January 3, 2017: Why It’s Worth It
A recent post on the documentary film listserv, Doculink, posed the question: “Is making documentaries worth it?” Here is my reply:
One day, back in 2005, I returned home to find a magazine on the coffee table featuring an essay called, Anatomy of Flight, which detailed Jacks McNamara’s challenge to authentically navigate the space between brilliance and madness. I was immediately inspired to make Crooked Beauty, a documentary that was as novel in form as was the radical language and progressive principles that Jacks used to address their mental health struggles. And given how prescient the subject matter was, I intuited it was time to get out of the ‘studio of my mind’ and make a film that would inspire tangible change for communities in need. That is why it’s worth it.
We make documentary films to indulge our private passion for a particular subject while offering the public a means to refresh their most steadfast values and beliefs. All the better if you can cultivate community with your work on the grass roots level. I never imagined myself as an activist or advocate for any cause or issue no matter how much I identified with or supported it. But after seven years of presenting my mental health themed docs in venues of every size and stripe imaginable, I’ve discovered that worth is defined less by the number of awards and critical accolades one’s film might garner, and more by the palpable, collective inspiration felt by people yearning for transformation.
J–, please try this: write out the ‘purpose’ (a better word than, ‘worth’) of your work–whatever that might be–in one sentence. I don’t mean to over simplify the complex, logistical challenges of making a documentary film. But I do believe that clarifying one’s purpose and going to bed and waking up with that can be liberating. For example, mine is: I am committed to making emotionally immersive films that help alleviate human suffering by cultivating beauty and building community through live, conscious dialogue.
Given today’s unsettling political climate, I truly, passionately believe that making a documentary film based on no more that one’s personal interest in the subject is shortchanging our selves, our work, and our communities of a vital opportunity to experience meaningful, even transcendent, change. To consider one’s audience is to make ‘worth’ manifest.