Upheavals in the news business have created a shortage of people telling deep and complex stories about critical issues in society, says Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance documentary film program, and that gap is giving rise to a new trend, what Mertes calls “self-designated storytelling”—amateur filmmakers stepping in to fill the void. We caught up with Mertes last week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford to talk about the changes. “Storytelling is, increasingly, a form of intervention,” she told Cause Global. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
What is the climate for documentary film in today’s world?
Right now, in this moment, one of the most exciting things is that documentary film has become a kind of international language. I talk about it as being the lingua franca of the issues: it is much less expensive than feature film. You can make a documentary virtually alone, and there are a lot of these kinds of self-designated storytellers in documentary now.
Eric Daniel Metzgar, who made Reporter [which debuted at Sundance in January], was one man going. He didn’t even bring a camera person or a sound person. He went with his camera and accompanied Nick Kristof and made the story out of that. So it’s very much an under-the-radar approach to becoming a filmmaker. As I travel around the world, I come across this again and gain—people saying, This is the way I want to tell my story in the world. We see in the West, particularly, an erosion of independent journalism; journalism isn’t filling that gap anymore and so we have documentary filmmakers stepping up and saying, like Eric did, I want to know about the Congo and so I guess I’ll go there and make a film about it.
So it's a combination of globalization and journalism-in-turmoil?
Particularly in the United States, “international” has never been a priority; as we become more linked globally, suddenly that linkage is very apparent to people. Every morning, you can wake up now and hear about the stock markets around the world. A year ago, we were not hearing about that as much; now we do hear it—we see it now like the weather. It's embedded in people’s consciousness now that we are interdependent and that is creating a demand for stories that can help us understand what that interdependency means. What are the conflicts? What are the things that are creating an interruption to what we might call a more just society? This transcends politics. Ever since 9/11, we have begun to understand that something could happen to us and we all want to be a little bit more prepared. Documentary is a kind of wake-up call for people; people have a hunger now for knowledge that can help them make better decisions as they move through life.
How are social media influencing documentary filmmaking?
There are many different kinds of storytelling strategies we’re seeing deployed now. We’re seeing more and more Flip cameras, and certainly, cell phones are starting to be used to capture content. I don’t think we’re seeing short docs on cell phones—yet. You can’t really edit on a cell phone yet, but you will be able to. We’re going to see yet another transformation [in the evolution of documentary film], I think, and the types of people deciding they want to use visual storytelling will continue to expand. It is an incredibly exciting moment because we’re now seeing a huge range of new participation—you know, the 10-year-old is making documentaries now along with the 45-year-old Oscar-winning documentary maker. The two may seem very far apart but the linkage is that people are using nonfiction storytelling as a way to express themselves. And one might be considered amateur and one is considered a professional—and it’s apples and oranges —but in terms of the desire to explain the world, it’s exactly the same.
What new conversations are surfacing because of this explosion in grassroots filmmaking?
I think we’re seeing filmmakers going international in ways we’ve not seen before. Western filmmakers are going internationally to tell stories, and international filmmakers are telling more stories not of their regions. They’re also moving out of their countries to tell stories now. There’s a big change happening in terms of what kinds of stories are being told. It’s all just much more international than it used to be. We’re also seeing filmmakers experiment a lot more. They’re using animation; they’re using reenactments; they’re using incredible soundscapes. Consider Iraq in Fragments by James Longley. He shot this film by himself and he told me that it’s 39 tracks mixed down; so he created a whole score basically on his own, on his own computer. So when you see something like that, it's really moving into a different space in terms of storytelling that is inspired and anchored in documentary—but moves way beyond it.
Why is an empathetic audience better than a sympathetic one?
When we work with filmmakers in our labs at Sundance, we dive deep into the story that they are telling. And that sympathy/ empathy question is one of the most sophisticated, complicated questions you can ask about any given story, because ultimately, you’re asking how you want your audience to feel. What do you want them to receive from the story? Filmmakers often think they are making a story that will make their audiences do something when they’re really helping them to feel sympathy. Sympathy is something that people can feel and then move on. Empathy moves audiences to a new place, to action. So at the beginning of Reporter, that’s the very question Eric David Metzgar is asking when he shows you a close-up of an African boy and says, “We’ve been asked to care before.” What Metzgar is doing is pointing out to us, the audience, right away, that we need to do more. He’s telling people that they are going to sit for 90 minutes and they are going to do more than just feel sympathy for this young man.
It’s the question of impact.
The most difficult place to get impact is in the West because it’s a place where you have to break through the [media] noise. Ninety percent of our media is filled with ads and commercial media and commercial films, so how do you break through that clutter and get an audience’s attention for documentary? It’s not a storytelling question. It’s a money question. In documentary film, nobody has an ad budget but must because otherwise, nobody’s going to notice that your film is there.
Censorship is also a challenge—especially now, as more documentary work goes international.
We fund internationally and we do have to be very careful about how we support our artists. So for instance, we funded a couple of filmmakers in Turkey. They made a film that didn’t really have much of a human rights framework at all but it was about the Kurds in the East and the Turkish government’s ban on teachers teaching kids the Kurdish language. Children there have to learn to speak Turkish first and they’re not supposed to speak Kurdish publicly. These filmmakers did a story about a teacher. In order to get accredited as a teacher, you have to teach in the Eastern part of the country for a year, in the wilderness, serve your time before you can come back and teach in Ankara or Istanbul—the cities you really want to live in.
There were a number of people on our committee who were western human rights experts and they were kind of appalled that these Turkish filmmakers didn’t mention at all the bloodshed, the oppression the Kurds had suffered because of this government policy and so forth. I had to sit there and say, Well, this is true; there have been huge human rights campaigns around the Turks and Kurds, and this is one of the deadliest realities we see with a nationality that’s within another nation-state—and the Kurds are the largest population of people without a country. They have a region but they don’t’ have a country. And there was really no mention of this at all in this film. And I had to think that if they wanted to stay in Turkey—if they don’t want to become diasporic artists—we at Sundance have to support those filmmakers who are developing a kind of metaphorical language—think Russian in the 1930s, right? I’m talking about a kind of metaphorical language through documentary that some filmmakers need to be able to talk about the things that concern them.
So I said listen, if we put just a little card at the front that is a very basic outline to let people know there’s an issue here, then great. We want them to be able to show it in Turkey. We don’t want them to have to move [out of Turkey]. Just because you’re funded by Sundance shouldn’t mean you have to leave your country. Yet this is more common than you might think. We have funded a number of artists who can’t stay in-country any longer because of the documentary film work they are doing. When people become successful filmmakers, the government notices, so we do have a lot of filmmakers who have moved from Middle Eastern countries; there are Chinese filmmakers who live in Canada now because they can no longer work in China. That’s a really important development in the documentary world.
Where is the most creative work being done by young filmmakers?
In places in transition—countries in transition that are becoming more democratic, more open, and more free-market—China, for instance. As China becomes more open and more westernized in certain ways, documentary film and filmmaking, generally, will become an increasingly popular avenue that young people will seek out to make a difference. Storytelling in this way is intervention.
( Illustration by istock.com)