Documentary as a Tool for Catharsis: Thursday’s Doc Talk Panel
By Andrea McGuire
Why make documentaries? How do documentary makers balance their working and personal lives, especially when facing debts or feeling like the needs of your film should come before your own? And how are relationships and trust maintained throughout the filmmaking process?
These are just some of the questions that arose at Thursday’s Doc Talk, which featured three panellists creating documentaries today: Christy Garland, whose most recent documentary, What Walaa Wants, depicts a young Palestinian woman training for the Palestinian Security Forces; Laura Marie Wayne, whose documentary Love, Scott portrays her dear friend in the aftermath of a violent, homophobic attack; and Lea Marin, a producer with the National Film Board, whose recent documentary credits include What is Democracy?, Unarmed Verses, and My Prairie Home.
With producer Annette Clarke at the moderating helm, the panel opened with the question of why everyone had been drawn towards making documentaries. (“For the money!” someone said, yielding much laughter.) Christy Garland began, saying that before her first foray into documentaries, she’d been in “a bit of a funk, watching the Food Network for two years straight,” while doing AD work, making shorts, and working as a professional scriptwriter. “And that,” she said, “is something I would never recommend to an aspiring scriptwriter. Sharpening your inner critic isn’t actually that great when you’re building a screenplay.” Laura Marie Wayne had a similar epiphany while analyzing film in school, realizing that she wanted to make film, not critique it. She later attended a three-year film school in Cuba and, in the last year, her friend Scott was viciously attacked. On choosing Scott as her documentary’s subject, Wayne commented, “It wasn’t even a question. It felt like I went to film school to tell his story.”
Lea Marin said that when she began her program at the Canadian Film Centre’s Producer’s Lab, she thought she’d end up producing drama. But she ultimately felt more intrigued by documentaries, saying, “I feel like documentary is so unpredictable. I feel like I’m going to find a unique story and narrative in documentaries that I won’t find in a dramatic film.” The idea of documentaries being more unpredictable or stranger than fiction was echoed by other panellists, too: After making her first documentary, Christy Garland fully realized that “you cannot make some things up.”
Throughout the panel, I had a strong sense of how close these filmmakers were to their projects. They answered many general questions with personal stories about the films and, by the end, I could vividly imagine both Walaa and Scott, though I had yet to view their depictions in film. It also became clear that the relationships between documentary makers and subjects could come together in many different ways. For instance, Lea Marin mentioned that while producing a recent film, she’d worked with the community for a full year before bringing any cameras in. Love, Scott, on the other hand, was created in the context of an already close friendship, so Laura Marie Wayne could introduce the camera quite easily. “It was actually very welcome,” she said, “because I feel like it was such a tool for catharsis. He [Scott] could sense that he had someone there who was willing to listen really deeply, and I think it was really healing and validating for him to have that.” Christy Garland has filmed most of her documentaries in foreign countries, and relies on translators to interpret dialogue in retrospect. Still, you can tell that her connection with Walaa runs deep, and that the language barrier elicited interesting filmmaking dynamics. Describing her “behaviour-first” approach, Garland said she’ll “shoot anytime there’s electricity in the room. Then I ask, ‘what just happened?’”
During the afternoon, the discussion veered in many different directions, touching on financial strategies, the #metoo movement, and the devastating nature of editing. Maintaining the trust of documentary participants emerged as a particular focal point for the panellists and audience members. The delicacy of these relationships seems hard to understate—as Christy Garland remarked, “It’s such an arrogant thing to do, to take someone’s life and represent it for them.” But as she later explained, “You’re making [documentaries] so that other people can understand. … Documentaries are one of the only ways we can introduce audiences to people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet, go places they wouldn’t ordinarily go, and wrap their heads around issues from a more human perspective. So in terms of our relationships, there’s some kind of friendship borne on that we’re doing this thing together… we’re making this film together so that people can see another aspect of the story, or see you from a more intimate angle.”
Andrea McGuire is a freelance writer who lives in St. John's. She holds an MA in Folklore and plays bass in the band Lo Siento.