Discovering documentary

Subjects of documentaryCan verité filmmakers be objective with cameras in hand? Immersion in a documentary project in Maine helps an ADF recipient explore the "show, don't tell" imperative. 

By Guest Blogger David Shayne '19

David Shayne ’19, a resident of Dunster House concentrating in Social Studies with a secondary in Visual and Environmental Studies, was awarded a Fellowship to edit a documentary short on the PBS Newshour segment, Making Sen$e regarding the renowned low-budget horror movie producers Jason Blum and Roger Corman as well as create a documentary exploring a community of Somalian refugees in Lewiston, Maine. An aspiring filmmaker, Shayne was the co-author of Hasty Pudding Theatricals 169: Casino Evil, and former producer and head director for On Harvard Time, Harvard’s student-run web comedy show. He is writing his senior thesis on the history of American economic crises, and plans to pursue a career in film production.

Part One: Why wander?
At Harvard, time is scarce. Classes, meetings and, well, everything make it difficult to shoot for more than an hour or two every now and then—let alone to spend days wandering around in search of promising leads. It’s tricky. This summer, thanks for the Artist Development Fellowship, I’ve managed to find the time I couldn’t when school was in session.

A young man and three of his closest friends hanging out in the wake of the dam.
Members of the documentary hanging out in the wake of the dam.
I am now entering the seventh week of my two-month documentary shoot in Lewiston, Maine. (What a crazy sentence for me to be typing.) My partners -- Jacob Roberts’ 19 and Austin Weber ‘19 -- and I have become surprisingly familiar with this town. When we stop by our favorite sandwich spot for lunch, we often find ourselves mobbed by curious kids who’ve seen us working in their neighborhoods. When we meet with potential subjects, they say they’ve noticed us filming at their friend’s wedding or their family’s mosque. When we spend our nights off at the bowling alley, we see familiar faces left and right. It’s weird to feel so at home in a place we had nothing to do with just a couple months ago. I’d wager that shooting a documentary helps you settle into a new town faster than just about anything. 

The length of our stay in Lewiston has afforded us time to wander. We’ve spent several afternoons doing little more than exploring the outskirts of the town. During one of these aimless excursions, we ended up at the foot of a huge dam. It was stunning, but we didn’t think too much of it at the time. We poked around beneath the falls, took some photos, and rambled elsewhere. Lo and behold, three weeks later, we discovered that our main documentary subject—a young man grieving the death of his best friend—used to spend his summer afternoons hanging out at the same dam. Go figure.

The same group sitting on the log they used to share with their friend who passed away.
Documentary subjects sitting on the log they used to share with their friend who passed away.
One week later, we were back at the dam filming our subject and three of his buddies reminiscing about the friend they’d lost. It was one of the most touching moments we’ve caught on camera thus far, and it would not have materialized without the afternoon we spent wandering Lewiston. 

I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to making documentary films in the abbreviated way I have in the past. The ADF has totally spoiled me.

Part Two: Directing documentaries
I have been thinking recently about what it means to “direct” a documentary.

Before I decided to give this type of filmmaking a try, I thought nonfiction directors had a duty to direct, in the conventional sense, as little as possible. I understood them to be tasked with little more than being in the right place at the right time, camera surreptitiously in hand. To be anything but a fly on the wall would be to disrupt reality.

When I took my first stab at making a documentary, though, it dawned on me that this degree of objectivity is impossible to achieve. I decided that I would have to embrace my

The final moments of Lewiston's March for Peace and Hope.
intrusive presence. To me, this meant relying entirely on direct-to-camera testimonials. I abandoned any commitment to verité. Viewers, I figured, would have to trust the words coming from my subjects’ mouths—how could they not?

Of course, this approach broke the golden rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell. I ended up with a movie that was all tell, no show. It got the point across, but not artfully so.

I’m hoping to find a middle ground between the verité and testimonial extremes. I’ve decided to defer to whichever style best suits the scene at hand. When a conversation between two of my main subjects -- a young couple -- devolved into a heated shouting match, I did my best to melt into the background as the drama played out before the camera. At a city-wide march against racism, on the other hand, I made a point of interviewing protesters in hopes that a more journalistic approach would reflect the intentionally public nature of the event.

Is this groundbreaking stuff? No, but it’s the kind of lesson I could only learn by doing. It has taken me several tries to settle on a method that I’m happy with, and I’m not even remotely sure I’ve nailed it this time. There’s certainly much more to directing a documentary than this single decision, but at the moment, I’m most excited to see how this aspect of the process shakes out in the cutting room.

All photos courtesy David Shayne.