The Viewed vs. The Viewer

Reflections on Empathy and Empowerment in Character-Driven Cinéma Vérité Social Documentary Films

(I drafted this three months ago, and Sonya Childress' article Beyond Empathy, inspired me to finally post it.) 

I was quietly sobbing uncontrollably -- vision blurry from heavy tears, a softball-size lump swelling in my throat. All the feels. The person beside me could surely hear that I needed a tissue.

I’ve had a small handful of moments like this -- experiencing a film that moves me so deeply it changes me, and can even sometimes define a part of me. After all, "For thousands of years, we’ve been telling stories in the dark around a flickering light, whether a campfire or a projector." (Citation: Mark Mangini. 2016 Oscar acceptance speech for Sound Editing.

It was at that tear-drenched moment a few years ago that I vowed to make documentary films like this, someday.  Films that could move someone as deeply as I -- and others in that theater -- were moved; films that could make you feel empathy with the people whose stories they tell and thus “change the world”.

I’ve since worked on films like this, sat through several tear-jerking documentaries at film festivals, and continue to be in awe of how someone can feel so much empathy for a stranger’s story told through a flickering light.

However, I’ve since begun to question the role of empathy in documentary film.

To be clear, I’m specifically referring to documentary films that seek to expose a problem in our society through the suffering, challenges, and obstacles of someone’s suffering in order to elicit empathy.

The idea of film as a form of empathy began with the legendary, Roger Ebert:

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

(Citation: Ebert’s Walk of Famer Remarks:

Although I can understand the argument that film is a great empathy machine, I also can see how it does the opposite: elicit pity and shame.

Often the filmmaker hopes that empathy will be felt by ‘the powers that be’ and the powerful will empathize with the powerless suffering subjects/characters, to the point where the powerful decision maker will alleviate the suffering of that character’s social group through changing laws and/or public policy that impact that social group. In other words, a powerful politician will help the poor stop being poor because they saw a documentary about it.

Although this is an altruistic and noble endeavor, the foundational premise behind this assumes that influence and power are top down -- and that the decision makers ‘in power’ are the nucleus of influence.

In other words, imagine you’re a stereotypically powerful individual (say a middle-aged educated upper-class male living in a G8 country -- like Roger Ebert for example) and you get to walk in someone else’s shoes for two hours. You can then go back to your safe and comfortable life, write about it, and talk to your friends over coffee on a Monday afternoon about it. In the best case scenario, you feel heart-warming empathy and donate to a cause or even influence top-down policy.

Let’s zoom out for a second and flip this assumption: What’s the other side of the coin?

Imagine now that you’re a stereotypically powerless individual -- who are commonly the principal subjects in a socially charged documentary film (say a young female Dominican immigrant to the United States who dreams of alleviating her family’s financial burdens -- like me a few years back...I’m not so young anymore, though). And now you sit through two hours of a film that affirms your family’s suffering, the hopelessness you feel or once felt, or retells the traumatic story of your homeless/suicidal/[insert your suffering of choice] friend’s story from childhood. Best case, you don’t cry that night, and instead frantically Google facts/figures/stories that disprove the statistics in the film about how unlikely it is that you’ll graduate from high school/college and are destined to live a life of socio-economic destitution, softly and quietly trying to affirm within yourself, “But not all of “us” are like this.”

This begs the question: How does documenting and exposing the most intimate and vulnerable moments serve those who are impoverished, disenfranchised, and already often stereotyped in this way?

For “them” to feel empathy for their own story? In other words, who are these stories serving? Not who are they ‘saving’ but who are they ‘serving’?

As a filmmaker, how do you answer: Who am I making this for?

Put most directly by Eddie Martinez:

The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it.

To bring the point home, have you ever seen a documentary about rich white people made by poor black people?

(Citation: Eddie Martinez. International Documentary Association. July 19, 2016. Navigating the River: The Hidden Colonialism of Documentary

So, at some point in my teens I stopped listening, watching, and engaging with the stories that told me I would not, could not, and don’t deserve to, and only engaged with those that affirmed I would and could be an ambitious, engaged, and successful individual in light of my identity.

Most definitively in my quest to conquer the colonial and romantic notion of empathy in documentary film (and, I should add, within Anthropology -- my undergraduate major) are the words famously championed by Anthropologist Laura Nader’s argument for “studying up”:

“If we look at the literature [or films] based on fieldwork [or verite] in the United States, we find relatively abundant literature on the poor, the ethnic groups, the disadvantaged; this is comparatively little field research [or verite films] on the middle class, and very little first hand work on the upper classes. … What if in reinventing anthropology [or documentary filmmaking], anthropologists [or filmmakers] were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty?

‘Studying up’ as well as studying down would lead us to ask many “common sense” questions in reverse. Instead of asking why some people are poor we would ask why other people are so affluent?”

(Citation: Laura Nader. 1972. Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.

Why not study up more? Why not make more films intended for the stereotypically disadvantaged to empathize with the stereotypically affluent/elite/privileged? I believe the potential for impact with stories like this is unexplored for the most part and thus one of the strengths of documentary film is untapped -- to show you someone or something you’ve never seen before.

I also think that it is often the things that are taken for granted by affluent communities that could have the most impact on those who doesn’t have access to them. For example, I remember watching TV as a kid, namely the Full House TV sitcom, and thinking, “Wow, their house has two floors.” The 90’s kid in me now knows they were middle class, and having a two story house is a relatively unremarkable fact. But, nonetheless, it was a thing of awe and wonder to me because I didn’t know anyone who had a two story house. Having a two story house meant you were “rich.” “How could I access that world?” I would wonder.

To put this another way, the current median household income in the U.S. is $56,516 (per year). (Citation: Census Data. HINC-01 Table: So, if your household (not you as an individual, but your household), makes more than that, then your household’s income is higher than 50% of American households. If you’re an individual making more than that, then you alone are making more than 50% of American households. You are also in the top 0.22% richest people in the world by income. (Citation: Globalrichlist: It would take the average laborer in Indonesia 76 years to earn the same amount.

Rather than making a film about the poverty of a labourer in Indonesia for the top 0.22% richest people in the world for them to empathize with the labourer, I personally am more interested in making a film about the Indonesian elite for the labourer to have access to that world and hopefully be empowered and inspired to pursue access to their own agency by that access. To put it another way, if documentary films were like a cooking show, then are they showing people the burnt cake that no one wants to eat or the three-tier delicious cake everyone wants to eat -- which do you want people to be making?

As a filmmaker, I feel that the premise of empathy is:

A film can help people save other people via empathy.

But what if the premise were self-empowerment:

A film can help people become self-empowered via access and agency.

This is why my own work in film production and impact producing focuses on stories that expand a viewer’s notion of what’s possible -- like a doctor who is also a hip-hop choreographer or people who were living paycheck to paycheck and are now personal finance experts (both films I’m currently working on).

I seek to amplify and tell stories that create access and impact into worlds of affluence that may be taken for granted (even if that’s just middle-class affluence); stories that unexpectedly study up and open the doors to self-determination and agency. I like to include the subjects/characters in the filmmaking process and show them cuts along the way; I try to tell the story with them, not for them.

Filmmaker Steve James has discussed this approach -- he has found that one of the keys to his success has been letting his subjects participate in the process:

“The more control your subjects feel they have,” he explained, “the more they let you do what they want to do. I give them the sense that we’re doing this together and they can say no and I will respect that. I may try to change their mind, but I will respect their decision.”

(Citation: Steve James:

James' film, The Interrupters (in which former gang members organize to take actions in their community against violence) does this. It celebrates agency, by giving both the viewers and the viewed a story of self-determination and agency. A message of the film is: you do not have to wait on the ‘powers that be’, rather ‘you are the power that is’ and thus have the capacity to change your community for the better. It shows how the stereotypically powerless already have power. After all, there isn’t really a “powers that be”, because, you -- by virtue of your humanity -- is the power that already is.

Life Itself also gives access to this world. By telling the story of Roger Ebert, the viewer has access to how he created a life of affluence -- because, after all, it is a luxury to pursue one’s creative passions as a means of making a decent living.

The groundbreaking (and glass ceiling shattering!) director Ava DuVernay, sums up best the driving force I believe is at the heart of filmmaking for me: “Serve the story, and other will be served by it.” (Citation: Ava DuVernay, SXSW 2015 Keynote:

Making a film is only the first half of the filmmaking process. For me, the fun also comes when you distribute it. After all, the point is to make a film that people want to watch and ideally be inspired by to take action. As again Ava DuVernay, puts it: “Watching people watch our movie...was like serving dinner and watching them eat, we drove from theater to theater watching them watch the story.” (Citation: Ava DuVernay, SXSW 2015 Keynote:

My favorite part of filmmaking is watching people watch the story. This is a photo of the audience watching my film at the first international film festival I was selected for.

These reflections and experience have led me to the magical world of impact producing -- where I help social issue documentary films create an impact in the world through audience engagement, strategic distribution, and strategic partnerships.

I encourage us, as filmmakers, to consider stories that “study up,” and to also tell stories with, rather than, for your subject/character.

To start, I suggest considering discussing these guiding questions with subjects/characters:

  1. Why do you want to share your story? Why are you participating in this?

  2. What impact do you hope your story will have?

  3. What is your dream scene list? As filmmakers we make shot lists and imagine scenes, I suggest considering doing that with your subjects