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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003

Getting to Know you

The journey of a documentarian to the other side

Special to The Japan Times

Michael Moore, whose "Bowling for Columbine" is one of the year's biggest box-office hits in Japan, has done more than any other current filmmaker to elevate the commercial potential for documentaries. Some documentarians, however, find this development less than encouraging, since Moore has a notorious tendency to bend facts to satisfy his own agenda.

News photo
Filmmaker Steve James

More significantly, Moore's movies are as much about him as they are about their ostensible subjects. Traditionally, documentaries were straightforward affairs: real people filmed in real situations with voice-over narration. Because they are journalistic in nature, docs are dictated by circumstance, even if they can be shaped through editing. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but capturing the truth in a way that's interesting is never easy.

Last month, the biannual Yamagata International Film Festival provided a valuable opportunity to survey current trends in documentary film styles. The range was impressively broad; so much so that only two of the 15 films in the competition section could qualify as traditional documentaries. The rest adhered to one of two general types: the detached study, as pioneered by Frederic Wiseman, which contains no narration whatsoever; and the personal involvement doc typified by Moore's work. The latter was best represented by Herz Frank's "Flashback," which documents the director's open-heart surgery, and the former by the Grand Prize winner, "Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks," a nine-hour look at the depressed Tie Xi industrial district of Shenyang, China.

Falling somewhere between these two extremes was Steve James' "Stevie," which won the second place Mayor's Prize. James is famous for his Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams," which closely follows two African-American high-school basketball players over the course of four years.

"Stevie" uses a similar methodology, but James himself is in the film. In 1995, he went to Pomona, Ill., to visit Stevie Fielding, a fatherless young man who, in the early 1980s, James had mentored as an Advocate Big Brother while he was attending university in Illinois. Fielding, born out of wedlock and raised by his step-grandmother in a poor rural trailer community before passing through a series of foster homes, was a textbook "problem child." When James moved away, he lost contact with him.

The movie documents their reconnection, starting with a very uncomfortable meeting. Two years later, in 1997, Fielding is arrested for sexually molesting an 8-year-old cousin. James, appearing on screen as a person who cares about Fielding and confesses to feeling guilty about losing contact, filmed for two more years as Fielding's case went through the courts. Along the way he becomes personally involved in the case, delving perilously deep into Fielding's relations with Bernice, the mother who abandoned him as a child and whom Fielding claims to hate; his married half-sister Brenda, who has taken care of Stevie while trying to make a life for herself under very difficult circumstances; and Tonya, Fielding's girlfriend, who apparently has developmental disabilities. In the process he also explores the racism that pervades poor rural communities like Pomona, the futility of the child-welfare system, where abuse is widespread, and the complexities of the U.S. criminal justice system.

In Yamagata for the festival last month, James discussed the state of documentary film and how "Stevie" figures into it.

Did you see the nine-hour Chinese film?

I only caught the middle section. I hear the first part is the best. I understand the appeal of that kind of immersion into a complete world. With "Hoop Dreams," we could have made a six-hour film in that style, but I want people to see my movies. We didn't shoot a huge amount of footage for "Stevie," but a lot happened. I thought, given the subject matter and what goes on in the film, if it has any hope of reaching an audience it had to be no longer than two hours and 25 minutes [laughs]. That coupled with the subject matter may have scared people off. ["Stevie" does not yet have a Japanese distributor.]

This festival has made me aware that documentary filmmaking tends to be a left-of-center profession.

One of the motivations for making documentaries is a desire for social change, but why wouldn't some conservative activist pick up a camera and do it? I don't know. If your interest is looking at disparities, inequities, it can drive you to make a documentary. Filming tends to liberalize your politics. Whatever the faults of the left, they've always been about people, and the right hasn't. The best documentaries are about people.

I was never a political activist. I come from a pretty conservative family. What set me on the path was the race situation where I grew up, a fairly depressed community in Virginia that was about 40 percent black. I was solidly middle class. My father owned a carpeting and floor tile store, which brought me into contact with working-class people. Playing basketball brought me into contact with black people.

But my love for film came out of a love for dramatic film. I've always been most interested in people's lives as stories. I have no interest in doing issue-oriented documentaries -- films about nuclear power or the environment. I might be interested in doing a film about that person who sat in a tree for a year, because I'm curious as to what made that person tick.

"Stevie" directly addresses the dilemma of the documentary filmmaker, which is how does the filming process affect the subject. I suppose it didn't start out that way.

In the beginning, it seemed safe and simple. A little profile of Stevie -- where he is now and a look back on where he used to be when I knew him. I called him up and said I was coming down, what if I bring a camera and a couple of filmmaker friends? He knew I made films. It didn't seem like a big deal. Frankly, I never thought that first encounter would be in the film. My partner said, "We should film this," and I was like . . . I don't want to be in it. I assumed I would narrate, but that's all. And they said, "No, you should be in it. You haven't seen him in 10 years."

I agreed to do it, knowing that since I was going to edit and direct it that I was safe. I don't know what I expected. One of the reasons I shot it on film was because I wasn't planning a theatrical feature. I thought it was going to be so small that I could actually afford to shoot it on film. I had a whole different idea of what it eventually turned into: Oh, you were married? Oh, you beat your wife? Oh, you got divorced four months later? Oh, you've been in and out of jail? It went on and on. As I say in the film, after that first trip I realized I couldn't just walk away. But I didn't know what I was getting into.

I reconnected with him later with the intention of going through with this original concept. I didn't go back because of the crime, but it happened around the time I was going back and, of course, I didn't stop shooting.

News photo
Stevie Fielding, the subject of James' award-winning documentary "Stevie"

"Of course" means what?

Well, I could say it wasn't because of the crime that I went back to film. But the truth is, if the crime hadn't happened, this film would not exist in this way. I'm not trying to get off the hook -- the crime is what prompted me to make a bigger film.

But was there ever a time when you thought, I have to stop this right now?

Absolutely. When I felt it most strongly was right after he committed the crime. We went down and filmed, and then this happened and he was in jail. I thought, Do I really want to continue with this? And a part of me said, Yes, this is very powerful stuff.

So I had a long talk with Stevie. He was in jail at that point, he wasn't out on bond yet. I talked with him about whether or not we should continue with the film. But the truth is, despite the fumbling around that I do in the film, I can be a pretty persuasive guy with subjects. So it wasn't a fair discussion. If I wanted to do it, we were going to continue doing it. But it wasn't without misgivings, and those misgivings remained till the end. You could say, well, that's bullshit. You know you're making the movie, so don't pretend you're going to stop, because you're not going to stop.

Did you ever get the feeling your subjects might be playing up to the camera?

I don't think so. If Stevie walked into this room right now he'd act the same. He's full of bluster. That's his personality. I believe filming has an impact [on the subject], but I'm actually struck by how little impact it does have. Stevie still went to prison. He didn't get a deal. Nobody bent over backward to do anything special for him.

But I sometimes thought that Stevie's decisiveness about his fate was for the benefit of the camera.

No. I don't think that if we hadn't been there he would have copped a plea. His problem is that he's in complete denial.

As for Tonya, I think she liked the attention, but I don't know if it was the camera as much as the people. One of the things that happens with subjects of documentaries is that you come into their lives, and what you're doing is something that is, on the one hand, extremely flattering: Your life is important. You're not famous, you haven't done anything special, you're not rich. You're just this person, but here I am, a filmmaker, and I think you have something to say to the world. Imagine having someone in your life on a regular basis who is interested in what you have to say? It can even be therapeutic. Making a documentary about someone gives them more of an opportunity to reflect on their life, which they might not do otherwise.

Stevie, however, is not a reflective person. I don't think the film impacted his behavior in that way. Tonya was always a deeper, more intuitive intelligence than she appears to be on the surface. You meet Tonya and think, Oh . . . sad. Stevie's girlfriend. It makes a certain amount of sense that these two would be together. But you get to know her and you think, She's pretty damn smart.

As for Bernice, she couldn't bring herself to admit [that she had beaten Stevie as a child]. Although, I feel the guilt is so clearly there. She and Stevie are alike. He cannot come to terms with what he did to that little girl, and Bernice can't come to terms with what she did to him.

I see many films where people are obviously playing to the camera, or the filmmaker is setting things up. I don't set stuff up. Bernice is a woman in denial about her past, and that's what you see on the screen.

What has the general reaction been?

Critically, it got positive reviews. It got a few nasty reviews that went after me, and said I'm a bad person. If you go to chat sites you'll see a lot of positive remarks and then some that claim I'm evil: Stevie is a lost cause, why would anyone want to make a movie about a guy like that?

Do you think this movie has any value, in the activist sense we talked about earlier, of getting people to change their minds about anything it contains?

The people who've seen this film are profoundly affected by it. It makes them think differently about the people they see on "The Jerry Springer Show." It makes them think differently about child molesters. Not like, Oh, they're OK. It does not excuse Stevie at all. One thing I've been happy with in terms of the critical response is that no one has said that the film is an apology for child molesters.

So the tricky thing is how do you make a film that is still sympathetic to Stevie without whitewashing what he did. We held a discussion in Chicago about how this film could be useful. What do you do with a film that isn't black-and-white in terms of agenda? People are so used to documentaries that have clear points of view. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that's the strength of this film.

Life itself is not black and white.

But a lot of films are. These are not black-and-white issues, these are complex issues. We need to work together.

What strikes me is that there are so many people in the film supporting a person like Stevie.

People who care about him.

In a Hollywood movie, these people would kill each other.

Even the mother of the victim eventually becomes sympathetic to Stevie's problems. She gains insight. And to me, that's the message, if you want to call it that. Here is a dysfunctional family, one that's probably near the severely dysfunctional end of the spectrum. But they are still a family and they still try.

One of the things about me being in the film, besides my coming to grips with my own guilt about making it, or what I didn't do for Stevie or should have done, is that I am a stand-in for most of the people who watch it. It's less easy for you as a viewer to sit back and watch this tragic little story unfold from the safety of your seat when you have someone like you, in a sense, up there trying to figure out what he should or should not do. I think it throws those questions directly back at the audience: What is my responsibility to someone I know who's like that? What is our collective responsibility as a society to people like Stevie? I will never be in another film again, but that was one good thing that came out of my appearance.

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