Interviewing is an activity that each documentary filmmaker approaches in their own way.
For Canadian director and journalist Maya Gallus, research — both her own and by her team — is critical to understanding what the biases, points-of-view and possible secrets are of her subjects before she interviews them.
“It’s about gaining trust and intimacy, because as much as I’m deciding about that person and whether or not they are going to be in the film or how they are going to be in the film, they are also deciding about me,” Gallus told a crowd at the Hot Docs forum Thursday (May 5).
Speaking about “the art of the interview,” the Canadian filmmaker often explores the “female gaze” and has an extensive body of work including 1991′s Elizabeth Smart: On The Side of the Angels, 2007′s Girl Inside and 2013′s Derby Crazy Love.
When directing 2012′s The Mystery of Mazo De La Roche, a feature documentary about the mysterious life of the Canadian author who penned the Jalna novels, Gallus says she wanted to interview La Roche’s daughter, Esmee who at that point, was weary of the media. Several docs had been done on her adopted mother, Mazo, and she had felt ambushed — especially about her mother’s sexuality — in the process.
The director knew she had to be sensitive when approaching Esmee..
“It was important to me to empower her to allow her to speak her truth, which had not happened before,” explained Gallus. “She was overshadowed by this very famous mother and she didn’t have an opportunity to express her perspective.”
Documentary films are often made while a subject or person being interviewed is going through a transition in their life. The interview process often puts them in a vulnerable position, Gallus said.
When trying to capture a moment about a person, sometimes the best approach is to not pursue an interview, but to let the moment unfold on screen. In her documentary Girl Inside, about a young man’s transition to becoming a woman, there was a moment where the protagonist, Madison, returned to her home in New Brunswick for the first time.
Instead of doing an interview with her brother, Gallus let the the siblings reunite and reconnect without interference, leading to a tender, intimate moment on screen.
“Stay back, keep filming if you can, and see what is revealed,” Gallus said, adding that what is revealed in those moments “is frequently more powerful than an interview.”
Documentaries often deal with serious subject matter, which means it can be very difficult to convince someone to talk to you when they’re going through a painful moment. Gallus said she often checks in with herself to ensure what she is doing is not exploitive and reminds herself of why she wanted to tell the story in the first place.
Inevitably, though, she said subjects at times to lose their trust in the director. It’s important that the director to not let their ego get in the way.
“You’re a human being, just try to keep talking with them and allow them to trust you.”
Gallus is currently working on a new doc that features female chefs. Wary of being in both their workspace and emotional space, the director told her subjects to be upfront about how they were feeling during the shoot. This, in turn, helped Gallus build trust with the chefs, which allows her to come back when they’re ready to be open again.
“If you push through to0 much, you might get that shot, but you might not be able to come back.”