Boundaries can be crossed if filmmakers approach projects with respect
Advice applies to documentaries and features
Documentary filmmaker Pascale Lamche summed up the theme of the “Are We All the Other: Transcending Boundaries on Storytelling” panel discussion that was held Wednesday at the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Lodge.
“It’s not about whether I’m white or black, or if I come from South Africa or Europe,” Lamche said. “It’s about a story that wanted, and maybe needed, to be told and the very deep personal connection I have with the place, that story that time.”
Lamche, whose Winnie Mandela documentary “Winnie” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was joined Wednesday by fellow panelists: documentary filmmakers Lucy Walker (untitled Buena Vista Social Club documentary) and Amanda Lipitz (“STEP”), as well as narrative feature filmmakers Geremy Jasper (“Patty Cake$”) and Margaret “Maggie” Betts (“Novitiate”).
The panel, which was also presented by Women at Sundance, was moderated by Moira Griffin, Sundance Institute senior manager of diversity initiatives, who guided the panel with questions about accuracy, credibility, storytelling and character development when making films that traverse the boundaries of genre, gender, race and class.
The insights and advice given by the panelists pertained to both documentaries and narrative features.
One case was Lipitz’s documentary “STEP,” which is about an all-girls, high school step team in Baltimore’s inner city.
These girls are the first in their class to go to college and are the founding members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
Lipitz, while a native of Baltimore, is a Broadway producer who is Caucasian. She is known for the plays and musicals that include “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Humans,” as well as MTV’s “Legally Blonde the Musical.”
Between doing theater, Lipitz got involved with making short films about education and focused on first-generation [minority] students who were going to college.
“I started working with the Young Women’s Leadership Network that works with five all-girl public schools in Baltimore,” she said. “These schools have a 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate.”
Lipitz met the girls when they were in sixth grade.
“All 126 of them were all chosen by lottery, and there was something special about all of them,” she said. “They started a step team in Baltimore and two girls visited me when I was in New York while I was working on another project.”
The girls invited Lipitz to practice.
“When I arrived, they were running and singing,” she said. “I thought, ‘this is what happens in a musical,’ and I thought it would be a documentary.”
The catalyst was the April 12, 2015, shooting of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police. The 25-year-old was shot for allegedly possessing a switchblade knife.
“I saw my hometown burn up on TV and that’s when I felt that it was time to tell a positive story that was going on in inner-city education,” Lipitz said.
During the course of the filming, Lipitz built trust with the residents of the neighborhood where the shooting took place.
“At first they thought we were a news crew and they weren’t happy, but then we told
them we were making a documentary and they said, ‘Come on in’” she said.
When filming “Winnie” Lamche knew she had an intriguing story because Mandela was such a complicated character.
“What was more complicated was the way that she has been constructed,” Lamche said. “For me, the most important thing for me to do was to peel away not only her own ‘story-ing’ but, more importantly, uncover the way that she has been constructed.”
As far as narrative films go, Jasper — whose “Patty Cake$,” which is about a 23-year-old New Jersey girl who is obsessed with hip-hop music and the surreal quest she embarks on to become a legitimate artist — needed only to look at his own childhood.
In some ways the film is his story, especially the multi-racial characters, Jasper said.
“A lot of the [kids] in the story are based on people who I grew up with in New Jersey,” he said. “We even shot around where I grew up.”
The main character Patty, portrayed by Danielle Macdonald, feels like an extension of Jasper.
“She could also be my sister,” he said. “All the characters, especially the three generations of women in the film, are based on my family, although the history has been moved around and stretched.”
While accuracy is one of the main issues in documentaries, it also is important in narrative features, especially when those films use real-life stories as inspirations, said Betts, whose film “Novitiate” is about a young girl who enters a training program to become a nun in the early 1960s.
“I wanted to make sure everything was meticulously researched so I wouldn’t get nailed on any details,” Betts said.
She spent four years researching the Catholicism elements and ended up writing a 40-page research paper she used as reference for the script.
“I also consulted two nuns and we had one on set,” she said. “I also talked with a theology professor and we had a priest on set.”
The length of precautions Betts took reflected her thoughts when she first became interested in nuns.
“I didn’t know anything about nuns at all,” she said. “I was at an airport and accidentally picked up a biography about Mother Teresa that I thought would be more of an overview of her life’s works.”
The book was, instead, a compilation of letters Mother Teresa had written to various confidants throughout her life.
“These letters were all about her relationship with her husband, who was God,” Betts said.
The relationship depicted in the writings was volatile, passionate, dysfunctional, torturous and euphoric, which confused Betts.
“I got so confused because at that point I didn’t know nuns were married to God and that this wasn’t just a symbolic relationship,” she said.
Still, the story reminded Betts of her early passionate romantic relationships.
“I wondered how much of love was a projection,” she said. “If my relationships were similar to her relationship with God, how much of that did we create in our heads?”
So, she decided to make “Novitiate.”
“I wanted to make a movie about how women love and this backdrop was a microcosm of this thing that was more universal,” she said.
Accuracy was especially important to Walker with her Buena Vista Social Club documentary.
The film, which was postponed from premiering at this year’s festival by the distributor, is, in ways, an extension of Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.”
It traces the history of Cuba and the origins and political climate that inspired the music performed by the band.
The trick was revisiting a well-known documentary in a fresh and new way.
“[I approached it] the same way I approach everything,” Walker said. “It’s [about] respect for the people involved and for the story and the importance of getting it right.
“I try to not to get ahead of myself,” she said. “If you want to be fresh you have to respond to the opportunity of the challenge and of the specifics of the material and people. Study and ask everyone everything and play around and see what works and what is interesting.”
For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.
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