With the Oscars on the way for this Sunday (February 22), Emmy-winning director Pamela Mason Wagner discusses the subject matter of this year’s short documentary nominees, and asks where the line can, or should be drawn when delving into difficult territory.
How much is too much when revealing intimate or disturbing content in a documentary?
Where should one draw the line between depicting a character truthfully and violating their privacy? How much graphic footage can an audience handle before they want to turn away? And does a filmmaker’s relationship with their subject affect decisions about displaying difficult material?
Documentary filmmakers who tackle distressing subjects often struggle with some of the same questions. This year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries wrestle with them in different ways.
Our Curse, directed by Tomasz Śliwiński, tells the story of a Polish father and mother struggling to care for their newborn son Leo who returns from the hospital with a life-threatening diagnosis. Scenes of the two parents wearily discussing their stark future alternate with depictions of the extreme medical care they must administer at home in order to keep Leo alive. Many viewers at a recent February screening at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Theater in New York City groaned and covered their eyes during an extended close-up of Leo’s father inserting a tracheal breathing tube into his son’s throat.
Leo’s father was also the filmmaker. As subject and author he was in a unique position to decide for his family how much he wanted to reveal. Śliwiński stated in an Op Ed for the New York Times that he began recording the experience as a way to avoid “succumbing to depression.” Initially the footage felt to him “too intimate and private” to show anyone. Only later, once he and his wife Magda found they were able to cope with these nearly impossible obstacles did they decide to share the film publicly.
Nicaraguan director Gabriel Serra Arguello takes us into a Mexican industrial slaughterhouse in The Reaper. We watch the methodical, repetitive, relentless process of killing and butchering animals, transforming them into thousands of pounds of beef every day. Serra Arguello focuses on one worker, Efraín Jiménez García, whose job is to kill the bulls. Jiménez García, nicknamed “the Reaper,” articulates his thoughts and feelings in voiceover while the camera, elegantly framed, and mostly stationary, captures the bloody, grisly images.
In an interview, Serra Arguello told Documentary magazine: “When I began investigating two months before we filmed, it was very hard to be there (in the slaughterhouse). When I would come back in the Metro to my house, I was feeling very shocked.”
Many in the audience were shocked as well. Several people walked out of the SVA screening, stating later they were unable to tolerate the repeated imagery of animal slaughter. Yet the respect Serra Arguello afforded his main character prevents the film from becoming a commercial for animal rights or a snuff film that celebrates violence. And by treating his visuals almost like abstract paintings, Serra Arguello challenges us to see past the gore and contemplate violence, life and death.
Films about cancer can also be difficult for audiences to watch. In Joanna (directed by Aneta Kopacz) a young mother in Warsaw, with a terminal diagnosis, lives out her final months as purposefully and thoughtfully as she can. Her bright seven year-old son Jas appears in nearly every scene. Their relationship, full of intimate, tender rapport forms the heart of the movie.
Kopacz explained in a Q & A after the SVA screening that she discovered Joanna through a blog, where Joanna was “describing her daily life full of those small and beautiful moments.” After convincing Joanna she wanted to depict not her cancer and her dying, but her living, Kopacz and her crew filmed the family for fifteen days over the course of four months. She described how they tried to remain as invisible as possible in order not to intrude on Joanna’s daily simple moments.
The film’s climax comes when Joanna and her husband Piotr tell Jas the end is near. Kopacz’ camera remains outside the house, shooting through the dining room window. The characters are not miced. Instead we hear birdsong, crickets and the natural sounds that accompany twilight. The scene is powerful, discreet, and emotionally satisfying, and vindicates the filmmaker’s choice to respect her subject’s privacy at this crucial moment.
The team behind Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, director Ellen Goosenberg Kent and producer Dana Perry, were in no position to remain invisible. Shot entirely inside the nation’s only Veteran Crisis Line in Canandaigua, NY, their film depicts several of the more than 22,000 calls a month fielded by the center. Legal reasons prevented the filmmakers from recording the callers’ voices. Instead we hear and see the counselors’ side of the conversation as they walk their desperate callers back from the brink of suicide.
Kent, who has directed several films about veterans, described in the SVA Q & A how she convinced the crisis center workers to participate in the film. Over half the responders immediately said yes, wanting to publicize this epidemic. Since 2001 more vets have died by their own hand than in combat. Perry, the producer, revealed a more personal connection to this subject matter during the Q & A. She lived through a suicide –her son’s – and made a film about it for HBO (Boy Interrupted). After her son died, experts told her the only prevention for suicide was awareness. This film goes a long way toward that goal.
In White Earth, director/producer J. Christian Jensen paints a picture of the frozen plains of North Dakota, where an oil boom threatens both the earth and the people who live there. Jensen tells his story primarily through the eyes of the most vulnerable, the children of parents drawn there for work. Getting young people to open up and not be intimidated by the camera isn’t always easy. Jensen described to Frontrunner magazine the unique relationship he struck up with James, an 11-year old boy whose experience anchors the film.
“We turned the interview into a sort of game,” he said. “We built a big fort out of blankets, pillows and furniture and I would ask him questions in between breaks for snacks and goofing off.” Jensen’s unusual approach yielded an unusually wise, unfiltered and revealing interview.
This year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries are not for the faint of heart. But judging by the dedicated audiences who show up year after year to screen the nominees, these films have a loyal following despite their often-challenging subject matter. When filmmakers take their responsibility as storytellers to heart, everybody wins – both participants and audiences.
Pamela Mason Wagner is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker who cofounded Turtle Rock Productions in 1993. She lives in New York City.