“The golden age of documentary”: Dawn Porter on John Lewis, Pete Souza docs

In the eight years since the premiere of her first feature Gideon’s Army at Sundance, Dawn Porter’s films have garnered critical acclaim, with 2020′s John Lewis: Good Trouble and The Way ...
January 15, 2021

In the eight years since the premiere of her first feature Gideon’s Army at Sundance, Dawn Porter’s films have garnered critical acclaim, with 2020′s John Lewis: Good Trouble and The Way I See It picking up accolades and generating Oscar buzz.

Not one to rest on her laurels, the attorney-turned-filmmaker is now directing and executive producing a yet-untitled Apple TV+ docuseries about mental health with Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, expected to premiere this spring.

“I am really excited about continuing to find stories where you learn something new, where you enter a new world where you’re able to live for a little bit in someone else’s shoes. I’m also interested in expanding my company,” Porter tells Realscreen. “I really am looking at thinking about more experimental work. I never want to be a filmmaker who’s just doing one thing — I want to do all of it. I want to try things that scare me. That’s what I’m looking forward to — pushing myself and continuing to be pushed and always looking for new ways of expression.”

Porter and her Trilogy Films – its mission to “create space for voices that go unheard and share stories that would otherwise go unshared” – have released Netflix’s Bobby Kennedy for President (2018); PBS’s Spies of Mississippi (2014); and Discovery’s Rise: Promise of My Brother’s Keeper (2015), to name a few.

Her 2016 film Trapped about laws regulating abortion clinics in the American south earned Porter the Special Jury Social-Impact Prize at Sundance and a Peabody Award. Gideon’s Army, the 2013 film about three young public defenders, is now part of the U.S. Department of State’s American Film Showcase.

“I’m really interested in stories that reveal something about a topic that you thought you knew a little bit about, but you really didn’t,” Porter says. “Both the John Lewis movie and Pete Souza movie are telling you the truth behind the stories you think you know.”

In John Lewis: Good Trouble, Porter weaves vérité, archive and Lewis’ own words to present an intimate portrait of the late Georgia Congressman and civil rights icon. She describes that film, released just weeks before Lewis’ death on July 17, 2020, as one of her most meaningful projects.

The Way I See It, meanwhile, offers a look through the lens of former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza, who captured the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan.

“All of your work builds on your experiences of the past. But these two movies really, really spoke to me. John Lewis’s message was, speak up, speak out and call out the things that are wrong, and that’s what Pete was doing,” she says.

Like most documentary filmmakers, Porter was dealt more than a few challenges in 2020 as she worked to finish both projects.

“One thing about documentary filmmakers is we are as adept as anyone, maybe even more so, at dealing with curveballs, and this was a major curveball,” she says. “The pandemic shutdown affected each project differently.”

The filmmaker and her team were working on the release strategy for John Lewis: Good Trouble when the world went into lockdown. Even before that, she says, Lewis had been diagnosed with cancer and was going through treatment. For The Way I See It, the crew hadn’t finished shooting when COVID-19 upended the film and TV industry.

“We had to figure out what interviews were really crucial to get done and how we were going to do them. It was like Goldilocks, we tried a little bit of everything,” Porter says. “The key for us was figuring out how to send Pete, in particular, a camera and ask him to be the cinematographer. So, I was on Zoom doing the interview, but he was working the camera remotely.

“And then we had to go about the business of movie-making. We had to do the color correction, [we had] to do the sound mix. I just really looked to the strength of the documentary community. I’ve worked with the same sound mixer for a while now, so he was able to do a lot that we would normally do in person remotely…  All of the people really rallied to figure it out, and to adapt.”

The experience, a trial by fire in remote production, proved useful in the making of her newest project, the Apple TV+ series, currently in post-production.

“When Oprah calls, you answer,” Porter says. “We’re really excited about the collection of stories that we’ve been able to capture… We were doing a lot of COVID-safe filming during the pandemic… [The Way I See It] impacted the mental health series in a very concrete way which is, I now have experience doing remote interviews.”

Daily Show veteran Kahane Cooperman is serving as showrunner on the six-part series, with RadicalMedia acting as a creative and production partner. British filmmaker Asif Kapadia (Amy, Diego Maradona) is also on board as a director.

“Asif’s use of archival is very similar to what we do in vérité filming. I’m more of a vérité filmmaker, and he’s probably more of an archival filmmaker, but I also think that those labels are so fluid. We’ve each worked in both mediums. He has a really great way of letting archival material play out in a scene,” Porter says.

A near decade of critically acclaimed work under her belt, Porter is plotting out her next moves in the documentary field, which has been propelled forward in the last year by an “appetite for truth,” she says.

“I actually think the popularity of the genre of documentary is in itself a challenge. And by that, I mean, there’s such a huge appetite for film, but people just want more and more and more, and it’s great that there’s so much demand, but it means that we’re being asked to produce things on a much faster timetable than we usually do,” she offers. “What we shouldn’t do is forget the origins of documentary film. We have lots of bells and whistles, and lots of tricks and great cameras and all that stuff but at the heart of it, it’s the truth of the story, and being honest with your audience about what is real and what is imagined. And I just think we all do well to remember why we have non fiction. Remember the ‘non.’

“People’s interest in the ordinariness of human life is limitless. People like to learn about people — I guess it’s because we’re all learning about ourselves. I just think we’re never going to get over this golden age of documentary.”

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