Poring through archival footage, educating yourself about historic events you want to cover on film and working with interviewees discussing traumatic events were all covered in an industry talk hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday (Sept. 12).
Filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Stefan Forbes were interviewed by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers in a talk titled “Documenting History.” Nelson’s newest film, Attica, was the opening night documentary selection at TIFF this year, premiering on the 50th anniversary of the start of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the largest in U.S. history. Forbes’ newest film, Hold Your Fire, made its world premiere at TIFF this year, covering the New York City Police Department’s longest hostage siege in its history.
Both filmmakers talked about the difficulty of covering a piece of history on film. Forbes said he feels like when he’s telling these stories, they’re still unfinished in that they’re often still looming over the nation, still needing to be discussed and processed. He added it’s incumbent for a filmmaker to work on their project with an open mind, and to speak with a wide range of people to educate themselves about all sides of the story.
Then, as Forbes found out with Hold Your Fire, the difficulty becomes logistically telling a multi-perspective story accurately, especially without a narrator.
“If we tell history from this lofty perch of what we think we know and we don’t speak to people on the ground with a stake in the community, the stakeholders, the people with the knowledge, we’re never going to solve these intractable problems,” Forbes said.
“It’s easier said than done. We can pay lip service to pluralism, but a narrative needs a strong, cohesive story.”
Nelson said filmmakers go in with an idea of the story they want to tell, but often have to adjust after what they learn from the sources they interview. In Attica, Nelson said there were enough layers to the story that it was difficult knowing how to structure the film so that elements of the story, such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller or President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the affair didn’t feel like they were raised out of nowhere or didn’t feel too contrived.
Archival footage is often of paramount importance to filmmakers working on historical projects. Nelson’s new film is close to his heart, he said, and one he’s wanted to make for years. He worked with a small team, including an archival producer, but he still looked at all of the available footage himself to select what to use for the film.
Both filmmakers faced issues with the archives. Forbes was missing key photographs of the characters and scenes in his story until he found just the right source with a series of detailed black-and-white photograph stills, and both directors faced delays in getting archival footage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelson’s team was helped by footage shot by New York State Police along with open microphones capturing sound they could use. In fact, part of the reason why Attica was made at all, Nelson said, is because of how much footage they knew was out there.
“Part of the Attica story is that in the first hours after the rebellion, the prisoners said ‘We want the press to come in and film us,’ because if the press comes in, they thought they would be protected because everything would be on film. So there’s just incredible footage of the whole rebellion,” Nelson said.
Forbes, on the other hand, didn’t know what would be available to him in the archives for his new documentary, and had to sit through hours combing over grainy footage with sections that had long ago been edited out to use on the newscasts before being thrown away.
“You’re making a film with the scraps of history a lot of time,” Forbes said.
“You’re telling history with one arm tied behind your back. In this story, the great challenge was that we had some gorgeous film shot outside the siege, but we had nothing inside.”
Asking sources to recount stories on camera for historical documentaries is another challenge filmmakers face. Nelson said he tries not to put a hard sell on interview subjects, not wanting them to force them to recount past trauma they don’t want to talk about.
But he’s also found, as when speaking to some prisoners for Attica who were present at the revolt, that people often want to tell their story when they’ve never had the chance to do so before.
“It’s a balance. You don’t want to do anything that is ethically wrong, but you got to go there with people, you want to take them back,” Nelson said.
Forbes developed an approach to historical documentary interviews by providing interviewees with photographs or showing them video, to confront them with artifacts that will create a tactile connection to the past.
“When we listen to people, our presence and our awareness allows them to make sense of their life or these traumatic events, in a way,” Forbes said.
Attica opened at TIFF on Sept. 9 this year, while Hold Your Fire premiered on Sept. 10.