Barry Hampe Interview - Making Documentary Films
07 July 2009Barry Hampe, is an author and filmmaker, who has made more than 150 documentaries. His latest book is Making Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition . A critical thinker on the subject of documentary filmmaking, Hampe is an advocate for making documentaries as a search for truth. So without further introduction here is the full interview:
DM - In your book Making Documentary Films and Videos you write about "recording reality" we found this very inspiring since most of the viewers take for granted that documentaries presents only actual facts, but you suggests that it's in the hands of the filmmaker. Do you think it is possible to produce a documentary that presents %100 truth?
BH - It’s important to realize that reality does not equal truth and that documentaries neither record nor show reality. What a camera records in a “real” situation is a tiny fraction of what may be happening at the time. And it records it in a two-dimensional image with highly selective sound. Then what is shown to the audience in a finished documentary is a only a small fraction of the tiny fraction that was recorded. That’s why I write about making a documentary as a process of creating a model of the event that was filmed. Like the scale model of a ship, a plane, or a building, it does not—and cannot—show everything that was present in the original. But it should be an accurate and truthful model. And accomplishing that depends, ultimately, on the honesty of the filmmaker.
I think it is possible for a filmmaker to produce a documentary that is 100 percent truth (not opinion) as he or she understands it. That’s the filmmaker’s responsibility. I am also certain it is not possible to produce a one-sided documentary (think Michael Moore) that is anywhere close to 100 percent truth.
The more a documentary relies on visual evidence, the closer it is likely to come to some sort of truth; the more it depends on words—especially interview sound bites—the further it is likely to stray from the truth.
DM - Can you elaborate the term "Visual Evidence" and how we as documentary filmmakers should look to find visual evidence?
BH - Communicating with an audience through an existential, visual medium is far different from communicating in a face-to-face or voice-to-voice situation. Audiences have the perverse habit of assuming that the way they think you are communicating is the way that you intended to communicate. As far as they are concerned, the message they get is the only message there is. And you have no opportunity to defend yourself — to revise, clarify, or explain what you actually meant. Therefore, it is important to think of the images you shoot as visual evidence. It is not enough that you can argue the case for what your images mean. You’ll never get the chance. The only real test is whether the images can stand on their own and argue the case themselves.
You start the search for visual evidence in preproduction by planning ways to tell your story in pictures rather than through interviews and B-roll. You ask yourself, “How can I show this, so an audience will get it?” In production you film people’s behavior, and not just their talk. You keep the camera running in the certain belief that if you have chosen an appropriate situation, something interesting will happen—maybe not right away, but eventually. For example, in The Hobart Shakespeareans there is a moment in which Rafe Esquith is reading to his class from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s the point at which Huck is trying to decide what to do about his friend, Jim, a runaway slave. At first he determines to do the “right thing” and participate in the return of the slave. He says, “I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” And then he thinks about his friendship with Jim and changes his mind.
As Rafe is reading, the camera tilts down from him to a boy in the class, following along in his book. As Rafe reads, “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell . . .’” tears well up in the boy’s eyes. A moment later Rafe asks a girl named Danielle to continue reading. She starts reading and then is overcome with the emotion of the moment and can’t go on.
That’s visual evidence. It’s in the film because it’s a powerful scene. It’s available to be in the film because the camera was on — recording what could easily have been a nothing event, Rafe reading to the class. A documentarian shooting interviews and B-roll would never have gotten that scene.
DM - What is the difference between visual evidence and illustration?
BH - Illustration is cover footage, pictures that run while someone is talking. It’s like the children dressed up as shepherds or wise men in a Christmas pageant -- there to provide something for the audience to look at while they listen to the words. It’s not evidence, just illustration. The challenge for the filmmaker is to make illustrative B-roll more than kids in towels playing shepherds. You have to dig for images that help to advance the story, that give the viewer information as well as something to look at while someone talks.
In Benjamin Franklin (2002), scriptwriter Ronald Blumer put Franklin’s own words in the mouth of actor Richard Easton, playing Franklin, while co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer staged and shot excellent images to illustrate the account of Franklin’s life. As a result, Benjamin Franklin is a story well told in words and illustrations, like a good children’s book.
In a new approach to illustration, documentarians today have begun to use the sort of animated graphics found in video games to illustrate stories for which there are no images. This lets us see events as they might have happened. Good illustration helps to explain the argument of the documentary, but it falls short of proof. If a shot can be used as proof, then it’s visual evidence.
DM - Should we doubt documentarians credibility?
BH - Absolutely. There are people more than willing to use the form of the documentary to try to gain credibility for a biased or even unfounded argument. Make the documentarian earn your trust. How? By presenting evidence and making a reasoned argument.
DM - Would you say that one of the most challenging things a documentarian has to deal with is the research stage?
BH - I would say that the research phase of preproduction is critically important. Whether it is the most challenging element of documentary production depends on the ability of the filmmaker to probe for the truth while keeping an open mind.
DM - What should we look for when we are doing our research? Can we avoid prejudge conceptions about our subject matter?
BH - Making a documentary is, or should be, a process of discovery that begins with questions rather than answers.
First you question yourself to help define the quest you are embarking on.
• Exactly what is it that you are wondering about?
• Why are you interested in this?
• Where could you begin to look for answers to your questions?
• What possible explanations can you think of for whatever it is you are wondering about?
• How can you test the truth, accuracy, and validity of the things you find out?
• Where can you find the facts?
• What could you film that will show the truth?
Then you go out into the real world and keep asking questions. You have to be open to things that you may not want to hear. You have to ask people how they know the truth of what they are telling you. You have to look for evidence; for proof.
And you have to accept that the search for truth may put you at odds with your friends and colleagues who are convinced things are one way and don’t want to hear any evidence to the contrary. You hope it won’t. But it could.
The best documentaries are made by people who set out to learn the truth about something. If you don’t learn anything in the process of researching, writing, recording, and finishing your film, then making the documentary will probably have been a waste of time.
DM - Do you think that talking heads documentaries are a result of a lazy filmmaker? Should documentaries explore the subject by observation and giving less space to interviews?
BH - Yes. And yes.
DM - How do you see realities programs? Did it contribute to documentary by making it more available to the public? Or did it harm it?
BH - Reality programs are simply elaborate game shows. They are “real” in the same sense that what happens on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is real. It happened. The point, however, is that it would not have happened if they weren’t making a TV show. The test to distinguish a real event from made-for-TV “reality” is to ask, Would any of this have happened if there had not been a camera present? If the answer is no, then it doesn’t count.
DM - Can you give us some tips about what makes a good interview?
BH - 1. Preparation. Try to learn as much as you can about the topic and the person you’ll be interviewing before the interview.
2. Listen. Make eye contact, lean forward to show your interest, and hear what the person is saying. Given the chance, the interviewee may take you places you never even thought about. Follow up on what the person says rather than going on to the next question on your list. The question check list will always be there to go back to later.
3. Wait awhile before asking your next question. Your silence may prompt the interviewee to say something more – possibly something really important.
4. Don’t show off your knowledge. An interview is a mining operation, not a conversation. It has several specific goals:
• To increase your knowledge about the topic.
• To find additional sources of information.
• To evaluate this person as a possible on-camera interviewee.
• To learn about opposing positions.
• To identify visual evidence.
• To gather documentation.
DM - What is the importance of a script in relation to documentary, should we write a script before or after shooting?
BH -For some documentaries the script is crucial; anything involving reenactment or recreation, for example. Historical and biographical documentaries require an immense amount of research followed by careful structuring of the information in a script.
Others, such as a documentary of a unique event with the outcome unknown, can’t possibly be scripted ahead of time, so a comprehensive treatment with an extensive list of possible, probable, and necessary shots is all you need prior to principal photography.
My rule of thumb is to write the script as late in the process as I can. If it can hold off until after principal photography, fine. If it can hold off until after there’s a rough cut, even better.
DM - Let's change gear, and talk about documentary in context of new - media. DocMovies has been available since 2002 and most of our activity was concentrated around classic documentary filmmaking. Now that the new media and digital platforms are becoming more and more available we are now blending in, and want to raise awareness to the possibilities our there. How do you see new media outlets like iTunes and Amazon VOD, it seem that documentaries are the most popular videos offered there, can it offer documentarians complete freedom to produce and distribute their movies?
BH - I’m going to say that the ability to shoot and edit a documentary with very little out-of-pocket cost, and now to show it and even to sell it on-line, presents a tremendous opportunity. How this will be realized, we still don’t know. I’m guessing more videos are posted on-line in a short period of time – a day? a week? a month? – than anyone could watch in a lifetime. So the problem for the documentarian moves from “how do I get my documentary made” to “how do I find an audience for the documentary I’ve made.”
DM - Today everyone can pick up a camera and film a documentary would you agree that all of us can be documentarians?
BH - Yes and no. In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that it takes about 10,000 hours of effort to reach the professional level in any endeavor. So, anyone can now make a video and call it a documentary. But only a few people will spend the time necessary to master the medium and make a professional documentary. Fewer still will make a great one. That’s the way it has always been.
DM - Can this contribute in any way to raise awareness to political and social issues?
BH -I fear not. Judging by the political and social films of the last decade, not much will change. These films have been , for the most part, polarizing, which means they gain great acceptance by those who already agree with the filmmaker and immediate rejection by those who disagree. I don’t know what those without an opinion do. I can hope that they see the films are so biased for or against something that they either go looking for more information or just ignore the whole thing.
For every outstanding documentary open to explore a topic wherever it goes – I’m thinking of films such as The Education of Shelby Knox, directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt – there are a plethora of bad, biased, untruthful films by the Michael Moores and Robert Greenwalds. The real problem is that a lot of young documentarians think the Michael Moore model is the way to make a documentary. That’s sad.