Steve James Talks Empathy in Documentary Making

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stevejamessharpenedIn Life Itself, filmmaker Steve James chronicles the final five months of Roger Ebert’s life, and pays tribute to the film critic who championed his early documentaries. The film shows tremendous empathy for the critic who defined cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.”

While watching Life Itself, and any of James’ documentaries, for that matter, one senses the filmmaker’s great compassion for his subjects. This underlying empathy seems to be an essential characteristic of the Steve James style of documentary filmmaking. When speaking about his approach to his work, James acknowledges that empathy for his characters is one of the qualities he hopes to bring to his films.

STEVE JAMES: There are all kinds of ways to make good and effective documentaries. Some documentaries are polemical and I see lots of polemical documentaries that I like. Some documentaries are informational — like Inside Job. I love that film. But, but I couldn’t have made that film.


I think you’re right about my films and empathy. When I make a film, my aim is to understand people, if not feel something for them. But my idea is also to be clear-eyed and see people as complex individuals, true to who they are. I mean I don’t want to stack the deck for the audience, but rather to help you feel some compassion towards people and have a deeper understanding of them. And, well, I think maybe I’m a better person when I’m a filmmaker — because that’s what’s called for, you know, that’s part of the job description if you’re that kind of filmmaker.

JENNIFER MERIN: Not all filmmakers are like that, however. So, how do you, as a filmmaker, categorize other filmmakers and their films?

JAMES: There are all kinds of different films and all kinds of hybrids. I like all kinds of films and all kinds of documentaries, but I see a lot of films and thing, gee, I could never make that — not from a judgmental standpoint, but just because I don’t think that way. I’m just not that kind of storyteller. So, you know, I’m old fashioned. I like cinema verite.

The films that had the biggest impact on me when I was getting interested in film were the verite classics, on the one hand, like Barbara Kopple’s work or the Maysles.

The other films that interested me, and I think my films are a kind of hybrid with these, are Michael Apted’s UP Series and especially The Times of Harvey Milk, which I saw at a particular moment of time when I was starting to love documentaries and I was just struck by how powerful, and insightful and emotional that film was without being sappy or anything like that. And those are both films that are interview driven films. They’re not verite films. So I think my style is a kind of a hybrid. It’s trying to get to know people by following them around in their world and then also spending time getting to know them by talking to them and interviewing them repeatedly. And in this film, with my partner Alex Kotlowitz, well, that’s the kind of books he writes, so we were perfectly matched to work on The Interrupters.

MERIN: When you’re not actually interviewing your subjects on camera, you manage to be very ‘fly on the wall’ in recording their behavior and activities. How do you prevent these non-actors from acting for the camera?

JAMES: You know, sometimes that does happens. It has happened to me. It’s a risky business.

Broadly speaking, there are two philosophies of shooting verite. One of them is, and I think Frederick Wiseman embodies this approach, that you don’t do a lot of interacting with your subjects. You shoot. You don’t ever interview them. It’s that pure verite approach where you just do your best to blend into the scenery, as it were, and just sort of capture people’s lives. So their awareness of the camera is perhaps mitigated by your very restrained presence. I do think, though, that in some of those films that it feels like people are still very conscious of the camera. It’s not like no one was there. So sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

When it works, those are great films. Frederick Wiseman certainly made a number of great films that way, and so have other filmmakers who use that style.

The other approach is more the approach that I take and I’m not alone in this — and it’s that you try to build some sort of relationship with the subjects that allows them to relax around you. You try to demystify the camera and demystify the whole process of making a movie. You answer their questions. You keep very low key about the whole thing.

I never make a big deal about filming, and I never promise that the film is going to do anything beyond our just making it. I’m very conscious of that. So, the process is a little like having a new friend over for dinner. You know, like when you have someone over for dinner the first time, someone you really like and think you want to be friends with, you dress up more, your house is cleaner, you cook your favorite dishes. But if you become friends with that person, by the fifth or sixth time they come over, you’re not quite so anxious about it. You’re relaxed more.

That’s what we want our subjects to be, relaxed. And, they want that, too. But that kind of approach requires more time. Wiseman could make films in a few months. I spend a minimum of year or longer on my projects. In order for that approach to work, you’ve got to take more time to get to that relaxed place.

Still from The Interrupters

Still from The Interrupters

I’ve had situations when people are playing to the camera, and you pull them aside and say, hey, — like in The Interrupters, I took Kobe aside and said, “Hey, you’re interviewing them — but these are people in the street, and that’s not how you really talk to them.” It happened a few times, and then he got it.

And sometimes you intervene to make subjects do what they would do if you weren’t there. Nothing violent or anything like that. But you’d say, “Hey, wait a second, is this really right?” and they stop and think about it, and say, “Well, no, but it’s because of the camera.” So, actually, by intervening, you get them to do what they would have done if you hadn’t been there. Which is kind of paradoxical in a way, but it works.

MERIN: Isn’t that called being a director?

JAMES: Well, yes, but some people believe documentaries don’t have directors. They say, “Hey, don’t you just shoot the thing?” (We laugh).

Well, it’s not that you’re influencing the outcome of the story, but you do have to direct subjects to be real and honest.

MERIN: How do you handle the issue of the subject’s trust? Do you sometimes feel that you’ve seen that a filmmaker has betrayed a subject’s trust? Would that ever be acceptable?

JAMES: I know that in certain documentaries you really get the sense that the people in them have really no idea about how they’re going to be portrayed. You think that they perhaps believe that the person who’s making the film is very sympathetic towards them, and to what they have to say. And when the film gets made, that’s not the way it comes out. Is that what your asking about?


JAMES: I think that’s tricky. I don’t generally have that problem with the people in my films because, first of all, I show the film to them before it’s done. I sort of think of that as my ‘you have to face the music’ moment, especially when I’m showing the results to people who were not portrayed in a particularly flattering way in the films. I’ve had to kind of wrestle with their reactions, and that’s a very interesting process. Sometimes I give them a few things because we have a discussion — and some things I say, “you know what, I can’t change that.” But even though that can be painful, I feel it’s honest. It’s really an honest process. I never set them up in any way.

But the process is tricky in part because of my approach to filmmaking. Because the process is hardest when you’ve built relationships with people the way I’ve talked about and then they see what you’ve done and they don’t like it — that’s a tougher moment than if you hadn’t built that relationship. But you’ve got to be willing to do that.

I was so thankful on The Interrupters about the relationships we built with the subjects. We admired them so much and loved being around them, so there was never any issue.

MERIN: Do you have a favorite film from among those you’ve made?

JAMES: Well, I don’t know if I can single out one film — but it’s between three films: The Interrupters, Stevie and Hoop Dreams, I would say.

Hoop Dreams, that was a blessed experience and it was the first real film that I did, and so what could have been more special than what happened with that film? And it’s about something I care deeply about, which was race relations and sports.

Then, Stevie, which was the film I did after Hoop Dreams, was the hardest film I’ve ever made. Without question, the hardest. It probably will be the hardest film will I ever make. And, it’s the most brutally honest film I’ve made…about me, about Stevie, about his family. So, in some ways, I’m more proud of that film because of all of that. Just that we got it made and the impact it had. People hate me for it. They think it’s an exploitation. I can’t help that. But, anyway, it’s a harder film and a deeper film than Hoop Dreams.

And the thing about The Interrupters was that it was just such a joy — and that may seem weird when you know what it’s about, with the potential for violence and all — but it was such a joy to make this film about these interrupters and meet the people in their lives, the people they’re dealing with. It was great working with (co-producer) Alex (Kotlowitz) and Zak Piper, who co-produced and did the sound. It was generally incredibly eye opening and a great experience. And it has been great to see how people have embraced the film, so far. So, I feel very lucky. I feel really lucky.

MERIN: Well, I would say there’s a combination of elements at play…and luck is no doubt one of them. But, then, too there’s your great talent and persistence in the mix, too.

JAMES: But your question is like asking which are your favorite children. And I couldn’t answer that. Honestly, there’s been something wonderful about every film I’ve worked on. Some are better than others, some are more painful than others, but those are the three that stand out most to me.

MERIN: How do you know when a film is done?

JAMES: Well you can ask that again and again for The Interrupters because we’ve cut it down. It used to be much longer.

But, in general, I think you’re looking for a place that brings the film to some sense of conclusion without its ever feeling like it’s over. Because it’s a documentary and the audience has to know that the subjects’ lives are going to go on.

Hoop Dreams was over because the boys — the subjects — left to go to college, although we did follow them to do an epilogue. But it was always clear that that was a post script, and that was it.

With Stevie, it was over when he went off to prison. That was the end of that story.

But The Interrupters was trickier because there was no clear marker, like in those. I think that we wanted to tell the stories of the interrupters we were following, so we looked for places where there seemed to be a juncture in those stories where we could leave off. And, we’d decided that we were going to do a year in the life of the city, so that provided a framework, too. Then the epilogue allowed us to cheat on it a little bit, to show here’s what’s happening now. But I think in all the stories we’d found good snapping points that they didn’t herald the end. I like to think that we let the audience know that the situations are still in play and that some of the characters aren’t out of the woods yet. Subsequent developments that I won’t talk about have borne that out.

MERIN: That’s one of the things that so heartbreaking about the film, and that makes it matter so much — that they don’t seem to be out of the mode of violence.

JAMES: Well, the interrupters are still involved with the characters and still trying to help them find their way out of the violence. So I think in this film what’s kind of interesting is that we have an epilogue that comes back and revisits the different stories. We like showing that these characters’ lives are going on and knowing that you hope for the best, but that you don’t know the final outcome.

MERIN: When the film’s over, how do you end your involvement with your subjects?

JAMES: You get very close to people, and it’s hard. When the film is done, you work together to promote the film and make sure its seen at festivals and beyond. But at a certain point that ends and things move on. I’ll begin to work on another film. The people in the films have their lives and jobs. But you hope you still stay connected because you do forge these incredible bonds and relationships. And, if you keep doing more and more films, there are a lot more people to keep in touch with. It’s just reality. So I have this fantasy that like at the end of 8½, we’ll get every one together again…

MERIN: Like in a final documentary entitled the Where Are They Now documentary….

JAMES: Yes, exactly. Actually that would be a good idea to do that film — a documentary that just goes back and sees what’s happened to everyone and each story. It’s a very good idea, and if I do it, you’ll get major credit.

MERIN: Alright. I’ll take it!

JAMES: But I think it’s one of the bittersweet aspects of filmmaking. Because you do get very close to people, and then life goes on. I try to stay connected, but I’m better at that with some than with others. I suspect that with the people in The Interrupters, I will stay in touch because they’re just such fun, great people to hang around with. I can’t imagine not having Ameena and Kobe in my life. They’re like my family. They’ve met my family and my family likes them and they like my family. So, I think we’ll keep in touch.

MERIN: As you mention, the characters’ lives go on after the documentary is over, and their stories continue. So, how do extend the life of the documentary itself, so it can continue to tell their stories to more and more audiences? Have you given much consideration to audience outreach through transmedia applications?

JAMES: I don’t know that much about transmedia, but it does seem to be the trend recently. By transmedia, do you mean the manifestation of a documentary film in other formats?

MERIN: Yes, the whole documentary distribution-related social media, mobile apps and gaming phenomenon that’s under investigation and development and has received quite a bit of funding…

JAMES: Yes, there are foundations that now seem to want to support documentary film by supporting that transmedia approach instead of the traditional outreach…

MERIN: Exactly. I’m asking particularly about games that might be based on a film like The Interrupters and that could present its issues — specifically those surrounding the teaching of nonviolent conflict resolution — to a whole new audience of gamers who don’t usually watch documentaries. Just as example.

JAMES: Yes, I’d thought of doing a game, actually. Which would put players in different difficult situations, and I think that’s a really great idea. But we decided to try to find other ways to engage audiences — mostly because a game is so expensive if you’re going to do it right.

The truth is that kids wouldn’t play that game except in a school or organized setting. They’re not going to go home and play that game, even if Rock Star designed it, or the Grand Theft Auto guys. Even if Rock Star spent a gazillion dollars on it and it was just right. ‘Cause my sons — who are now 19 and 23 — play a lot of video games, and over the years I’ve watched with amazement at how sophisticated these games and the kids who play them are. If Rock Star did a game like that — and I would love to see that happen in an educational setting — I think it would be wonderful. But kids probably wouldn’t buy that game on their own because that’s not what they’re looking for. They’re looking to shoot people in the game context for entertainment.

But in the right setting, I think a game like that could be truly mind blowing for a kid because they would have this choice of killing a person if they want to — in this conflict — or not killing them. Or being killed. And then, in this game, you couldn’t just say game over and pop back up and get into the next round, but you’d have to deal with what’s happened, like seeing the family and understanding what you’ve done.

And if you make it realistic, you can spin it off in several different directions so kids playing will learn about consequences…because if this takes place in your neighborhood, you see the loss to the family. Then, maybe you get arrested, or maybe you’re on the run because the person you killed was in a gang and they’re after you and you have to go into hiding and live your life in hiding. And so this game could show realistic consequence, where you’re not allow to just pop back up and begin again unscathed. That would be fantastic.

But you’d have to do it just right. I gave up on our doing it because of the expense for a good version — not even a Rock Star version — was just too prohibitive. But I think it would be great to see that kind of game happen in the future. If not for The Interrupters, for another, future film.

MERIN: How would you define the social message of The Interrupters, if there is one?

JAMES: I think there are a few messages. I hope. One is that people in these neighborhoods, even though they live with violence in a very day to day way, they haven’t become numb to the violence. They’re not surprised by it, and it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been hurt or had a family member who’s been hurt by the violence. So they’re not surprised by it, but they’re not numbed by it, either. And I think you see that in the film. That was a revelation to us. You see their absolute pain of loss, but people haven’t given up.

The reason the interrupters can be so effective in the neighborhoods where they work is that people haven’t given up. They need a lifeline and some hope, and the interrupters are that.

And I think that individuals can make a difference. You see that. You see the enormity of the problem in these neighborhoods, and get an indication of what needs to happen on a much grander scale — economic development, better education, better social services. It’s such a big task. At least I’m comforted to know that there’s a Kobe and an Ameena out there who are trying to make a difference and who are making a difference.

Copyright Jennifer Merin
All rights reserved

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