The Former National Director and Co-Director for NAMAC, The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture writes on her recent stay at Kopkind.
What a Difference Those Days Made
by Helen De Michiel
“In a voiced community, we all flourish.” Terry Tempest Williams
Dozing off under the deep darkness of a New England country summer night, I think that Susi Walsh has pulled a paper bag off my head. It’s been smothering me for months, and I’ve been trying to punch my way out of it.
This is southern Vermont, and we are located on a rural road inhabited by dreamers, idealists, artists and writers drawn to its quietude, beauty and tolerance for social experimentation. This is a spot on the American map where documentary has an audience, where art meets social change, and the convergence offers a respite from the dog-eat-dog of capital.
We’re a group of ten documentary filmmakers, assembling to participate in a seven-day residency that includes Kopkind’s secret ingredient: what organizers Susi Walsh and John Scagliotti call “radical relaxation.” In the evenings we screen works-in-progress or completed films. In the mornings we gather to offer each filmmaker a deep dive into reflection for the next step in his or her work. These are not critique sessions but rather dialogues that open up to the strengths and aspirations of the work at hand.
The Kopkind environment encourages us to discover new perspectives for each filmmaker’s old problems. We are instructed to pose questions to the group that can help us move ahead with our project. Suggestions and brainstorms for improvement evolve over the course of three hours, and each filmmaker at the table speaks directly from experience. No one is having an easy or certain time these days. We are generous with one another.
As she welcomes us to this 25th Kopkind retreat, JoAnn Wypijewski’s comment stays with me: “One way or another, we’re all here on the quest for an authentic life.” And, I want to add, to voice authentic values that motivate us to continue working on films that point to other ways of expressing this world we live in.
These are exhilarating times for nonfiction filmmaking, yet they are also perilous. Piles of documentaries get made every year, yet only a handful command the kind of attention necessary to circulate widely and make a difference. Each film can cost thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor and cash. It can consume five or more years of a maker’s life and resources, with no guarantee of a return.
The Internet complicates these huge personal risks. There is no model yet to compensate documentary media creators for publishing their work online and experimenting with new social media pathways to reach interested users. In this transitory space where content is
free, crowd-funding projects is more popular than selling them.
Such facts surface, yet they don’t stop these filmmakers. We are connected through a common impulse to structure random events into visual narratives, starring ordinary people and challenging ordinary ideas. I observe my colleagues engaging one other around creativity – discovering entry points for characters, story lines, sound and the deeper insights that give each film its magic. I marvel at how style plays a central role in balancing themes and the visceral experience of the content.
The subjects of the screenings are evocative of life’s thickness. Settings range from the streets of Boston to women’s enclaves in occupied Palestine; from the Wisconsin mental health system to small-scale rural abattoirs; from an immigrants’ vigil in Arizona to wilderness education in New England. School lunch in Berkeley holds a lesson for community democracy movements. One family’s experience of open adoption triggers a meditation on race in America.
There is no doubt that audiences are shrinking for the lovingly made social issue documentary in its 60 – 90 minute feature form. It is difficult for many of us to face our fears that the basic linear form is spiraling out in new, uncertain directions. It’s less chilling and more exciting to confront these realities within a supportive community. We honor the legacy of our craft. We look at educating audiences to act in the world. We dare to question standards for success, as old routes to distribution close and new paths have yet fully to emerge.
Across the week, I grow confident that our effort in hand-crafted “media” is only part of a larger quest to tell stories and transform thinking. With new technologies, filmmaking becomes an activity in the service of larger missions rather than a profession for auteurs. This approach opens up possibilities. We bear witness, excavate truths with all the complications, human faces, messy landscapes and intimacy that can be felt only on large screens, and quickly disseminated across smaller mobile screens.
Susi wants us to shake up our creative energies, although she never says it directly. We illustrate a dream of our future, engage in quick bursts of crafting, dance amid laser lights in a Saturday night Organ Barn fever. We eat summery sensual meals created by Suki Ciappara. We visit Susan Bonthron’s book bindery and learn how to make delicate marbled paper.
Huge and lasting lessons have bubbled up from this adventure. My filmmaking voice is more clarified and grounded. The directions I’m taking are more defined. I sense that the drive to persist in this illogical endeavor is supported. Problems are less daunting after a week of seeing gray morning mist on the green mountains, listening to raindrops against the corrugated metal roof of my cabin, plunging into small ponds or the lively West River current, and actually sleeping, a deep, dark, silent sleep with vivid dreams — now that the virtual paper bag has been lifted off my head.
Susi, John and JoAnn have given us a tremendous gift: the experience of an alternative kind of success, based not on notions of financial allure or fame but on the meaning of our life and work as nonfiction filmakers in this new century, asking questions and sparking the conscience.
Helen, with K25 group, center back row with arm raised at Treefrog Farm, 2012
HELEN DEMICHEL is a Bay Area-based director, writer and producer whose work includes film, television, media installation and new media. She has created several award-winning independent documentary and dramatic works, including “Turn Here Sweet Corn,” “Tarantella,” and “The Gender Chip Project.” She produced “The Independents” and “Alive TV” series for public television, created community media projects with youth, and continues to write regularly about issues in the media field, including Open Space Documentary, which will appear in the forthcoming British Film Institute’s Companion to Documentary anthology. Her work is included in several museums around the country.
From 1996 – 2010 Helen served as the National Director and Co-Director for NAMAC, The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. From 2002-2007 she served on the Board of Directors and awards jury for The George F. Peabody Awards for Electronic Media. In Fall 2011 she joined the University of Oregon as a Visiting Scholar in the Arts & Administration Program. Her current transmedia project, Lunch Love Community, is a multiplatform documentary exploring food system reform through the lens of the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative and how a community came together to change the way children eat. Helen lives in Berkeley with her family and two cats.