institute for documentary studies

{Week 9: Radio}

Week 9: Radio

One of the radio students with a proclivity for pop culture compared the Salt program to a reality television show. A lot of the basic ingredients of “The Real World: Portland” are there. We are 20 strangers picked to live in Maine. Our lives aren’t taped, yet we are always recording (with cameras, with audio gear, with pens and paper and memory). At Salt, it’s entirely possible for your colleagues, roommates, and friends to be one in the same. The emotions are raw. The stories are true.

No quasi-reality documentary program is complete without a quick-fire challenge, which are by nature small, intense, and all consuming infernos of fear and struggle. They are microcosms of the real thing. As a novice chef, you cannot prove your cooking mettle in a ten-course meal until you can serve up a decent fish soup. And before you attempt a 5-minute multimedia piece, you have to survive Doc in a Day.

Doc in a Day – short for “Documentary in a Day,” but long for “DID” – is the first assignment you receive in multimedia class. You are paired at random with someone in another track and sent to a disclosed location to produce a multimedia piece in 24 hours. Last semester, the class ventured to the Oxford County Fair and returned with tales of lumberjills, gemstones, and demolitions. This semester, we went to Sebago Lake for their annual an ice-fishing derby. Ice fishing is like regular fishing, with the added feature of the water being frozen. And as with regular fishing, there is a high potential for boredom. A man dangles a line into the water and waits. How could ten teams possibly bait and tackle ten unique stories about THAT? Of course, the whole point of Salt (and by extension, the whole point of documentary work) is to find the most appealing parts of real life, the human parts that would ignite the curiosity of others, and do our duty in conveying that through sound/images/print. To “find the story within the story.”

Determined to go fishing and not return with a story about fishing, Mike and I sought other angles (or anglers). We called up and down Cumberland County in the hunt for the quirkiest aspect of ice fishing. There was a guy who digitized fishouse poetry. There was a polar dip on Jordan Bay. I finally got a hold of the retired director of the derby. He whispered sweet nothings into my story-sensitive ears. Apparently…there was a man who owned the best ice shack in the area—one insulated with cedar wood and pine and outfitted with a cook top, a heater, and a trap that rattled when the fish were biting.

Even better: He had a brother. They’d gone ice fishing together since childhood.

It was our brass ring.

We pitched our DID story to the class as a meditation ice fishing through the eyes of the Blanchard Brothers—two brothers who had seen it all! How cinematic is that? The Cohen Brothers couldn’t invent what we had discovered in real life. We set out for Jordan Bay at 4AM with a box of Joe and the smug overcoat of confidence, thinking we had found a story that was a sound investment and fully insured. We expected to return that evening with exactly the story we came for.

When we arrived at Dave’s house, the brother we spoke with over the phone, it was snowing on Jordan Bay. In the white glow of the headlights, you could see it spiraling through the air. There were two snowmobiles parked at the edge of the bank, mist billowing around their engines, and the lake stretched mystically beyond that. It was too dark to see how far beyond. I remember standing on the bank, clutching a microphone, and gaping at the sight of this infinite space. The light was beginning to brighten. As we turned a corner in the snowmobile, the ice shack came into view. It was perfect cube that seemed to float above a horizontal plane, like a geometric sunrise. Though I had contemplated the fishing part, the ice part hadn’t occurred to me until I stepped off the snowmobile to chance a step. My footprint melted through the top layer of now. The ice wasn’t white at all. It was green and dark blue, seeming to borrow its color from the water beneath. 

There’s a word for this: the “field.” It’s the place of data collection, where Salt students gather the raw materials to later dissect using Final Cut Pro X at 561 Congress Street. It is the place you go laden with equipment and expectations, hoping to get something good. It is the place that no amount of pitching or e-mailing and cold calling can prepare you for, where you confront the truth of your story and the reality of your ignorance. Mike once called it “the beautiful, infinite wilderness of possibility.” He set up his camera and slowed down the shutter speed. I should have known then, when the frozen gaze of the field was staring me in the face, how foolhardy it is to have expectations about what we would catch.

The next fourteen hours were spent in the company of Dave and the friends he was fishing with, documenting their activities and asking them questions. Dave said his brother would show up eventually. While we waited, Paul taught us how to drill a hole through 24 inches of ice with a power auger, how to tie a knot in a line so you know how far to lower it, and how to bob a jig rod to imitate the motions of a fish. Dan told stories of sleeping out on the ice, of falling through the ice, and of fishing for carp in pools of melting ice at night. Between mouthfuls of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches (and complaints of how badly I burned the bacon), we listened to country music and NC-17 jokes around the fire pit. Jen caught the biggest trout of her life. I got her reaction on tape. Tom filleted the fish. Mike took detail shots of its bloodied intestines. It was rich material, but not our story. At some point, we began to worry. Where was the other brother? He was the linchpin of a tale about brotherhood that was rapidly disintegrating as the sun went down. 

After dark, on the snowmobile trip back to shore, we found him. The other Blanchard. He was sitting alone, in the very same ice shack we were in that morning—the blue-ribbon ice shack that was famed throughout Cumberland County. It turns out that he had been sitting there for hours. “Why?” I asked him. He told me to turn off the tape recorder. It turns out he wasn’t a fan of “the media.” He had never intended to talk to us at all and had made himself scarce that day on purpose. The story of the Blanchard Brothers was doomed from the start and we, the storytellers, were the last people to find out. 

I stumbled back into my car, shell-shocked and wondering how I could have missed this. Just because two people are brothers doesn’t mean they live their lives in tandem. Knowing that, it is all the more ironic that the most foundational fact of our story—that both brothers would be there—was actually an assumption made in the heat of deadline. Dave said that his brother might be there. “Might.” Why did I latch onto a “might” and mistake it for “will”? It’s as foolish as deciding your catch for the day. Perhaps in my determination to get a story that wasn’t boring, I fished for a story that wasn’t true. I came away empty-handed. 

The problem with trying to lacquer real life with something you think is “more exciting” is that it denies real life the chance to be exciting. It blinds you with a surface-level of understanding as you wait with myopic certainty for what you expect to reveal itself. The meat of your story is swimming in deeper waters. Fail to pay attention and it will pass you by. It’s a valuable lesson whose parallels to fishing were not lost on me, even while thawing my feet and reeking of minnow.

Picking through the audio files and digital photographs one by one, Mike and I pieced together a different story over the next few weeks. This one was about the relationships between six people for whom ice fishing was just another way (albeit, one of their favorite ways) to spend time together. It wasn’t the story we expected. But it was the story we caught.

See the video HERE.