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Keep It Real

Farm-bred filmmakers redefine documentary, trying to get closer to the truth.

Glenn Matsumura

FRAMES OF MIND: Program director Krawitz and founder Breitrose train students to express their passions in works that are moody and daring, yet factual and fair.

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By Joannie Fischer

Nervous bravado spills from the half-dozen teenage boys who have taken over the back rows of the basement screening room and are cracking sophomoric jokes. But as the lights dim and the film rolls in its first public showing, their façades fall away. One by one, each faces his own image emanating larger-than-life from the screen for all to see. The track star straightens his posture and bites his nails. The bodybuilder stops kissing his girlfriend, one arm pulling her closer. The small boy slinks lower in his seat as if to disappear.

In the front row, the two women who have made the film—about young men’s struggles with body image—are just as anxious. Did they exploit the boys? Do the scenes exaggerate? Does the film tell the truth about today’s adolescents? In a word, is it real?

Sally Rubin and Elizabeth Pearson are first-year students in Stanford’s master of arts program in documentary film and video, a two-year training regimen whose maverick approach has produced some of the most celebrated filmmakers in the field. While many people on campus don’t even realize the tiny program exists, it is well known among industry professionals. Only eight students are accepted each year, making this the smallest film program in the country, yet it consistently captures more festival honors and Student Academy Awards for documentaries than its major competitors—huge film schools like New York University and the University of Southern California.

Such is its reputation within the trade that when Elizabeth Witham, a young music producer with family roots in the entertainment world, was trying to decide between Stanford and the prestigious American Film Institute in Hollywood, “I asked many people in the motion picture industry, and everyone told me to go to Stanford, which very much surprised me,” she says. The professionals she consulted, including feature-film director Mike Nichols, cited several reasons, says Witham, MA ’03. One was that she would master all aspects of documentary—from camera work, sound and lighting to casting, directing and editing—instead of a single vocational specialty. Another was that she’d emerge with four finished films, more to show for her education than at any other film school.

The program prides itself on turning out independent, holistic filmmakers who retain control over their creations. What sets graduates apart most, perhaps, is their technical artistry and an unconventional approach to the art of documentary. Stanford filmmakers are trained to filter reality through an impressionistic and highly personal lens, bucking standard journalistic practices in order to bring viewers closer to the truth.

It is the only film program in the country that ignores fiction, devoting itself entirely to documentary. “We don’t want students who have dreamed of being famous movie directors since they were 5,” says program director and communication professor Jan Krawitz. “We want people who have worked in other fields and developed strong passions, and who then discovered documentary as a way to convey those passions to others.” The result is a student body that’s a bit older from the start—typically five years or more out of college—and steeped in a range of life experiences.

While real life serves as their reference library, their documentary tool kit goes well beyond reportage. To drive home heartfelt messages and tell unforgettable tales, they learn to use all the creative devices of a Coppola saga or a Spielberg fantasy, from dreamlike visual montages and emotionally evocative soundtracks to distorted images and slow-motion scenes

Krawitz and her colleagues aren’t interested in training the next Mike Wallace, Bill Moyers or Ken Burns. They are hellbent on changing the very idea of documentary, capturing the truest reality by embracing feature-film technique and rejecting journalistic rules.

Forget objectivity, evenhandedness and keeping a cool distance from sources; but always strive to be fair. Forget on-camera interviews and narration by the filmmaker. And don’t even think about making a so-called reality film if you want your documentary to be real.

“All cinéma vérité is false,” French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida once quipped. And to a great extent, Krawitz agrees. Most attempts to document real life—whether through news clips, exposés, reality shows or “personal” chats—fail miserably, she believes. “There’s a faux intimacy in much documentary work today, where we the viewers are not truly living the experience along with the film’s subjects, although we’re led to believe that we are,” Krawitz says. “The best nonfiction film brings you straight into the mind of the protagonists and moves you in the way that fantastic feature films do, only it’s better because you know it’s real.”

Toward that end, the program strips documentary makers of standard artifices, shooing them offstage unless they are their own protagonists. Students are exhorted to portray each person faithfully, with no cheap tricks or embellishments that could make them squirm at a screening attended by their subjects. “Authenticity—never veering from the truth—is the goal,” says emeritus professor of communication Henry Breitrose, who founded the program in 1965 and still teaches part-time.

Authenticity with an edge, that is. If students are to create documentaries as riveting as any theatrical blockbuster, they must take on the issues that ignite their passions and cultivate a strong “voice”—a personal sensibility expressed through their work.

The students seem quite eager to let their opinions show. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an objective documentary anyway,” says Heather Tenzer, MA ’03. Witham concurs: “It was such a relief on the first day of class when they told us we were supposed to argue for what we believe. Every shot, every lighting angle, every moment of framing the story always creates certain connotations, so it’s liberating to have permission to make those decisions according to our consciences.”

The artistic freedom spurs many students to create experimental works that convey an urgent sense of pathos. Consider the “construction in picture and sound” that Hope Hall, MA ’00, made for her mother, who suffers from mental illness and persistent eating disorders. “I did not grow up with her; the phone was our primary contact,” Hall explains. “This was my attempt to be heard by my mother in telling her story for her.” With bits of tape-recorded phone conversations serving as narration, This Is for Betsy Hall uses underwater scenes, an acoustic guitar score written and played by the filmmaker’s brother, and home videos from a surprise reunion—projected onto billowing fabric and reflective surfaces—to tell a heartbreaking tale of family pain. “The Stanford program gives you a safe space to try the things you’re afraid of trying,” says Hall.

Creating films that are opinionated and daring, yet factual and fair, demands a lot of self-policing from students. Rubin and Pearson discovered this in the making of Cut, their documentary on boys’ body images. With permission from the high school principal, they recruited prospective subjects during lunch break by offering pizza to anyone who would listen. The soul-searching started when they had to narrow their choices to six boys without typecasting them as “meatheads,” “jocks” or “geeks.” The women decided to show multiple aspects of each boy’s personality.

Then, Rubin says, “we spent the better part of a month just hanging out with the boys before we ever brought a camera to their school. We’d chat with them on the phone, sit around with them in the gym, go to their sports practices, so that they came to know and trust us.” It worked. In the film, the guys admit to the same kinds of insecurities that torment many teenage girls. They tell of obsessing about skinny arms, worrying about penis size, dreading taking off their shirts for fear of looking fat, and making themselves vomit after indulging in food and alcohol.

Thoughtful but often inarticulate in their nervousness, the boys sometimes seemed to come across as dolts on film. “So we sat down in the editing room and erased all the stutters and ums and uhs,” says Rubin. But the newly polished phrasing no longer matched the images of them talking, forcing Pearson and Rubin to search their footage for appropriate scenes to go with the edited dialogue. The women also agonized over whether to include footage of one subject who said he was not at all concerned about how his body looked, yet took controversial body-building supplements and kept meticulous track of his muscle development. In the end, they kept the scenes of his endless workouts and left out his words of indifference so as not to cast him as dishonest.

While an aggressive journalist might play up anything provocative, a conscientious documentary maker must decide whether such a statement truly reflects the person’s sentiments or character, and discard it if it seems an aberration, says adjunct professor Johnny Symons, MA ’97. At the same time, the filmmaker cannot shy away from difficult truths. In Daddy and Papa, his just-released film about male couples seeking to adopt children, one of the subjects was the mother of a gay man. Though she was known to be uncomfortable about her son’s homosexuality, the woman kept a game face for the better part of an hourlong shoot. Only in one brief, unguarded moment was she less supportive, admitting she wasn’t sure gay men should be allowed to adopt children. That was the moment Symons deemed most true, and it was the only statement he used from her.

Filmmakers probing sensitive issues often find their relationships with subjects strained. But those relationships cannot be sacrificed, insists Breitrose. He and Krawitz urge students to form bonds of trust and respect that will last beyond the filming.

A high-profile example of what the program discourages comes from last February’s TV documentary on Michael Jackson. Behind the scenes, says Krawitz, the interviewer put the superstar at ease by praising his parenting and his value as a role model for children. Onscreen, he condemned Jackson on both counts. “When my students are making a controversial film, they worry that they, too, will have to hide their true intentions,” Krawitz says. “But when a student is honest about disagreeing, it is amazing how often the subjects are quite happy to take part in the film anyway.”

During their two grueling years at Stanford, students create works of increasing complexity. First-years make three short films according to strict guidelines, using assigned media such as 16mm film and digital video. Lectures introduce proposal writing and fund raising, as well as the history of documentary and a range of artistic issues. The second year gives students more latitude in producing a “thesis” work.

By graduation day, they have spent dozens of hours shooting, hundreds of hours studying and thousands of hours editing footage. “We’re pretty much in a state of constant exhaustion,” says Elisabeth James, MA ’03, who has been known to pull two office chairs together to nap on during all-nighters in the editing room.

Toiling with the same few people all day and well into the night for two years builds extremely close bonds, but it can also get suffocating, students say. Nowhere is the tension more acute than in the lengthy critiques that are a hallmark of the program.

Krawitz, a sharp-witted, energetic woman in her 40s whom students often describe as their feisty “den mother,” is known for her high standards, rigorous assessments and ingenious suggestions. Like most artists in training, her students tend to flinch at the prospect of criticism. On the eve of a critique, they race to trim “flabby” scenes, change opening music or scroll through many hours’ worth of shooting for a few seconds of footage that will strengthen a flailing thesis. For one session last spring, first-years Andy Schocken and Liam Dalzell added a line to their film credits: “Be nice, Jan. We know the opening sucks!”

“We have standards,” says Krawitz, “but our goal is to be constructive and collegial.” She brings in her own footage, before and after editing, to share some difficulties she’s faced. An independent filmmaker trained at Temple University, Krawitz taught documentary at the University of Texas at Austin before coming to Stanford in 1988. In class, she uses Little Peopleher acclaimed 1984 work about the lives of dwarves—to teach the task of “synching up” sound and image. And because so many students want to address personal issues, she shows In Harm’s Way (1996), a film about her experience with violence that raised many challenges but resonated with a broad audience.

The other full-time professor, Kristine Samuelson (on sabbatical last year), complement’s Krawitz’s straight-on teaching style with a less direct approach. While Krawitz might shout, “Cut that!” as she watches a scene, Samuelson might wait until the end of the film, then pose a series of “what if” questions. A 1973 graduate of the Stanford program, Samuelson has made documentaries for PBS and the A&E Network, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her film Arthur and Lillie (1975).

Students emerge from the program with their own war stories to share. In filming Net Loss, about a village whose way of life is dying out, James had to tape a microphone to the top of her camera when her sound person got seasick on a salmon boat. Steadying herself by setting a box of frozen squid on her toes, she tried to keep her camera on the fishermen without ignoring her retching classmate. In Bad Ass, about wild donkeys in the Mojave Desert, “we got stuck the first night on a mountain and froze our buttocks real bad,” recalls Pelle Eriksson, MA ’03. “The donkeys just refused to move down from the mountaintop.” And in My Brother Anton, about a boy’s descent into schizophrenia, Dantia MacDonald, MA ’03, was shooting a scene with her grandfather when he inexplicably drove off for the rest of the day.

Since the first documentaries—called “actualities”—were shot in the late 1800s, the profession has been full of uncertainty. Independent documentary makers often start on a project with zeal, only to find it stalled within months for lack of fund-raising success. And in the slowed economy, even stalwart funding sources have had to reduce their support.

Nevertheless, it’s a great time to be making documentaries, says Krawitz, because they are finally gaining popular momentum. In addition to outlets like PBS’s P.O.V. and Independent Lens, Sundance has a channel devoted to the genre, and the Discovery Channel has commissioned a handful of documentaries to go straight into theaters, targeting the broad audiences that made box-office hits of Bowling for Columbine and Hoop Dreams.

A few students find markets for their work even before graduation. James’s Worms at Work, on the environmental benefits of vermiculture, is used by elementary-school teachers throughout California, and Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center is showing Rubin and Pearson’s Cut in a summer exhibit.

But when the lights come up after Cut’s first screening, all the two women can think about is how the boys are feeling. At a reception that night, 16-year-old Brian—who speaks onscreen about being teased for joining the cheer squad—says he felt embarrassed shortly after his scenes were shot but grew more comfortable by the time of the screening. “I was prepared for what was coming because Sally [Rubin] called to tell me what parts of my interview were going to be shown,” he says.

Brian’s mother has come to the screening, too. With tears in her eyes, she thanks Rubin and Pearson for making sure the film didn’t exploit the boys. And then she suggests showing it at their school.

“Never!” “No way!” The boys’ outcries are simultaneous, testifying that the film has touched on something deep.


Joannie Fischer lives in Mountain View and is a special correspondent for U.S. News and World Report.

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