the process,” Greene admits. “But it was clear that they were ready for something like this. And it’s specific to these men because not everyone is in the place that they are.”
Nevertheless, he made sure people were in place to provide support. A drama therapist was present the entire time. Their lawyer (who is trauma-trained) was on set as often as she could, as were family members and other support systems.
“We had people around who loved them. And what we found was that they didn’t want to be treated like children,” Greene explains. “What that means is: ‘Don’t take power away from me by having this predetermined idea of what I’m going to experience when I do A, B, C, or D.’”
The biggest thing, he adds, is to keep in mind that retraumatization comes when power is taken away. “You have to take care to give power at every single step. And sometimes, because of how strange it is to make a film, giving power doesn’t always mean doing what’s best for the day’s production.”
Speaking of power, investigative journalist Gisela Pérez de Acha not only offered great advice about treating subjects with passion and respect, but as a human rights lawyer for over five years, she also gave a legal point of view when it comes to having power and control over a story.
“Victims should be treated with compassion and respect for their dignity, and what is dignity? Dignity is autonomy. It’s having the agency,” explains Pérez de Acha.
“When I come into a room with someone who has been through a lot of trauma, I know I’m a powerful person. Usually, the journalist has control over the story, the questions, the tone.”
“If I’m the one in power walking into a room for an interview, I think about compassion, respect, and autonomy.”
One of the biggest takeaways from Pérez de Acha’s discussion was to be aware of professional boundaries, and that having intent while going into a story can get you in big trouble.
“Anything in writing or in interviews that show I came into the investigation with a preconception could really get me in trouble in court,” she says.
Pérez de Acha goes on to explain how one thing she never does is make promises to her subjects or lead them on in any way to believe that they will gain something after the film.
“I never say, ‘If you tell me your story, you will help [a particular group]. As storytellers, we don’t always have control over our story that goes out into the world with legs of its own.”
She continues, “It’s about keeping my own professional boundaries and not giving them too much while still giving them, very honestly, what they need to know to have full consent going forward.”
Just as countless other storytellers have, director Daresha Kyi has learned a lot about practicing deep listening and navigating vulnerability in her subjects as a longtime documentary filmmaker. Her film Mama Bears explores the many ways in which the lives of conservative Christian mothers are impacted and utterly transformed when they decide to affirm and advocate on behalf of their LGBTQ+ children.
“One thing that is really helpful is finding the right subjects, the right people who are articulate and compassionate — people who are willing to be vulnerable and understand storytelling,” says Kyi. “But it’s also important that we don’t judge and we don’t shame. We are here to listen, and this allows the audience to step outside their own judgment.”
While the film takes a respectful look at Christianity, Kyi was asked how she managed to make sure Mama Bears wasn’t a pile-on, but rather an exploration of how people could transform. Because, in the end, these women do not let go of their religious beliefs, but they come to learn that, as Lozano says, “They can hold their beliefs at the same time as they hold their children.”
And just as Kyi is not here to judge people, she says, “I’m not here to judge religion either. Religion is different for every practitioner.”
She adds, “A queer person I interviewed said to me: ‘It took me years to come to terms with my sexuality. Why would I expect my parents to come to terms with it in a day?’…That gave me so much more compassion for the people I was interviewing and their journeys,” she explains. “I have respect for every religion because I know, at the heart of it, it’s a striving for love and for compassion. I’d like to let people really think about what they believe and, more importantly, why they believe it.”
Documentary filmmakers and leading mediamakers hold a unique responsibility to protect their subjects. The privilege of being a storyteller comes with great risk, and telling stories with care means listening to and learning from the communities around us.
As author and journalist PaanLuel Wël once wrote, “Never stop learning, because life will never stop teaching us.”
Sign up for Sundance Collab for free to watch the full panel and join the online course: Documentary Filmmaking: Developing Your Story.