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Tell Me Something: Filmmakers share lessons from documenting life

Tell Me Something, a book published by the New York-based production and media company Film First, brought together 60 documentary filmmakers from around the world, and asked each of them for one piece of advice. Funded by crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter and conceived and edited by Jessica Edwards, a Torontonian currently based in New York, the book shares insights into the how and why of doc-making from masters such as Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore, with – and maybe no surprise here – recurring themes of persistance, rejection and inspiration. But as the four entries excerpted here show, the secrets shared apply to much more than life behind the camera.

Jessica Sample

Brett Morgan

Selected filmography: The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), Chicago 10 (2007), Crossfire Hurricane (2012).

I couldn’t speak until I was 5 because of a severe speech impediment. I had to stay in speech therapy until I was 16. I’ve been told that most kids with speech problems tend to be shy and quiet. But I must have realized, at that young age, that my voice really did sound funny, and I could use it to my advantage. … If I made fun of myself first, it kind of took the piss out of it for other kids. So at an early age, I realized the value of entertaining an audience.

I often find the truth to be overrated. I’d rather have a drink with a really good storyteller than with someone who sticks to the record. When I think of my films, they’re not that different. I don’t really document the truth, I manufacture it.

I try to go to the cinema at least three times a week. Same reason. Reality is never as entertaining as a movie.

My favourite line from a film is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” These are words to live by. Create your own mythology. Maybe I didn’t have a speech problem – maybe I just made it up to make a point.

Sally Montana

Shola Lynch

Selected filmography: Chisholm ‘72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004), Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (2012).

I never set out to be a filmmaker. … In 1996, after struggling to find jobs in my field, I stumbled on a chance to work for the award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. The four-year job became my graduate film school. About halfway through it, the most valuable lesson came unexpectedly, as I waited for the copy machine. A senior producer, Lynn Novick, had just put a large document in the feeder. Married with toddlers, she had great focus at work, so this was a rare moment to chat. Instead, as the machine clicked and copied, she said out loud but half to herself, “I wish someone had told me that you can have it all; you just can’t have it all at the same time.” … Although I was dismissive at the time, smiling politely and wishing she’d hurry up with the machine, what she said stuck with me.

The other piece of advice came years later while I was directing my first documentary, Chisholm ‘72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004), about Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. I was driving Mrs. Chisholm home after a long interview day when she leaned closer to me and said, “So, young lady …” I braced myself for some deep political insight. … Instead, Mrs. Chisholm asked me a question – a dreaded one for a single woman in her 30s: “Do you have someone special in your life?” … I mumbled something about being busy – working on a film about her. She shook her head with firm disapproval and said, “It is important to take care of yourself.” With a finger wag and a slight chuckle she added, “Men always do.” Like any good teacher, she completely shifted my thinking. …

Both pieces of advice became relevant when I was making Free Angela & All Political Prisoners … Raising the budget turned out to be an eight-year Herculean task. During one of many points when I was stalled, I revisited Chisholm’s advice. I made time for a personal life, and before I knew it, I was married with two kids. That is when Lynn’s words clicked. I could not have it all at once; I had to concentrate on one aspect of my life at a time. My fix became to rotate my priorities: Free Angela, for-hire producing work (to make some kind of living) and a family. Like a juggler, I kept each priority in play to focus on whatever needed my attention most. … When I inevitably dropped all the balls, I picked them up without too much judgment, learned what I could, and kept it moving. And do you know what? I finished Free Angela, my kids thrived, and I survived. The big lesson I learned was, for my ultimate productivity, I needed to be happy.

Jodie Vicenta Jacobson

Steve James

Selected filmography: Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), The Interrupters (2011).

‘You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”

That was a favourite quote of my scary, crazy high-school basketball coach, usually delivered at 120 decibels and accompanied by a foot-stomping tirade. But there is truth in it that applies to documentary filmmaking, and – hard as it is to admit given how laughable I found my coach back then – okay, it applies to life itself.

My favourite documentaries I’ve made have come from experiences where I have been plunged into dramatic circumstances and people’s lives at important junctures. And whatever artistic or thematic pretensions I had going in were summarily swept aside by all that is surprising, bedeviling, inspiring, hilarious and unbelievably sad about the human condition. When you’re capturing an unfolding story where the stakes, whatever they are – dreams, prison, love, a job, life and death – are high, it’s truly like living inside a novel come to life. The raw material (ingredients) will dictate the form (salad or shit) if you listen to it.

Here’s an example: I made a film in which, near the end, a young man was headed off to prison and we were there to film his last morning of freedom. I’d expected his grandmother, who had raised him, to latch on to him and wail. She didn’t. I’d expected the young man to pitch a fit at how fate had cursed him. He didn’t. I’d expected everyone around the kitchen table to give him advice about how to stay safe in prison. They didn’t. Instead, everyone sat quietly, stunned, for a good long while, and then talked about the dog lying on the kitchen floor. How the dog was really good and not bad like people believed him to be. How that dog “could look at you mean, but he’d never hurt a soul.” In other words, they were talking about the young man in the only way they could without falling apart.

I felt like I was witnessing the kind of moving and completely unexpected moment that no playwright or screenwriter could have come up with. And so I didn’t try to impose my original ideas and expectations on material that wanted to be something else. I embraced what is. And, not to go all Oprah, but what excellent advice for life: Embrace what’s in front of you instead of looking to validate all your preconceived notions. Find the deeper truth and inspiration in what is, and just maybe life won’t be a shit sandwich.

Johannes Kroemer

Judith Helfand

Selected Filmography: The Uprising of ‘34 (1995), A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), Blue Vinyl (2002).

“No” does not mean no … it is “on” backwards.

“No” can turn around with patience, serenity and acceptance – sooner or later. If it doesn’t, you have been saved from something you don’t need to be focusing on, and now have time for the thing in front of your face – the door that wants you to open it.

My mother did not ever read me a bedtime issue, she read me a bedtime story. I tell myself this when I am in the field. “Make this film as if it is a story.”

When everyone runs to the other side of the boat to watch the whale, stay on the side that no one is on. It’s quiet, empty, tipped over by the weight of all those on the “right” side. You will see something utterly unique. It could be the “other whale” no one is looking at. It could be the calm sea, it could be a chance to catch your breath and just listen. And there you will find the “other side” of the story, the fish no one knows about.

Some excerpts have been condensed for length.

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