institute for documentary studies

{Week 10: Radio}

Week 10: Radio

My multimedia feature is about a documentary filmmaker who, in late January, lost 40-years worth of work in a barn fire. All that remains is a mound of jagged wood, charred black and jutting skywards at painful angles. Wedged in between the burnt beams are artifacts of his documentary life. A burnt film reel. A warped script. There was even a fragment from the Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Richard plucked it off the ground and cupped The Bard of Avon’s face, encircled by a curling ring of scorched paper. With remains like that, it’s not wonder Richard and his wife decided to burn the rest down. I drove up to their house to document the burning the day before.
The ruins were unmistakable from the roadside. I got slowly out of the car, lowering my voice and setting up my tripod to survey the damage. Though welcomed graciously with a handshake from Richard and a small smile from Julie, I felt like an intruder. It was a discomfort similar to arriving at the wake of someone I didn’t know very well. It broke all rules of privacy, in which the outside world is permitted access to the intimate space of a person’s joy and suffering. In many ways, it’s our job at Salt to be that liaison, but that doesn’t lessen the discomfort of actually being there to witness their pain.
Our lives revolve entirely around our subject’s lives. We leap to our phones when they call. We twiddle our thumbs awaiting their e-mails. We talk about them, analyze what they say, and worry about what they think of us. Mira, the writing instructor, once advised us to read the literature our subject likes and to listen to his or her favorite music. I’ve not only been watching a lot of Richard’s films, but owing to him and other subjects, have developed an appetite for Acadian folk music, goose eggs, and Red Sox (my Yankee Uncles would murder me if they knew). Marty McConnell one said: “At some point it becomes true that all stories are love stories.” How true.
Case in point: Somewhere between interviewing Richard on Thursday and watching his neighbor Arthur light a match on Friday, I realized that my audio recorder was missing. I circled the escalating fire like a vulture, snapping pictures while casting my eyes futilely around for the recorder. It was in my hands the night before. I remembered stuffing it in my pocket as we stood at the periphery, but couldn’t remember taking it inside. A bolt of panic went through me. Was it possible that my tape recorder was still here? And by here, I mean – there? In the fire? On fire? Here was a man cremating his life’s work. Had I unwittingly threw my lot into the pile? When the flames consumed the Tascam recorder, would I hear it scream? How ironic. I could picture my multimedia piece now: a black comedy about self-sabotage by fire.
I bit my tongue for as long as I could, until finally mustering up the courage to ask Richard if he had seen my audio recorder. He had been staring blankly at the fire, lost in his thoughts, but the moment I said something, he went into search mode immediately. He stalked the edges, turning items over with his foot, asking me questions while we retraced our steps from the previous day. While I wrung my hands, he reassured me that we would find it and that this type of thing “happens all the time.” It was clear that 40 years of documentary filmmaking had given him a paramedic’s serenity in matters of technical disaster. I began to understand where he got his strength from, strength not only to recover from the fire, but also to let a wayward 22-year-old make a documentary about it. It struck me how swiftly we broke character, how he jumped to my aid and I embraced his help. In many ways, it provided a welcome diversion for both of us: He from the grueling spectacle of watching his work burn and me from the grueling task of watching him. By the time we found the recorder, laying in a patch of sun on the kitchen table, we hugged.
And this is why the word “subject” makes me so uncomfortable. It reduces a whole human being to an object of study and doesn’t properly reflect how human the relationship is, how collaborative, and how predicated it is upon a foundation of trust. These values are all the more important when you consider the peculiar conditions of your interaction. Typically, you don’t ask someone about grief and loss the first time you meet him or her. It would be too personal, yet by its very nature, documentary work is personal. It permits a depth of conversation and acceleration of intimacy that bypasses the normal getting-to-know-you process. And in doing so, you will learn more from this person than you could have imagined.
In early February, an alumna named Amy Toensing returned to Salt to showcase her photographs of Sudanese refugees in Lewiston. I was fortunate enough to keep one of her pictures through a raffle draw. It’s a gorgeous black and white print of a woman with penetrating eyes enrobed in shadow, but illuminated by a slice of light. It’s a photograph that embodies the best kind of work and I keep it at the foot of my bed as a reminder. You can tell how much she trusts the photographer and that her gaze is the product of a long, hard-won relationship. She appears to look beyond the frame, transcending its two-dimensional constraints to emerge a fully realized person. The photograph merely borrows from her strength.