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Work-in-Progress for Docs
by Soumyaa Kapil Behrens
Valerie Soe preps the final of her film for its March 14th premiere at the SF Asian Amer Film Fest. photo S. Kapil Behrens
Sometimes the things that happen in dark rooms, with people who are not your mate, can be the most telling part of a filmmaker's journey. Work-in-progress screenings have become a hot trend in the local Bay Area documentary market, and not just to build buzz about an upcoming film. Filmmakers and audiences are finding common creative ground in alternative spaces to discuss issues, stories and how to sculpt a documentary film. Indeed, filmmakers like Valerie Soe and Tamara Perkins have come to thrive on the process and venues like The LAB and a variety of film festivals have incorporated work-in-progress (WIP) screenings as ongoing parts of their programs.
Soe's film, "The Oak Park Story," will debut as part of the Asian American Film Festival on March 14 and 15, 2010, but getting there was a long, ever changing road. A seasoned filmmaker, Soe's latest project tells a story of low-income immigrant tenants living in a decrepit building in Oakland and their successful lawsuit to hold the landlord responsible for the living conditions. "We had three WIP screenings of our rough cut, which were vital to our filmmaking process," she said. "That first WIP screening helped me to make critical structural and aesthetic decisions about the film. My background is in experimental video, so I'm used to playing with form and style, but the WIP screenings convinced me that this wouldn't be appropriate for a story-based film like this one." Further WIP screenings encouraged her to shorten the length of the final piece as well as look at her own aesthetic values in a new way. "Of course it took much more work after that to really whip the movie into shape... but the WIP screenings were vital to the development and direction of the film in its formative stages. From now on they'll be an integral part of my creative process." The film's audience can see a direct result of collaboration between them and the filmmaker in the final presentation; they are no longer absent from the artistic process, rather they are useful to it.
Engaging the audience on the development of a documentary film is a bold step. It reveals the inner workings of the project and probably dispels ideas of magic and heroism often associated with the documentary artist or the people they represent. It draws attention to the construction of an eventually seamless piece of work. But, more than anything, it educates people about the nature of story construction, the limits of truth telling, and the poetry necessary to complete a nuanced film. Finally, it gives the audience an opportunity to ask a filmmaker, "Why did you do that?" - a question often relegated to post-mortem discussions in bars and coffee shops long after the film is completed.
Local documentarian Tamara Perkins is grateful to have some of that feedback sooner than later. Perkins is currently finishing her first feature film, "The Trust." The project takes a critical look at the incarceration of African American males in the US by following stories of men who are/were in San Quentin State Penitentiary. She has participated in WIP screenings with policy makers at Harvard's Houston Institute and most recently at Stanford Law School. "'The Trust' is intended to foster dialogue. We are on track to finish the film in late 2010. However, the conversation has already started," she said. That conversation has been crucial to the direction of her project and to the policy issues she intends to represent. "In some cases I've even been able to interview experts I would not have had access to without the screenings - like Peter Edelman and Judge Nancy Gertner through the Houston Institute/Harvard screening." These important interviews may now appear in her final film, a possibility not even dreamed of before the WIP screenings. "Our team has found work-in-progress screenings an ideal opportunity to hear from our potential audience." Perkins has not only heard from, but also included, her audience within the body of her film through this process.
Artists like Perkins and Soe have worked hard to propagate interest and engagement with their films. They have cultivated relationships with funders and friends to find places to show their work and get the critical counterpoints they were in search of. Many festivals across the globe have also begun programming WIP screenings into their calendar, though often the WIP shown is much shorter than the actual film. Filmmakers, audiences and exhibitors are joining to make this trend in documentary filmmaking a budding mainstay.
The LAB, a San Francisco-based experimental arts organization, has taken this idea to a whole new level with their WIP series, Rough Cuts. Bimonthly, the LAB curates one feature length work-in-progress documentary and presents it to a general audience with a professional moderator and talk-back session. Chris Holbrook, the producer of the series, noted, "Since we launched in June of 2008, the series has benefited filmmakers in a myriad of ways. First, we've provided a safe, nurturing space where filmmakers can screen their work to a general audience and, the same night, receive honest, constructive feedback that might be difficult to get from a family member or a colleague who's already seen three or four cuts." Fresh perspectives are crucial to filmmakers in the later stages of documentary production. Often, those close to a project are oversaturated or fatigued, and unable to discern details or even revelations in the material readily available to virgin eyes and ears.
"Moreover," notes Chris, "the series also benefits the Bay Area filmmaking community by providing a welcome space for local filmmakers, film professionals, and fans of documentary film to meet and talk." Some past moderators have included professionals like Jesse Deeter, producer of "Who Killed The Electric Car" and Marc Smolowitz, co-producer of "The Weather Underground" and "Trembling before G-d," among many others. Information on upcoming screenings/submissions can be found at thelab.org/roughcuts.
So, go gather a small crowd of people you don't know very well and dim the lights. The resulting conversation may just be the stuff dreams are made of. Letting everyone take part in the creative process is not only democratic; it's also visionary.
Soumyaa Kapil Behrens is a freelance writer, filmmaker and cinematographer based in San Francisco.
Posted on Mar 01, 2010 - 01:54 PM