In her documentary Stranger with a Camera, Kentucky native Elizabeth Barrett explores the complexity of O'Connor's artistic mission and Ison's claim to privacy. At the time Ison shot the documentary maker, the coal miners' plight had attracted national attention, and reporters and filmmakers had been mobbing the state. Even Charles Kuralt did a television special called Christmas in Appalachia. "Some filmmakers wanted to show the contrast [between the rich land and the poor people] to help bring about social change," explains Barrett in her own film. "Others mined the images the way the company mined coal."
An award-winning documentary director whose credits include Coalmining Women, Quilting Women and Long Journey Home, Barrett struggled to balance her perspective as an Appalachian and a filmmaker in Stranger with a Camera, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She will be making a guest appearance at the Fifth Annual Documentary Film and Video Happening, to be held this weekend at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham.
Shown Sunday at 2 p.m., Barrett's film will cap off three days of screenings, discussion and mingling by local student and independent film and videomakers, guest film professionals, and documentary enthusiasts. Ranging in length from seven minutes to an hour, the documentaries at the non-competitive Happening will tell stories of pro wrestlers and young karaoke singers, of the seasons on the arctic tundra, of a surviving musician from Durham's blues heyday, and more. A very affordable $10 pass for the weekend (or $5 a day) will buy you entrance to the event.
"The Happening is not trying to compete with award-offering, high-profile events," says coordinator Julie Shapiro. "Its atmosphere is intended to be grassroots: We're trying to help young and beginning filmmakers build structures they can lean on in the future." While the Happening itself is non-competitive, a jury selected the 12 films being screened out of 25 submissions from around North Carolina. The documentaries were shot on VHS, SVHS and 16mm film.
The Happening begins Friday evening with an info session by Claire Shanley and Vivek Bald, explaining the producer-director team relationship and challenging some of the myths and assumptions surrounding independent documentary making. Following the session, participants are invited to the Duke Coffeehouse for a live show with DJ Siraiki (a.k.a. Vivek Bald) in conjunction with Lingual, a local monthly experimental electronic music and video series. Happening attendees are allowed to sleep in until 11 a.m. on Saturday, when a packed schedule begins with screenings of three short documentaries and a session called "Don't Quit Your Day Job," led by local producer Mary Beth Mann.
Instead of running multiple workshops simultaneously, the Happening offers one event at a time, a strategy designed to put all participants through the same experience. "We want to keep everyone in the same room to give the conversation a chance to evolve over the day, and to tempt people to come for the whole thing, rather than for particular sessions," says Shapiro. All info sessions are designed to be conversational, with audience participation encouraged. After each screening, the film- or videomakers will be available for questioning.
"I enjoy seeing the work of other independent film- and videomakers," says Sandra Jacobi, a past participant at the Happening, whose piece Martha Heine: Tapestry Worker will show Saturday at 5 p.m. "And I enjoy hearing what they have to say about my recent work." Jacobi has found interesting parallels between her own craft and that of her subject, a tapestry weaver in Durham. "As I worked on this piece," she relates, "I often reflected that editing video is similar to weaving, because as editors we choose which images we want to weave together to create a whole video, just as the weaver uses separate strands of yarn to create colorful tapestries."
Sandra Jacobi and Elizabeth Barrett are not alone in considering their roles as artists, or makers. Other Happening documentary makers spoke of the challenges of meeting their subject's expectations, and of retaining their own artistic vision when they were dealing with people's personal and private material.
"I think that is a constant tension in documentary work," said student videomaker Julie Stovall, when asked about the balance between "truth-telling" and respecting her subjects' privacy. "But I'm not trying to tell the truth. I'm trying to tell what I see, what I feel."
Stovall's 10-minute digital video Myrtle and Ellen, being screened at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, chronicles a passage in the lives of two elderly sisters. A photojournalist who has spent years photographing the Clemmers, a family of aging siblings in Chapel Hill, Stovall spoke with great tenderness about her subjects, and indicated that she generally sought their approval before exposing her pictures of them to the public. Even so, she did the final edits on Myrtle and Ellen without consultation. When she presented the documentary to the family, who had sat through hours of videotaping, Stovall eagerly asked them how they liked it. "Their first response was: 'It's short,'" she remembers. "I think they were a little disappointed by how little I kept."
A quartet of student videomakers from UNC-Chapel Hill had a much harder time with their subject. Carrie Van Hoy, Cory Cavin, Stephanie Bundschuh and Jeremy Gross set out to make a documentary about wrestler Jeff Miller, also known as the Metal Maniac. In the process of creating their video The Day We Shot the Maniac, to be screened at 5 p.m. on Saturday, the students had to abandon their initial approach and let the piece evolve on its own. "We were hoping to expose the 'man behind the mask,'" declares Gross. "But the second we had the lights and the camera on, everything changed." Formerly amenable to the students' idea of getting to know the person rather than the wrestler, Miller donned sunglasses as soon as taping began and addressed the camera rather than his interviewers.
In a radical departure from their previous plan, the four videomakers decided to change the focus of the documentary to reflect their own inability to get at the man behind the mask. They called the wrestler to express their disappointment in the footage, and their decision to use it in a different way. To their surprise, Miller threatened to sue.
"We were hoping to break stereotypes and we ended up enforcing them more than ever," Gross says. "But I think the result was better." The final production is a humorous look at the group's travails with Miller and their involvement with the student legal system as they anticipated his lawsuit.
But did Jeff Miller have the right to refuse to let his mask slip? And was murderer Hobart Ison acting out of a legitimately protective impulse to keep strangers from a one-sided portrayal of his land and people? Where do media makers stop, and where does privacy begin? Documentary fans should attend the 5th Annual Happening this weekend to ask questions like these, and to seek answers from professionals and from their peers. More likely, the weekend's sessions will raise more questions.
In rural Kentucky, the images of children eating dirt and running around in rags embarrassed Kentuckians to the point that at Hobart Ison's trial, his defense attorney spoke not of Ison's crime, but of the crime of the reporters and film crews who represented what they did not fully understand. Paroled after a single year in jail, Ison never regretted the murder of the documentary maker, and his lack of repentance points to the power of stories and images to change places and lives. "I had to do that," he purportedly told a relative who was interviewed for Stranger with a Camera. "I had to do that, with what they would have done to me, picture-wise and all."