Capturing (authentic) Emotion on Film

People love movies. In fact, according to the National Organization of Theatre Owners (NOTO), theaters in the US and Canada sold 1.2 billion tickets in 2011.
But what makes a good movie? It’s a billion dollar question in a billion dollar industry. Everyone hates that feeling: walking out of the theatre 9 dollars and 3 hours poorer (15 dollars if you buy a small popcorn) feeling like you should have listened to your date and will never trust another Keanu Reeves flick again… regardless of how amazing the trailer may have looked. 

So, I’m back to the first question: what makes a GOOD film? I am talking about documentaries. There are many reason why people enjoy movies. They can be funny, they can be action-packed, they can be scary… but documentaries, I believe, are different. Documentaries educate, they inspire, they seek to make the world a better place, at the very heart of every documentary lies the desire to convey a message. In monday’s class we watched A Thousand More, the documentary-style profile of Philly Mayer, a young boy who suffers from a rare disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The short, 13 minute film was very powerful.

The rule of thumb for a good film is one that makes you cry, but also makes you laugh. Right? I think we have all heard that one before, not sure from where, but we have all heard it. Enabling your audience to feel something is the unofficial mark of a successful movie. Why? Perhaps because authentic emotion is so difficult to capture.  Emotions, by their nature, are fleeting. They rush in, they ebb, they flow. 

Transforming raw emotion into  something “watchable” (i.e. entertaining) is challenging. The filmmaker’s who made A Thousand More used subtle, and complimentary devices and techniques to accomplish this. For example, (@ 11:26) the screen goes dark during the father’s monologue. The absence of visual stimulation directed focus on the words alone: giving them a greater impact. The directors ‘fly on the wall’ approach to filming is a device that forces the viewer into the world of the family. In this film, the use of any traditional, interview style sit-downs and probing questions would only serve as a barrier to separate audience from subject. Additionally, as my multimedia project looms, I will have to make editing decisions. In Monday’s class I learned that one of the most vital components of conveying emotion are moments of silence. Previously, I may have been eager to edit out those moments, in an attempt to avoid awkward silence. After analyzing this documentary, I understand that these moments of silence allow the viewer to experience the emotion, to sit with it, to let it sink in.

The way in which films of this nature really get to the heart of the audience is by making them ask questions about themselves. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to have your child slowly fall ill and be told he has 7 years to live. How would I handle this situation? Am I capable of the courage and grace that these parents demonstrate? These are important questions and if you can answer them… Well, the best thing you can ask for in a film is walking out of the cinema feeling like you know yourself a little better.

I was curious to see what some of the filmmakers had to say about what makes a documentary “good.” This blog what-makes-a-great-documentary/ had some great quotes from filmmakers some of my favorites are listed below:

“A great documentary crafts a compelling cinematic portrait of the heart and soul of people’s lives and inspires us to see the world with greater clarity and compassion. Great documentaries remind us that our lives are complex, tragic, funny and magnificent and that it’s always worth waking up for another kick at the can.”

-Garry Beitel, director (The Socalled Movie, Nothing Sacred)

“Take me somewhere I have never been, show me something I have never seen, let me meet people I would never have a chance to meet and show me the world from their perspective.”

-Adam Symansky, producer (Reel Injun, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line).

“The story stays with you for days on end …and you continue to reflect on what you learned, why you laughed, why you cried and what you need to change in your own life or perhaps there’s just that one small action that you need to take.  A good documentary raises the stakes in ethical accountability and you are compelled to seek out and to create stories that are even more thoughtful,  even more considerate,  highly original and creative.    When you watch a good doc you know that the artist is telling a story that she wants to tell and has to tell and not a story that she thinks she’s supposed to tell.”

-Ravida Din, producer (Nollywood Babylon, Payback)


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