Testing Early Rough Cuts of Our Films on a Small Audience

At this week’s meeting, we somehow managed to attract two more fascinating guest speakers to our Visual Law Practicum. The first was Dave Saldana, who has been a producer, journalism professor, First Amendment lawyer, and communications director. Joe Friedman, who has acted as a director of photography at various points on both of our films, served as our second guest of the day. Together, they introduced (and re-introduced) themselves to the class, and talked about how they got started in filmmaking.

In the ensuing screening and discussion of our films, we focused on two sets of questions: What are we most struggling with in our latest cut? And how can we make our films better in the coming weeks as we prepare to screen footage for faculty members, the dean of the law school, and eventually other students? We focused on three specific questions: How can we cut the film down to a more manageable size? Is it missing a strong counter-argument? Is it clear what the argument in the film is?

We screened the immigration team’s film first. What follows is a short sampling of comments given by various guests and students.

The film came alive the moment we saw Ernesto. Until then, it felt a bit like fishing: a lot of static shots, a lot of moving shots, shadows, no idea where things were going at first. The strongest thing you have are the people – they just pierce your heart. I would decrease subtitle size, and add a drop shadow. As one human being listening to another human being speak, this is what matters – trying to see into a person, and seeing his family. Father taking his two kids out into the park; they’re just people, you’ve seen them on the street, they’re not an abstraction. The mother. That just tugs at your heart.

Initially, I wanted to know: who are these people? What is their deal? Towards the end, I realized that it doesn’t matter. In terms of getting the other side onscreen, I don’t know if you need an interview, but you need to give the other side a voice, or a quote from Janet Reno, or a video from Bush. This can also be supplied by non-institutional voices. But if you’re showing negative signs and anti-immigration snippets, you need to give context to those. Also, I don’t think the city of Baltimore needs to be a character; you can make this more like Anytown, USA.

Can we supply any background information about when Ernesto came to the US? You want to establish him as someone who didn’t just jump the fence four months ago, who has been here for awhile.

One way to direct this might be to a build from a wall of bad but rational-sounding arguments, to full-out anti-immigration advocacy (as an inciting incident), towards the crashing down of the wall. It’s important to show what’s at stake in the film.

Also you may want to move the quote about violence done against a non-polity towards the end. The point slips by when it’s at the beginning. Of course, there’s still a need to preserve the legal argumentative structure of the film.

As opposed to a larger structure, like the olocaust, where you’ve got an incredibly large event and you need to narrow down to the human stories that are part of that structure, in this situation, you’ve got an incredibly human story and you need to magnify it to explain the depth and breadth of what’s at stake.

We then screened a draft of the criminal team’s film. Again, here are some comments and reactions from the conversation about this film that followed our screening.

It would be useful to have experts weigh in at various junctures in the film, particularly where certain personal claims are made by the film’s subject that could be extrapolated to a broader audience. You can weave your expert and empirical clips into the documentary as it’s already structured, so that you have three parts that complement the others. It’s a very important structural technique to go from anecdotal to empirical to the broader claims you are making. Take one person’s human story, put the science and the facts to it, and you can take it beyond the one person’s story at the same time you humanize the science and empiricize the anecdote.

It’s also fine for the project to be experimenting in making different sequences available online, and giving viewers the option to choose which tracks they want to see.

I was not bothered by the lack of family context for the film’s main character; he was easy to look at, very thoughtful about what he had to say. It was very evocative.

As you’re watching the documentary, you think: wouldn’t it be neat if they explored that further? And the answer for many PBS documentaries is that many of these separate pieces are online. So you can do the same, and put extra footage online.


Summarizing these discussions, we discussed our obligations to the truth and the ways in which we can make our points strongly, both as legal advocates and even as visual storytellers, while still adhering to the truth. We thought also about various emotional triggers that we can use to give our films more resonance.

Thanks to our guests and to members of the Visual Law Project for another great meeting and conversation!

Rashomon and Juxtaposition of Multiple Perspectives

We opened our reading group with a discussion of the film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. The film addressed themes of loss of humanity, faith, and gender relationships; we began with the basic question of why the characters in Rashomon told the stories and lies that they told, and why people tell stories and lies in general. We tried to describe the complex narrative structure of the film, which involves narrations of a conflict from three separate perspectives followed by a witness’s account of what actually happened and a larger philosophical framing of the story with respect to questions about the forces aligned against telling of objective truth.

Rashomon raised a number of questions relevant to our own filmmaking experiences.

Given that our films are narrated and contextualized by people with a certain point of view, what are our obligations to some larger kind of truth, as opposed to the immediate truths of these peoples’ experiences as they see them and as they accounts for such experiences? Since our filmmaking strategy is partially based upon juxtaposing multiple partial perspectives, we drew many parallels between the structure of Rashomon and the structure of our films — in particularl, the immigration team’s film, which involves a juxtaposition of (a) the raw video of an immigration raid with (b) the perspectives of people who were subject to this raid, along with (c) the perspective of police officers involved in the raid and (d) the perspectives of immigration law scholars.

When we don’t have a personal stake in a given issue in our film, how do we juxtapose the different claims made around this issue by the people in our films? Or is it impossible to detach our personal beliefs from the issues we are filming? And how do we account for our films’ viewers‘ beliefs and experiences, and shape our film in the context of those experiences?

In Rashomon, Kurosawa used certain cues and techniques to suggest that a certain account of the story was the more objective account – specifically, he used music during the three “subjective” accounts and no music during the final witness’s account. We discussed how we could use sound (or lack of sound), lighting, and montage to convey lower and higher degrees of truthiness. For instance, we can use certain musical techniques as leitmotifs to identify not just certain emotions in our films but also certain broader character arcs. This can sometimes verge on the cheesy if used in too obvious a way, but it can be an essential technique in documentaries and is often employed by Errol Morris and others. We also need to be attentive to how we use backgrounds to grant (or deny) objectivity to our interview subjects, and to whether we are using any of these techniques, intentionally or not, to sow doubt regarding our characters.

In response to claims made about the didacticism of some public media and simplified message/issue pieces, we talked about how ambiguity can serve to engage the viewer in some cases without detracting from the main point or theme of a film. We need to think about how to preserve this ambiguity while keeping certain truths (and our larger narrative arc) clear. Ambiguity can open up a specific experience so that it attracts broader themes and a broader reading, enabling the audience to see different things from a production. We can move from a generally relatable story to the audience’s own experience with similar stories – and remember that the most important thing in any kind of advocacy piece is to maintain a balance between taking viewers through a story without hitting them over the head with the question of how they are connected to the story. We also noted that adding complexity and critical thought to public discourse can be a positive outcome in itself. And even if a viewer comes to the “wrong” conclusion, we will still be able to show that viewer the real human experience of someone in the film.

Valarie then described her own storytelling model with a diagram of a multi-point circle based upon her experiences in making Divided We Fall:

  • identifying issues to explore;
  • interviewing subjects and drawing near to them – and to some extent putting aside predetermined issues and frameworks for the time being, in order to help make filmmakers and interview subjects fully human towards one another;
  • then, withdrawing from the immediacy of the subjects in the editing room and cutting/balancing these stories in service of certain themes (and juxtaposing multiple accounts of these themes);
  • next, trying to determine what is at stake for the audience;
  • and finally, determining how to prompt the audience towards some kind of action.

The remainder of our meeting was devoted to a discussion of the structure of our course for the spring semester, and how we hoped to develop our films over the next several months. This spring, the emphasis of our meetings will shift away from discussions of reading and background material, and towards production.

In the interest of focusing on filmmaking during the coming semester, we then set up several group timelines around dates at which we hoped to complete sequences in our films and submit them to one another and for faculty review. We planned to finish a rough version of our films by March 22, and a final version of our films by April 26, the date of our last meeting of the academic year, for final screening purposes. We also discussed prioritization and division of labor within our teams as to camerawork, editing, and expert interviews.

At the conclusion of our meeting, we emphasized how happy we were about all the time everyone had devoted to the class, and looked forward to the prospect of devoting even more energy to the Visual Law Project over the next several months.

Guest Speakers: Robb Moss and Charles Musser

Today, in contrast to our usual practice of screening complete films during our meetings, we thought it might be useful to see how filmmakers deal with problems as they come up during the course of production and editing. We invited Rob Moss and Charlie Musser to class in order to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their creative processes. Charlie talked about making a film about Errol Morris in which things weren’t going exactly as planned, and how he turned his crew’s four-hour interview with Morris in an unplanned location into a 67-minute documentary. Charlie established a set of rules for this documentary and sought to follow these rules rigorously (keeping within the bounds of the four-hour interview, for instance, and not recording new footage afterwards), although he also mentioned that the order in which the film proceeds does not follow the order of the actual interview.

He then proceeded to show us the first 27 minutes of the documentary – which contained footage from Morris’ office and served as a prelude to the conversation. Charlie talked about his intercutting of footage from Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera with footage from the Whitney Humanities Center during the first few minutes of the documentary, describing this as part of his effort to show the conditions under which his film was made. He also mentioned his efforts to obtain releases from the subjects filmed during his interviews – a challenge that we are also facing in the course of our work.

Robb Moss then proceeded to talk about making his film Secrecy, opening with the observation that secrecy was a difficult topic to film given that, definitionally, there’s not a lot available to show when things are secret. “We had a big screen, we had a projector, and we would film objects being projected on the screen,” Robb noted in reference to the initial opening scene of the film. Robb described how this opening scene initially provided scaffolding for both the film and fundraising efforts, but eventually got in the way of what Robb and the filmmaking team wanted to show in the rest of the film.

Robb noted two questions he wanted to explore in the documentary: how does secrecy function, and what is the role of secrecy in a democracy? He described his animation style in the film as an attempt to light his subjects from a background of recurring animations that would have the effect of holding together the image of the film.

We spoke with Robb about whether he revealed any secrets in the course of his film (the answer was no). He mentioned that his favorite part of the process was sitting in the editing room and imagining the many possible paths his films could take; he said he entered a kind of dreamy state at this point.

At this point, members of the immigration team screened some early scenes from their film, and Robb offered a very helpful critique, the gist of which was that once we have a good shot, we should commit ourselves to that shot without feeling the need to pan around or zoom in and out. If we have the shot we want (for instance a tight shot of a bench), then *hold* the camera in that location for 12 seconds without moving it. Then move to a new shot, and hold it *there* for 12 seconds. “Get the shots that you can get” and we won’t necessarily need to make the shot look like what we want in the final film product. With the camera, you have to see what’s in front of your face as well as you can – you have to expose for that focus, get the right framing – but you can’t overstep the process and think about what it will look like in the finished film. The more you stop seeing like this, the more natural shots will emerge. Give up, at least initially, on doing the big shot at first.

Whenever you’re moving with the camera, always use a wide angle. And rarely if ever use the zoom function – zoom only to change the focal length when you’re making a new image.

Robb also expressed his dislike for the term “b-roll” given the way it can kill the joy of filmmaking by assuming that a large amount of footage will simply be background and unimportant footage compared to the foreground of the interview. We need something to motivate our imagery, or we need to find some way of inhabiting a space – we can’t just relegate that imagery to b-roll. We need to show images that say something, and aren’t just filler. The words are incredibly important for storytelling, sure, but they need to go hand-in-hand with our images. We can’t elevate the talk above our visuals.

The immigration team mentioned its difficulties getting in touch with people who were involved with a raid, given that the bulk of the people in the raid were no longer in the United States. We discussed ways to compensate for their absence in the film.

We then screened some interviews from the criminal team’s film. The team at first was critical of one of its shots because the interview subject was looking down and not comfortable with the camera, but the rest of the room disagreed and found the shot to be quite compelling. We also talked about placement of lav mikes and sought to ensure that these microphones were not too close to the mouth, but also not muffled. Also, Robb noted that the sound should always be manual rather than digital, given that digital inputs often handle overmodulation of sound poorly.

Many thanks to Robb and Charlie for stopping by and for offering immensely valuable comments and insight.

Guest Speaker: Adam Ellick from the New York Times

Our guest speaker, Adam B. Ellick from the New York Times, arrived in class at 7pm. We screened several of his videos, including Tuning Out the Taliban and On Thin Ice. His discussion with us was divided into three basic parts: picking the story and characters; working in the field; and post-production. Once again, we counted ourselves incredibly lucky to be talking with someone with so much experience and insight into visual treatments of legal topics.

Adam’s starting point for any of his films is casting, which he described as the single most important thing that any journalist can do – something that is highly determinative of the story’s ultimate execution. We must make our audience care about the people in our film. When you choose your story, think about whether something has already been done and whether we’re just rehashing discourse, or whether we’re really doing something new. For instance, Adam’s video on Pakistani pop music, largely on the basis of its original story, was both agitating and compelling to the press and people of Pakistan.

When working with an editor, Adam develops themes he wants to tackle, then goes and interviews a large number of people and tries to find people who are affected by these themes. On average of four times a day he will sit down with gatekeepers in a given research area and ask them to introduce him to people who might be affected by a given story. By interviewing a large number of people, he is able to thrive even on a very low interview success rate.

Adam noted that when people talked to him about the stories in his films, they rarely talk about the themes of the story; instead, they talk about the characters. Adam mentioned that people relate to people and to emotions like love and affections, not to governments or administrations. His job is to incorporate information and nuance into stories of humans. He often must work to convince editors that story themes that seem like they will lack mass appeal, such as a story about property tax evasion in Pakistan, will be able to generate a large audience on the basis of characters that can provide entry-ways into the underlying themes.

He asked us to make sure that we were brutal with our footage in our editing.

Casting, Adam told us, is about the process of finding people who embody our themes. If you can get all of your themes through one person, that’s a home run, but not strictly necessary; it’s always possible to cast multiple people to embody multiple themes. For instance, Adam’s Prom video conveys relevant themes in its first 29 seconds through one character. He mentioned that some of the seemingly stupidest questions we can ask to interview subjects will get the best answers: for instance, “do you have problems in Haiti?” or “are you sad that you’re losing your hockey team?” or “why don’t you pay your taxes?” You can ask the same question multiple times and say that you’re having trouble understanding what they mean or what they’re saying.

One type of filming is reconstruction (where people are talking about things that they have done or that they do). But reconstruction is the most boring way of telling a story. It’s much better to be a fly on the wall and to be a voyeur with the camera while things are actually happening. So we need to ask ourselves if our pieces are going to be in reconstruction mode or in-the-moment mode. The latter is preferable.

Two basic important questions to ask are “what are we going to see?” and “what are we going to hear?” We can think of ourselves as radio journalists in the field who are trying to show the audience something new: taking the audience some place they’ve never been before, such that as soon as they go through the door, they want to see more. There are underworlds everywhere.

When in the field, Adam is always thinking about the script. Just like a newspaper can’t have blank pages, a video can’t have a black screen. Think: what is the information you want to convey? And then, what are the visuals that will help in conveying this information? The script consists of two elements: voiceovers (things you tell people that they need to know) and sound bytes (feelings and perspectives from people in the field). Your voice as the narrator is the mortar, and the interviewed subject’s actions are the bricks. Remember that you can always explain and convey information more efficiently than the interview subjects.

You shoot stuff that you think you’re going to need, and you shoot stuff that’s irresistible. Think of the camera as a visual notepad. Then in post-production, you figure out whether footage can be used in the story or not. A lot of extra footage can be used to bring the audience into the story. This is an inverse relationship: think of the field when you’re scripting, and be scripting when you’re in the field.

It’s important also to think of distinctions between the broadcast and print medium. It’s much easier with print to go back to an earlier paragraph, and it’s harder to lose someone. With broadcast, on the other hand, you’ve got a streaming medium and it’s much harder to go back: you really can’t lose someone, because once you lose them, they’re gone. This means that you need to keep things very simple – if it’s confusing, you need to say it twice, or say it very carefully. When scripting, write colloquially, as if you’re talking to someone in a bar. Embrace nuance, sure, but do it simply and delicately. When you change a scene, make sure people understand why the scene has changed: a piece needs clear transition points, and explanations of why each scene is being used and how these scenes are pushing the story forward.

With that wealth of information in mind, we retreated to a local tavern and considered how we might apply Adam’s suggestions both to our scripts and our filming procedures.

Shooting Guidelines

Valarie opened this week’s meeting by conveying the notes of encouragement we had received in the last week from the Yale Law School administration, and their general excitement – and high expectations – for the films we are generating. Thanksgiving break represents a critical time for our films, and an opportunity for us to really dive into the stories we are trying to tell. We discussed a variety of internal details about the structure of the Visual Law Project.

Rebecca then went over our evolving list of shooting guidelines, emphasizing the importance of getting good sound during our recordings. For instance, it’s important to have a second person during a shoot focused on sound who can ensure that our lav mikes are picking up sound correctly and that we’re not relying simply upon the camera’s built-in shotgun mike. The person responsible for sound can make a note of what the interesting sounds are in a given environment, and then shoot b-roll sound from those perspectives. We should think about how sound can evoke certain ideas and be representative of certain places, and should generally be attentive to the significant dramatic potential of sound. And we must also realize how background sounds can either distract from or enhance our dramatic presentation, and turn off background video or sound that we either do not want to try obtaining the license to or that we do not want to go through the painstaking process of trying to separate from the main auditory  focus of our film.

We talked about the power of using certain kinds of images in our film – in particular, the power of even a blank face, which can speak to themes that are not easy to notice even in the editing room. If you’re only depending on sound to move the story forward, then you’re not being fully attentive to the possibilities of the medium. Also, be sure to collect archival photographs in the course of shoots where appropriate, so that we can later scan these photographs (at least 600 dpi) and juxtapose them with our interviews.

At this point, we screened a few interviews that our teams had completed over the past week, and discussed framing and lighting strategies, emphasizing the value of finding natural light sources.

Guest Discussion of The Train Driver with Robert Post, Gordon Edelstein, and Daniel Larlham

We were extraordinarily lucky today to take part in a conversation with three amazing guests. Our distinguished set of panelists included Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School; Gordon Edelstein, artistic director at Long Wharf Theater (and director of The Train Driver); and Daniel Larlham, a lecturer in Yale’s Theater Studies program.

Gordon and Daniel began by discussing the general process by which a bill becomes a law a text becomes a play. The larger questions raised by their discussion dealt with the ways that meaning and communication go beyond what’s written in a text. With the assistance of Robert and others, we built upon these questions to consider ways that we can better use non- and extra-textual techniques to contribute to and enhance legal scholarship.

Gordon mentioned that the first thing he looks for, in reading a play, is context: what is the context in which this play is written; what is the writer after; what are the conscious and unconscious messages being delivered by the writer inside the play? Gordon discussed his collaboration with Athol Fugard on The Train Driver, and his interests in the guilt of white South Africa and confrontation with death.

Gordon noted that the play’s protagonist, a white middle-class South African, had, merely in the course of doing his job, killed somebody – and noted the ways in which this character was used as a metaphor. Gordon compared the play to Samuel Beckett’s work, and enumerated the ways in which Beckettian undertones “bled through every ounce of the play.” He said that it was his strong intention to coax out of the work, like a conductor doing a score, as much Beckett as possible without losing the sociology and politics of the play. Then Gordon compared this direction to Fugard’s own earlier direction of the play – which was decidedly un-Beckettian. Gordon  pointed out that the text of a play’s scene-setting could be interpreted realistically, or more metaphorically, and that he had decided to take more of a metaphorical approach with this play by making the opening scene, for instance, look  like the gates of hell, and by attempting to juxtapose colors of white (sand) and black (the theater floor) in the play.

Daniel launched into a discussion of the differences between the Stanislavskian tradition of method-acting and the Brechtian paradigm (evident in Daniel’s performance in Caucasian Chalk Circle). He described the three components to Stanislavski:

  1. acting – action by one person upon another – which differs from putting something across from an external perspective. The goal is to engage with scene partners, and to unfold a new kind of human truth, rather than a presentational truth.  (This fits with the blooming of naturalism and the Chekhovian productions common at Stanislavski’s time.)
  2. an objective, or a task, that is driving the character through the scene, and which may shift from scene to scene, but is an essential pursuit that animates the character through the play – and is enacted through engagement with scene partners. The actor creates an unbroken line of actions moving from one point to the next and to the next, with emotions beyond the character’s will.
  3. given circumstances, which is similar to context, but also includes the informing circumstances within the world of the play. Suitable to think about the character’s life history that led to certain moments in the play; to engage in an imaginative reverie that enables one to move through the landscape of the play; to call up to the mind’s eye circumstances that led up to the present moment.

Daniel then talked about how Brechtian style differs from these components. Brecht was responding to a conception of the play as an objective method by which the audience partakes of the meaning onstage and seeks to understand and empathize with the characters’ psychological journeys.  But rather than see the people on stage as vessels through which audience members could have unreflective emotional experiences, Brecht was trying to awaken critical faculties through distance, alienation, and defamilarization – these were efforts to put the audience in a more critical relation. Brecht’s plays were realistic, but for him naturalism by itself would obscure actual social and political workings. He frequently invoked a kind of gesture that would communicate a social relationship, and used techniques that would resonate with the social world beyond the specific setting of the play. Daniel mentioned that the physical social relationships in The Train Driver were true to his experiences in South Africa, and talked about the challenge of portraying relationships of power between characters, and some directors’ resistance to showing these power relations.

Robert Post complimented Gordon’s direction and discussed the relationship between law and life that he saw in The Train Driver. The play opens on a note of disjunction between the protagonist’s subjective characterization of what he had done and others’ efforts to provide an objective characterization. And throughout the play, the protagonist refuses to accept this official story – which is reflected in the use of the train in the play. The protagonist refuses to be a cog in the train’s wheel, and resists the system’s official understanding of the meaning of what has happened to him. The play, then, deals with this ruthless system, and with someone who steps out of this system and attempts to strike a human relationship with another character.

Robert noted that the law itself, in its textual capacity, can be that same kind of system – particularly when it’s treated as nothing more than the rules, as with Justice Kennedy’s notion that it was the text of the First Amendment which compelled him to write Citizens United in the way he did, and that there was nothing he could do otherwise in the face of this text.

The question thus raised by the play: when you step outside this system, where are you? This is the Beckettian crisis, where you step “outside” and find yourself without any social parameters, and it raises the question: Why can’t you reenter the system and reintegrate yourself and make things different? The great challenge of the Visual Law Project is to take people outside, and then get them back in. We need to make people see the brown eyes. We don’t want to leave our audience in the condition of being in a waste land and outside of any social scheme – and with the sense that there’s nothing left for them to go back into. In short: how do we reintegrate, once we’ve stepped outside the train?

Robert compared parts of The Train Driver to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which also featured a protagonist who could do nothing more than bury dead animals. Gordon noted the clear challenge in portraying action in this sort of situation, where someone is stuck in a waste land or a mobius strip of a life. Similarly, Gordon expressed the importance of not allowing a play to become boring, and the difficulties many directors face in drawing out the humor of Chekhov’s action.

Gordon compared the background of crime in the play to the gangs in City of God, and Bunuel’s Los Olvidados. No matter how purgative the protagonist’s 3-day experience in the graveyard could be, he will still ignore the horror of the war going on in the country, and not listen to the simple warnings of a simple man. Gordon also discussed the challenges of showing the play within the architecture of the theater.

A student asked what happens when the audience cannot connect the play back to sources and meanings they understand, and compared that state of affairs to when a person cannot trace the law back to meanings they can understand. Gordon responded that it was irrelevant whether an audience actually knows anything about Beckett. Robert cited O.W. Holmes for the principle that it was a great strength of the common law that judges could decide a case before they know why they’re deciding it, and noted that if law is experienced merely as oppressive or arbitrary, then it can’t do its work as law.

The student followed up: if a judge takes a law and puts in whatever he/she thinks should be in it, is that tyrannical? Robert responded that a law may consist of statutory and constitutional texts, precedent, history, practices, and other streams running through its meaning. He noted that these streams include identitarian streams: judges don’t use the 1st person singular, instead they strike a tone of “We think this.. This is our commitment…” And to justify the invocation of the 1st person plural, they have to be persuasive as to the wide applicability of their decision.

Another student asks about distinctions between what the law says, what it means, and how it’s followed. Robert responded that when a judge says “we,” the judge is putting on a performance and staking a claim that “this is our law..” in the midst of a situation that is likely to be highly conflictual, and in the context of many additional people who want to stake different claims about what “our” law is. Thus it becomes important to think carefully about how people are included or excluded from your point of view when making a film that shows the effects and justice of a certain law, and to think about how to maintain relationships  between the people surrounding a law. Daniel then discussed distinctions between how human agents function in the law versus in the theater: in the law, a particular conclusion affects a wide range of circumstances; in theater, actors present question of whether an audience would or would not act like they do. Brecht’s fondness for the use of parables in theater was meant to enable people to carry around the parables with them and measure their life against these parables, raising the question of whether a play would be sufficient rehearsal for action beyond the theater, and whether we will use characters in our films that audience can empathize with and serve as models for what we can or cannot do.

We brought up a final question about the character of Simon in The Train Driver, and whether he develops any kind of real relationship with the protagonist, or whether it’s more like the ending of Coetzee’s Age of Iron, where there is nothing in the characters’ final embrace. Gordon responds that he tried hard not to make the play sentimental, and instead to involve a realistic melting of empathy. He acknowledged that the play is, in the end, dark, but was intended to sound hopeful notes; only when the play was put in front of an audience did Gordon understand what he had truly created, and that it was bleak. Sometimes the message to the audience and to the people we are filming is simply: shit happens; this is the way it is.

On this note, we adjourned for drinks.

Production Guidelines and a Preliminary Discussion of The Train Driver

Rebecca opened today’s meeting with a discussion of our newly prepared call sheet – which lists, among other details, sunrise/sunset times for filming that will enable us to time our shoots within an hour of sunset. We have also developed production guidelines: a list of reminders and basic principles that will result in better films. For instance, the guidelines contain a reminder  to shoot in 16/9 (widescreen), and instructions on how to call up this menu setting on the camera and ensure that the viewfinder shows bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

We then transitioned into a discussion of The Train Driver, a play that many of us attended during the past week. Some people expressed visceral reactions to the racial elements of the play and to its portrayal of the interchangeability of character. One person remarked on the differences  between a text and its visualization, noting that it becomes harder for an audience member to make the story what she wants it to be when watching the director’s particular visual presentation of the text. We compared that kind of “difference”  to the differences between the original text of a law and its subsequent interpretations.

Next, we screened several films and practice interviews that students have compiled over the past week. The first round of films, from the immigration team, was shot in the YLS courtyard. The second round, from the criminal team, was shot in an apartment interior. During and after screening these films, we discussed framing (especially with regard to not allowing too much space about the subject’s heads), methods for keeping the camera stable without a tripod (including holding it on rested elbows), and exposure (which can be done when you’re zoomed all the way in on a face). We noted that there are two ways to zoom with the camera: the first is with the buttons on the top of the camera, and the second is by unlocking the lens and using a switch to quickly move the lens either very close or far away. We noted that when zoomed in on a subject, it’s good to have the background blurred.

Some other reminders and notes: Based on our earlier meeting with Lee from the DMCA, it’s good to set the “zebra” function on the camera to approximately 70%. And it’s important not to allow dead zones on the tape, which will pose problems for the recording’s timecode. And it’s important to pay attention to architectural signals that viewers know are supposed to be vertical, such as cabinets and other straight lines.

Students mentioned that filming generally went better than it had the previous week. This was taken to be a sign of great progress!

Guest Speaker Emily Bazelon on Ethical Links Between Filmmaking and Journalism

We were lucky to have another fantastic guest speaker this week. Emily Bazelon, who writes for Slate and the New York Times, answered a number of our questions about ethics in filmmaking and journalism.

Her first piece of advice was to “choose an identity for this project and to be our journalist selves.” One risk for this kind of project is that we might go in thinking that we can wear both hats, both as an objective journalist (and collector of good footage) and as a protector of the people in the film. The problem then is that if we’ve represented ourselves only in the latter way, we might damage relationships with the people we’re working with if we then proceed to act more as a journalist and less as a protector. Essentially, there’s danger in setting up a premise and then deviating from that premise.

It’s also a good idea to presume that people are not at all media savvy. If the person you’re interviewing doesn’t deal with the media all the time, then it’s very easy for them to get confused. Sometimes you have to be more than just *clear*; you have to say what you don’t mean as well as what you do mean. The key is that when you encounter a worst-case scenario, you are sure that you did everything you could to prevent that scenario from happening. We should try to err on the side of not using material if it makes someone upset.

As for litigation, a journalist has no other obligations and is free under the First Amendment to investigate as much as they can, outside of protective orders and the like – and more informally, outside of wrecking the case of a lawyer, or making someone’s life worse off.

One way to protect people in a film is to hide their identity by blurring their faces. The trickier question here is when someone says that it *is* OK to show their face.. how do you know that it is really OK? Probably a good idea to ask advocates in this case whether it’s a good idea. You have to decide how to tell a story – whether or not to use peoples’ faces. Sometimes just showing another body part (hands, etc) in conjunction with their voice is sufficient; sometimes it’s not. With print, it’s obviously easier to take people’s names out; with film, it’s a bit more difficult.

You should not promise that a film is going to make a situation better for a person. You can instead say something like “I’m very interested in your story and want to do an interview with you; I want to do whatever I can to protect you from legal risk; what I want to hear is simply your honest truth-telling.” Then you have to keep reminding the subject of who you are and where you’re from. The interview subject’s guard will eventually come down, but you have to be sure not to take advantage of this as you become more loyal to the film by cutting corners on your promise.

Safest territory is to stay closely within your identity as a journalist (not lending small amounts of money and so on to a film subject), but this can be hard to pull off especially when working with people who seem vulnerable. The problem with deviating from this identity is that the subject can become beholden to you. One possible solution, if you want to give money, is to give it to them after the project is complete. Blurring the lines of journalism, while easy to do, can create complications for the subject, and can make it hard for you to dial back from the blurred line. So say that what you’re offering the subject is *listening* to them.

A question came up as to whether we have an obligation to communicate to subjects how their interview might be used and juxtaposed with the perpsectives of people with whom they might not agree. Generally, there is no such obligation to say “the project will not entirely be from your point of view,” but we should make an effort not to twist or deviate from the words of interview subjects. One way the Times solves this in the editing process is by taking quotations and reading them back to the people who allegedly said them, and determining whether the quote is accurate – no need to practice “gotcha” journalism. Especially if you’re creating characters in a movie, you want the characters to be both believable and recognizable to the characters themselves.

“Most stories don’t have two sides; they either have one side or many sides,” said Emily, quoting Linda Greenhouse. It’s OK, then, to have an opinion and to present a reported opinion without trying to hide the ball; you can even attempt to lead people to a conclusion while attempting to present the best counterarguments in an honest way.

Sharat pointed out that one tricky part with film is that it’s possible to keep an entire statement in a film but to show images that might contradict what is being said. E.g., Michael Moore’s use in “Roger in Me” of images that conflict with the words being said. This is a very powerful and sometimes dangerous filmmaking tool.

A class member asks what the line is between being fair to a subject and making an argument? For instance, we might have footage and affidavits that conflict with that footage; how do we make this juxtaposition? In the case of testimony conflicting with actual fact, seems acceptable to use.

The way that people respond to story and narrative is through a few individuals. Certainly, don’t represent that you’re speaking for an entire group’s common experience when you’re showing one person’s experience, but don’t tie yourself up in knots with worries about essentializing the characters.

Closing thoughts from Emily: Be open-minded towards your subjects. If everyone gets mad, it sometimes can be a sign that you’re doing a good job. Also, being open-minded and honest doesn’t necessarily mean saying what you think to an interview subject all the time.

Discussion of Groups’ Proposals and Early Filming Efforts

Today, our course began with a conversation with the national security team, which is looking into the kind of profiling that takes place at mosques. A member of this group noted her initial outreach to film subjects and described the group’s pre-interview research with coordinators and imams at mosques; some of this pre-interview research went well (in terms of cooperation with the filmmakers’ goals, in terms of willingness of subjects to be filmed, and in variety of sound bites already obtained) and others did not. The group also made some progress on researching potential increases in domestic violence since 9/11 but has so far been unable to find the right person or family to follow in documenting this research. There was some interesting difficulty in the group’s basic narrative goals slipping away from them as they were given more ideas by the people they contacted during pre-interview research, but the group reiterated its interest in emphasizing the plight of women in light of national security investigations.

After this discussion, Sharat showed a clip from Errol Morris’ Fog of War, describing filming techniques and the attempt to make a subject communicable. The idea of some Visual Law groups of showing families interacting and being in the park, and making these families relatable, was demonstrated in the Morris clip where he expressed death totals from the nuclear bomb in terms of the comparable size of American cities, and thus made abstract numbers seem closer to home.

We spoke briefly about what would constitute *too much footage* for a film. It was suggested that each team shoot for approximately ten total hours, but this total is flexible.

We then talked about the immigration team‘s work, which has so far been centered around a family’s struggle after an immigration raid at a convenience store. They have done some filming over the weekend, and ran into the issue of people who were very suspicious of how their footage would be used. The group noted that it would both have to work to gain the trust of their subjects as well as be very sensitive to individual issues — for instance, the group was at a local immigration center during its intake day, and the leader of the center suggested that it might be a bad day for filming given the large number of people present. One member of the group is planning to attend oral arguments related to the raid, and we discussed whether and how the team might obtain video, audio, or textual footage of these arguments from the court.

As for footage of the raid itself, we discussed how to intersperse this footage within the film, and analyzed Errol Morris’ strategies in Standard Operating Procedure. Should all of the raid footage be used initially (“let’s now back up and show how we got to this point”), should this footage be broken up into different pieces, or should pieces be shown repeatedly as knowledge and context are gained relating to the raid? Compare to strategies used in The Cove, where small pieces of the footage were shown at various points in the movie, and it was clear that the movie was in part about how the team obtained this footage.

Finally, we discussed the work of the criminal team and their outreach to members of the police force and advocacy groups. This team lacks specific footage of police profiling, and discussed using pop cultural images of profiling (for instance, from the television show Cops) in place of unique footage. Other questions centered on how to display the alienation of a family member: whether it’s done with composition (e.g., in front of a large amount of blank space) or editorially (e.g., in the context of a park where some families are playing and the family in question is not).

Insight into the Basic Narrative Structure of Documentary Films

Today, guest speaker Sharat Raju, director of the film Divided We Fall, offered a discussion of narrative structure and storytelling. The basic structure of any narrative, according to Sharat, goes as follows: there’s a person, this is what the person was up against, this is what happened, and this is the result of those actions. Documentary filmmaking is an extrapolation of that basic structure. Sharat was trained in narrative filmmaking, where the main question was always “whose story is it? who is the main character? who is the story told through?” The most compelling part of making Divided We Fall, said Sharat, was that Valarie was that character through whose journey the story was told.

Valarie pointed out that while filming, it was not contemplated that she would be in front of the camera — this story and Valarie’s specific place in it were constructed later, in the editing room. This is typical of documentaries, where much of the film’s structure is created later.

Sharat then compared Divided We Fall to the Oath, where the first image is of a captured man. The audience feels a need to link to someone who is either the storyteller or someone who we can understand what he/she is going through. With DWF, the film showed Valarie’s family life and past in a way that when she finally went on the road, the audience was with her. The film, then, was the journey: the question of what would happen to the characters and the storyline. You have to keep this basic structure (“where are we going with this?”) in mind, or else the audience will get lost. In The Oath, this was accomplished by using the second *trial* (which has a resolution and a verdict — built-in dramatic tension) as a backbone through which the characters’ more emotional moments made sense. The most important thing is to clearly define the characters and their struggle: what is the end goal? Where are we going to end up? And when you end there, how have the characters been transformed? Character has beginning in stasis, they go on journey, and learn something on it. This isn’t always recreatable in a documentary; you can’t always force a story, either ethically or technically. And note that merely having a simple structure (such as a trial) does not mean that the story itself is simple.

Finally, Sharat showed the class the opening scene from the documentary Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams  makes the story structure very clear from the beginning with an “I wish” type story (“I wish I could make it to the NBA”), comparable to the opening “I wish” song of many Disney movies. This opening scene clearly sets forth the narrative structure: they will make it to the NBA or they don’t. And the movie tells this story.