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Friday, Feb. 10, 2006

FILM INTERVIEW

The man who couldn't quit


With "Hoop Dreams" having just been inducted into The National Film Registry (of the Library of Congress), Steve James is clearly one of America's most respected documentarians. And with good reason: The 43-year-old, Virginia-born filmmaker brings a sensitivity and sustained focus to his films that few can match.

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Steve James

Inspired to become a filmmaker by Barbara Koppel's classic doc, "Harlan County," James continues to work in film and for TV. His latest, a 7-hour mini-series called "The New Americans," followed a group of immigrants from diverse backgrounds over a period of four years.

Here in Japan, though, we're just catching up with 2003's "Stevie.''

Did you ever struggle with the question of whether you should continue shooting or not?

Yeah, absolutely. After the initial shooting, when I first visited Stevie, I kind of came away from it thinking, "What have I gotten myself back into?" Not just in making the film, but stepping back into his life. Because even before he committed this crime, things weren't going great for him. But certainly once he committed this crime, there was this real question of "What am I doing here? Am I going to make this film? Or what is the best thing to do?" I wrestled with it throughout, because I think that perhaps if I was a better person, I wouldn't have made the film.

So I never resolved those questions. But I did decide that if I was going to continue to make the film, then it was important to be as candid and honest about my involvement in his life as possible. Not just be the person off camera. To put myself on the line in the same way as they were in allowing this film to be made. I know that's not reason enough for some people. Some people will look at this film and say, "You shouldn't have made it."

The people who had a problem with it, in the reviews I've seen, all seemed to assign really cynical motives to you, as if making this film was going to make you famous or rich . . .

(Laughs.) Yeah, a big career move.

How did you feel when you read that stuff?

I think most people 'got' the movie. But people who were really critical of the film . . . they felt like Stevie was a "lost cause" of a person. And they didn't understand why someone would make a film about him.

Not just because of the crime, but because they didn't think he had any chance of being anything but a failure and a miserable human being. And sometimes, they would broadly caricaturize him as, basically, "white trash."

And I think in seeing Stevie that way, they came to resent me for having made that film about him. And then to see me in the film, and wrestling with my feelings about making the film, and my feelings of guilt as to what degree I had abandoned Stevie or not, it just pushed them over the edge.

But you don't go out of your way to make yourself look good, or like you've got all the answers in the film.

No, I don't. And that was important: To be as honest as we could in my portrayal as well as theirs.

But the only thing that troubled me about some of the negative reviews is that . . . I don't care what you say about me, because whatever you say about me, I said about me during the process of making this film. But don't tell me that this isn't a complex and humane portrait of a slice of America that is too often ridiculed.

How careful were you to make sure you weren't portraying this milieu in a way people might find amusing or satirical for the wrong reasons?

Well, there were things we left out. It's OK to find Stevie funny at times, because he is funny! And he does things that are very stereotypical of what you imagine a guy like him would do.

But there's more to him than that, and there's more to his family than just a dysfunctional family. I think that if you go in and take snapshots of people, you're only going to get one thing. And depending on when you take that snapshot, it could be ennobling and wonderful, or sad and depressing. But I think if you spend the time with people, and try to be true to that, you get something far more complex.

I couldn't believe Bernice [Stevie's mother] agreed to appear in this.

I don't think Bernice knows, consciously, why she did it. She would often say, "Why did I ever do that?"

My theory as to why she did it was that it was an act of atonement for her. She's not a stupid woman, and she's not someone who wants to be on Jerry Springer. I find it courageous and moving when people like them, or the subjects in "Hoop Dreams," are willing to share their intimate lives in that way.

But the reason people like that are willing to do it is not because they want to be famous, which is what separates it from reality television.

The people I'm most interested in making films about are the people that don't feel like anyone really cares about their story. When they get an opportunity to be heard, it's so genuine and real.



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