I attended my first documentary film festival this month, and it felt like home.
Like home, Full Frame pulsed with the lifeblood of kindred storytellers. And like home, Full Frame required immense physical and emotional stamina to fully engage with the humanity of each story.
Cameraperson, the (kinda meta) memoir of director-cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, is the story of a life dedicated to telling stories. I resonated so deeply with each scene that, by the end, I had added “Find an artist I trust to tell my story” to my bucket list.
Yet her memoir also left me with the question, “What is the line between sharing a story with compassion and actually doing something within my power to improve the subject’s life?”
The same tension arose in me when I watched Speaking Is Difficult, a short by AJ Schnack that juxtaposes everyday scenes of towns affected by mass shootings with the initial 9-1-1 calls. As each new town (including Newtown, CT) appeared onscreen, I felt myself become more desensitized, to my chagrin. In Schnack’s words, during “a film where the events themselves become this nonstop echo of each other,” my unconcealed anguish in the first minute paled to a grey shiver of resignation in only fifteen minutes.
For the first time, I read this statement by Joseph Stalin yesterday: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” I read it again today in a reflection by social psychologist Christena Cleveland, who writes,
When we witness injustice in an up-close-and-personal way – like if we’re personally oppressed or we’re in close relationship with a person who is oppressed – we tend to open the floodgates of compassion toward the one or few individuals with whom we have a personal connection. But when we witness an injustice from a distance, and this injustice affects masses of people (e.g., police brutality towards black people, the oppression of the Palestinians, etc.) we are easily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Rather than fortifying our compassion in response to such need, our compassion collapses and we disengage into hopelessness.
After conducting research on this collapse of compassion, social psychologists Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne concluded that “large-scale tragedies in which the most victims are in need of help will ironically be the least likely to motivate helping.”
But when we are intimately connected to systemic pain and tragedy, either personally or through close relationships, we are often able to respond with compassion and hope.
During the fifteen minutes of Speaking Is Difficult, my compassion collapsed, and I disengaged into hopelessness. Even while being actively aware of it. Stalin was savage, but he understood the limits of human empathy.
With this concern in mind, I want to share a profound reflection by Wesley Hogan, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (Full Frame program, page 2). I intend to read it often, especially when I’m trapped in the hard questions, because it reminds me why I do what I do.
Most of the stories told throughout human history, writer Julius Lester has said, were spoken into the darkness, around a fire with a vast impenetrable night surrounding teller and listeners. Then as now, stories aren’t created from thin air; they already exist, as Lester so evocatively describes, “singing in our genes and in our blood.” And stories, especially now, help us to learn that we can be thrown into a fiery furnace and not be consumed. Through stories, Lester says, “I learned that I could withstand the heat and flames and walk out of the furnace, strutting.”
In order to be seen, stories have to be retrieved from the darkness. The light of film can do this. Documentary, at its best, gives us stories that empower us to not only strut, but also to behold. Whether they illuminate great challenges and triumphs, or share simple observations of daily life, documentarians give us fresh eyes. To see clearly. To see critically, and skeptically. To see from multiple perspectives. To perceive with all of our senses.
Documentary reminds us that even amidst a surge of forces vying for our attention in a culture of accelerating change, we can behold, be contemplative. Be deliberate. As such, for me, Full Frame feels like a shining gift – a gathering of those who share this desire to reflect. The alchemy forged so brilliantly by the Full Frame staff makes each filmmaker, story, and audience member important – and each space in which we consider a new story, sacred.
In offering us these moments to listen, to slow down, independent documentarians serve as vital public servants, inviting participation in an important public commons for small-d democratic dialogue.
There is an ebb and flow of nationalist politics in the United States, and lately we’ve been encountering the flow. There are some who insist that immigrants must learn to live like “Americans.” That there must be one nation, one language, one uniform way of being. They would ask us to believe that difference is dangerous, and that we must practice exclusion, a mindset that runs counter to even the briefest consideration of our own experiences. As documentary so clearly reveals, we benefit when we acknowledge the value and validity of the diverse inheritances that each of us embody. For of course none of us possess and maintain a singular identity over a lifetime. We all inherit and inhabit a variety of selves whose definitions are in constant flux. Documentary allows a space for our multi-vocal, fluid selves to emerge.
And so I invite you to immerse yourself in a collection of diverse inheritances this weekend. As Henry David Thoreau noted long ago, only that day dawns to which we are awake. In Durham, at Full Frame, as the theater doors open and beckon, each person we get to know, each subject we explore, each conversation we have, and each film we watch calls forth another story brought in from the shadows and lets us behold the marvelous complexity of our lives.
Thank you for enlivening the festival with your vitality and wakefulness.
So: In a media-saturated world, where a daily deluge of stories paralyzes the individual from taking action, the documentary storyteller must emotionally re-engage viewers; illuminate the humanity of stories lost in the darkness of a statistical black box; and in doing so, “give us fresh eyes” to “consider a new story, sacred.” Helping each other to see a fuller frame – that’s worth celebrating. #FullFrameFest