LEARNING WITH AN AUDIENCE
A Conversation with Revolutionary Documentarians HEIDI EWING & RACHEL GRADY
By Tyler Malone
I saw the documentary Jesus Camp in a movie theater in Texas when it first came out, and was sure there was going to be a riot afterwards. It was a packed house–odd for a documentary screening outside of New York and LA–and the moviegoers, I could tell from overhearing banter before the film began, were not all of my atheist/agnostic ilk.
As far as I could tell, though, after the screening, the religious folk didn’t seem to mind the documentary as much as I’d have thought they would. To me Jesus Camp was the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen. Watching the indoctrination of little children into a far right, evangelical strain of Christianity was not just disheartening, but truly frightening. I consider it akin to child abuse, but then again, I consider all religion an outdated relic from the infancy of our species (so needless to say I’m not exactly the American majority). To hear camp leader Becky Fischer say “I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have…excuse me, but we have the truth!” disturbed me, to say the least. It seems to me one of the most cringe-worthy, horrific and wrong-headed movie quotes in the history of cinema. But to my surprise, many religious people like the film as much as the irreligious do. That’s to the credit of filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Their opinions, like themselves, are not really present in the film. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are not Michael Moore. Moore can be considered a great documentarian in his own right, but his modus operandi is completely different from the Ewing/Grady model. His film essays are intensely personal, and undeniably polemical. He shouts his opinions from a megaphone (metaphorically, and also quite literally). Ewing and Grady barely even whisper theirs. In Jesus Camp, there are no polemics, no voice over, and their point of view is largely absent. The one intrusion of a point of view is their allowance of a radio personality (a Christian himself) to form a counterpoint to the main subjects on screen. Though it may be inferred that they side with this radio man, Mike Papantonio, they never make it directly known–instead, they let the documentary subjects (Papantonio, Fischer and all the children and families involved) speak for themselves, and thus, let the viewers judge for themselves.
This is the way of Ewing and Grady in all their films: they let the subjects speak and drive the narrative of the film. They don’t approach the material with an agenda, they approach it with a willingness to learn. And, according to them, their documentaries are just that: a learning process. “If we’re not learning anything, why should the audience?” Rachel asked me.
For the final feature for our Revolutionary Issue, I spoke with these two revolutionary documentarians over the phone about documentary filmmaking, their process, what they’re currently working on and how they learn with an audience.
[I first spoke with Rachel Grady.]
Tyler Malone: I’ll start with talking about your previous films and then we’ll get to your current project. With Jesus Camp and with 12th & Delaware, you tackled pretty difficult topics, evangelism and abortion. Obviously those topics, the discussion has been so polarized, that it’s relatively hard to get into a discussion about that without being polarized yourself. But I think you two managed it fairly well.
Rachel Grady: Thanks, thanks.
TM: You managed to be both invisible and objective. I was wondering if that is what you see the documentarian’s role as, or what exactly do you see as the role of the documentarian?
RG: I wouldn’t say documentarians, because that’s just the way we decided to, you know, express ourselves. And there’s definitely room for everything. I don’t believe in roles, you know, I think it is what you make of it. It’s different from a journalist; it’s different than a filmmaker. It’s got a little bit of everything, so I think the roles are kind of different.
RG: And I think that people…you know, there’s such diversity within our field. Sitting next to each other, you wouldn’t even think they were even the same genre, from Frederick Wiseman to Michael Moore. Who’s to say who’s better or worse—I mean they’re just different.
TM: Exactly. But your approach is…
RG: But, yes, that is sort of our approach: to be as observational as possible, to give context when it’s needed, but try not to editorialize. But really, the purpose of all of that is: a) it’s an exercise for us as individuals to try and do that, it’s hard to do that…
TM: I would imagine.
RG: So it’s fun to try. And b) it’s harder for the audience, and usually we’ve put ourselves through hell, so we kind of want to give it back a little bit.
TM: Ha! Right. I can imagine it being difficult. For example, I love Michael Moore’s filmmaking, but I can imagine how it would be a lot harder to enter a topic and not give your real opinion than to kind of formulate the film around your own opinion. How do you feel extricating yourself from the topic a little bit?
RG: Right, well the idea is, if we’re making a film that ends up being decent, Heidi and I, or at least our opinions, should probably change over the course of making the film. That’s usually a sign that we’re doing something right.
TM: That’s an interesting way of thinking about it.
RG: If we’re not learning anything, why should the audience? We assume we’re on the same page as our audience, we assume our audience is intelligent, so we need to deliver on that and challenge that smart audience.
TM: That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it, I like that. So Jesus Camp was the first film I saw that you two made, and that—I think—was really great at being objective and invisible. I’m wondering what most of the evangelical reaction was. I’ve heard that there were lots of religious people that embraced it, but I’ve also heard lots of skepticism. I’m wondering what their response was and what your relationship has been with the evangelical community since.
RG: Well, the community is mixed. The actual individuals in our film, it’s very positive. I mean, it gets a little bit, kind of like, inside baseball. Because the characters in our film are Pentecostal, and they are, within the evangelical community, looked at a bit differently to begin with. And there was friction within that community to a certain extent that Pentecostals, the charismatics, which is what we focused on, feel a little ostracized. There’s actually stuff that has nothing to do with us, so we didn’t affect the reaction. I think within the Pentecostal community it’s been embraced. So, for instance, that’s a nuance I could not have described with any detail or with any authority prior to making the film, so it’s one of those learning moments.
TM: My next question if you would prefer not to answer, I’m fine with that. But do you have any religious affiliation yourself?
RG: I was raised Jewish, but barely. And I am not a religious person now. But, definitely, you know, my opinions of religion and faith have been shaped and changed over the past few projects that we’ve done. We’ve really delved into religious communities. We’re actually making a film right now about a very conservative group of Muslims.
TM: Oh interesting, so you’re already on to your next project? Because I know you’ve got a film in the works called Detroit Hustles Harder, right? So now you’re already doing the next one?
TM: Oh, great.
RG: We have to kind of leapfrog ‘em. They take so long to make, from start to finish, you know?
TM: Yeah, oh, for sure. Can you tell us a little bit about Detroit Hustles Harder, and when we should expect to see that, and kind of, what it’s about as much as you can give to us.
RG: It’s about a group of Detroiters that have decided to stay in the city despite the fact that a lot of people have written the city off. It’s also a metaphor for other western societies. Detroit is kind of a microcosm of what’s happening in the country and what’s happening in the western world in general when it comes to immigration, the middle class, manufacturing, all of the 20th century issues that are changing and have changed in the 21st century. And we will be done with it soon hopefully. We’re editing, editing, editing, and we hope that it will come out, you know, next summer or next fall, of 2012. That’s the goal now.
TM: Alright, but you’re currently filming this other documentary. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
RG: Not supposed to talk about that one.
TM: No problem. So how do you choose what topic or story you’re going to make a documentary about? Do you guys come up with ideas and toss them around with each other, or…
RG: It takes a long time for an idea to gel. We have a lot of them. Some are just better suited for a long term effort and for the visual medium than others, so you have to sort of weigh all those issues before you delve in. Because you’re stuck with the material and the subject matter for a long time, so it better be interesting, and it better be relevant, you know. So it’s sort of trial and error. Pitching each other ideas, seeing what’s out there, reading articles, going with instinct, and filing things away for later.
TM: When you do settle on a subject, do you kind of have an idea of where the narrative of the film is going to go? Or do you go into it somewhat blind, throw caution to the wind and hope a story will emerge?
RG: A combination of both. It’s in that balance that you find the real story, I think. I mean you have to have some direction, some parameters, but you have to be extremely flexible and willing to be totally wrong.
RG: Usually that’s a good thing.
TM: Yeah, it’s like what you were saying earlier: you have to be willing to learn, because you’re going to learn…
RG: You have to be curious, you have to care about people, you have to care about entertaining others, and not just making a misery fest, which can be challenging when you’re making films about stuff people don’t want to talk about for very good reasons, it makes them uncomfortable.
TM: Right now, we’re in a very good time for the documentary. But, what…
RG: I hope so, I hope it stays this way.
TM: Agreed. Now I think this is always a topic in the documentary community, but how do we get documentaries seen by more people? How do we go about pulling people into the theater and keeping them interested in documentaries, because it’s obviously a lot harder to get an audience for the documentary than a fiction / narrative film?
RG: This is a good question. We have to make it entertaining—not just entertaining, I hate that word, it sounds trite. We have to make it relevant. We have to give it some sex appeal, we have to do what I guess people have done for the ages. We have to make people give a shit. You know, make it fresh, have something new to say about it, a new way to think about it, something. You have to give something, there has to be some sort of payoff. There are a lot of things. I’m getting stressed out now talking about it.
TM: Ha! Don’t let me stress you! Let’s move along: I’m interviewing you for our Revolutionary Issue because we think you two are revolutionary documentarians, but who are some documentary filmmakers that you look to as revolutionary in your own eyes?
RG: I’m a personal huge fan of Werner Herzog.
TM: Oh, I love Herzog!
RG: I think his filmmaking is fabulous. That’s the perfect example of how there are so many ways to do this kind of film. He’s so unique, it’s his voice, and it’s so specific and so unique. So I would never try to say that anyone should try and make a film a certain way. I think Werner Hertzog is brilliant.
TM: What’s your favorite Herzog movie?
RG: I love Grizzly Man. I really do. I mean, I love all of them, I even love Little Dieter Wants to Fly, which Heidi and I fight about all the time. She thinks it sucks, but I thought it was awesome.
TM: Yeah, I love all his films too.
RG: What else did I love? I loved My Best Fiend about Klaus Kinski. Awesome.
TM: That one’s really great.
RG: He’s just good at profiling maniacs, I think he can relate. What other filmmakers do I think are totally special voices. You know, I’ll tell you a film that is absolutely brilliant–miserable as hell–but just brilliant. Darwin’s Nightmare.
TM: I didn’t see that one.
RG: Oh you should see it, it’s fabulous.
TM: I’ll have to check it out.
[She handed me over to Heidi after a bit more chit-chat.]
TM: One thing that Rachel and I were talking about is how you guys maintain invisibility and objectivity in your films, and I was wondering what you see as your role in regards to the subject of your documentaries?
HE: Well, I think, becoming invisible takes time, but we were really careful not to cast people who are self conscious in front of the camera because then it’s really an uphill battle. Usually people that are very camera aware, remain that way, especially adults. Kids are much easier to deal with because they have a very short attention span. So when we’re dealing with kids, we just roll until they stop monkeying around and then you get good stuff. With adults, we really try to make sure that the person that we’re casting for the film is identical on camera and off camera. I’m sure Rachel mentioned Becky Fischer from Jesus Camp, she was always the same, it didn’t matter if there was a camera there, one person, twenty people—she had the same chutzpah, and the same Wagnerian characteristics, the same absolute audacious statements and confidence in her mission.
So we really shoot for people like that. We’re gunning for people like that because it makes for a much better sense for realism. I mean, obviously, you never know how much the introduction of a camera into an situation will change the outcome, but you just have to live with that because you’ll never know. But in terms of our role with the subjects, we’re pretty straight-forward, pretty transparent with our subjects. We show them the finished film before the public sees it. We don’t invite any editorial control, but we think it’s fair for them to see the final project before hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of people see it. I think our responsibility sort of ends there. We try to prepare our subjects for what it’s going to be like to be scrutinized and maybe be criticized, but it’s really, really hard to prepare anyone for the experience of the kind attention they may get once the film comes out. And they don’t ever really know how it’s going to be until it’s done. So that’s always a little bit harrowing, but we do our best to be good humans about it and try to get them prepared for, you know, what might go down.
TM: So as far as something like Jesus Camp goes, I appreciated the movie’s objectivity, but–and this probably partially because I’m an atheist–I couldn’t help but see it as a relatively harsh critique of the Christian right. Though I don’t think you or the camera is being particularly judgmental necessarily, but from my personal perspective it was hard to see it as anything other than, you know, the best unintentional horror film.
HE: Yeah, it won Best Horror Film at a film festival actually.
TM: Did it really?
HE: Yeah, they created a special category.
TM: That’s amazing! Looks like other people saw the same thing in Jesus Camp that I did. But how do you take a response like that? What’s your response to that kind of response?
HE: You know, we really have to look in a mirror and analyze ourselves. We discuss every shot, every piece of music, you know, ad nauseum, before it ends up in the film. Everything was intentional, you know, obviously every shot, and I take full responsibility for the narrative flow and all of that, but we feel we’re really just trying to create the experience of what it was like to be there, a condensed version of what it’s like to be there for a year. Then make that year into 90 minutes, so it’s always challenging. But if we can look at each other and look at ourselves and say, this is what it felt like to be there, this is what this moment was, we experienced this moment this way, then we’ve done our job, we’ve been fair.
Now, however it’s going to be interpreted by a greater audience, honestly, it’s not up to us. Once that film is done, once we walk out of that color correct, once we walk out of that audio mix, and once we deliver that film to the public in whatever shape or form, it doesn’t belong to us anymore at all. I don’t feel any ownership of it, I don’t feel any possession of it, it’s gone, it’s not mine anymore. I just become a mere spectator. It’s not to be passive about it, it’s not to retreat in any way from the work, we totally stand by the work, but, you know, people will interpret, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
Look, we get letters still from people who went to summer camps like that. Some say things like: “Dear Heidi and Rachel, I thought I had dreamt my childhood, I thought it was a nightmare, I didn’t think it really had happened. You reminded me that this is what I experienced and I wasn’t alone.” You also get people who say: “Oh, nice job, thanks for promoting the Christian right, you must be really proud of yourselves.” Other people say: “I found it nauseating I couldn’t watch it. That’s child abuse, how could you show that?” So, you know, you’re going to get all kinds of responses. Honestly, I’m completely unmoved by any response. I’m unmoved by the criticism and I’m unmoved by the praise at some point. Because it’s one of those things where, when it’s done, it’s over, it’s delivered, it’s out in the ether. And it’s interesting to sit back and watch how people respond. It didn’t really bother me that some people took offence, or that some people considered it a horror film, because just as many people thought it was a very positive look at Pentecostals and at religious people. I can tell you, the film represents what it was like for us to be there, and of course, that is subjective in and of itself. But that’s really the best we can do.
TM: Definitely. Feel free to not answer this, I said this to Rachel as well, but do you have any religious yourself?
HE: No, I don’t practice any religion. I was raised Catholic, I went to catholic school my entire life. I also went to a Jesuit university. I went to Georgetown. My mother is a practicing Catholic, she’s the only one in my family. So that’s the extent of my religious background.
TM: This is another question I also asked Rachel, but I’d like to hear from your perspective as well: How do you choose what topic or story you guys are going to make a documentary about?
HE: You know, I mean, it is a gut decision, when you know it, you know it. It’s like, okay, that’s a good film. But we do kind of have a mental checklist that we go through in our mind. I mean really our interests continue to lie mostly within the United States, you know, people and subjects that affect people in the United States. For some reason we do stick with this place, as it is an endlessly fascinating country, especially right now. It’s not a rule, but somehow, we do end up doing that. We have done things in Saudi Arabia, but in terms of our feature length films, usually we’re interested in American subject matter. Of course, we’re open to everything though.
We’re very careful that the film we’re about to make wouldn’t be one better as a book, better as a New Yorker article, better as a radio program. If it doesn’t have a strong visual element or potential for a strong visual element, if we can’t come up with solutions for problems of lack of visuals, then we’ll pass on that film. This is a visual medium, we’re living in an era where there’s all kinds of technology to beautify your frame. There’s no reason to have an ugly film or have a film that is conventional looking. For us, that would be a deal breaker right there.
Also, if another filmmaker is better suited to handle something, we’re happy to call up that person. We don’t do archive-based films, we don’t do talking-head based films. Other people handle those better. I mean there’s also amazing, inventive ways to tell a story. Waltz with Bashir comes to mind as evidence of a brilliant way to approach a story that happened 30 years ago that only had people’s testimonies, and then they animated the entire film. Man on Wire was a brilliant way to tell a story that had a very little bit of archive. It was an amazing story and a great book, and he found a way to make it visual. There’s always a way, but that’s definitely something that’s important to us. And will it keep our attention for 1, 2, 3 years? Will we lose interest in the subject?
TM: How does your partnership work out on set or in post-production? Do you two have certain roles or do you collaborate on everything?
HE: The roles kind of present themselves per film. We don’t go on location together. We come up with the idea, we cast the film together, we go on location a few times together, but then the shoots are done separately, there’s only one director on location at any given time. And we think that improves the overall film because the person who wasn’t there has a different approach to the material you shot than you do. And you’re already sullied in a way by the time you’re back from that 12 hour shoot, which took you so long to set up. And someone who was just sitting there, not having to worry about that can look at the material much more objectively.
TM: That’s really interesting. I think that does speak to how the films turn out, with your invisibility and objectivity. Each of you doing your own shoots, and then collectively letting the best ideas come forward, and having the other one able to be more objective.
HE: You need different ideas, and it’s amazing how easy you become–not blinded, I don’t want to exaggerate, we’re very critical of our own material–but sometimes you really want something to work because it was so hard to get. Other times, you shot something and it wasn’t how you imagined it, and it was really hard to get anything, you walk away from the shoot thinking it totally sucked, and it was garbage, and you wasted your time, and six months later you’re in the editing room and that is the perfect scene for that moment.
In fact, in the film we’re making now in Detroit, there’s three scenes I’m shocked are still in at this stage, or I’m shocked that they came back in, but they really provide an important moment or make a point we need to have made. So you don’t really know in the moment how it’s going to fit into the big picture, so everything you shoot on your own you have to direct it as if it’s going to make the film, because you really don’t know. You don’t want to regret it later. That scene could be a gem later depending on how the story evolves.
TM: Or I’m sure you could film a great scene, but it just doesn’t work with the story, and…
HE: Oh my god, yes, great scenes don’t make a great movie, we always say that in the edit room. When you’re like first time filmmakers, you want to squeeze those scenes in the film by hook or by crook, you want to say “they’ve gotta make it, they’re amazing, they’re emotional,” but, guess what, you have to kill your darlings, and that is so hard to learn. Our editor loves to say that: Great scenes don’t make a great movie, and sadly that is true.
TM: Yeah, though that actually would be a great movie, I think, to make a great documentary just of all great scenes that went to the cutting room floor, from different documentarians. I’d watch that. The best outtakes from you and Rachel, from Maysles, from Michael Moore, from Herzog.
HE: Totally, totally—I couldn’t sleep last night, and I was imagining a short film that we could make out of these five scenes, this entire character that we cut out of the film.
But, yeah, you know, I also would really love the exercise of having like 50 hours of material and you get like ten filmmakers to make a film. I’d be so interesting to see how everyone approached it.
TM: Right, exactly. So how did you guys start working together? How did that come about? And have you ever gone off and tried to make a movie on your own? Or are you two even interested in doing that?
HE: I mean you never know what the future’s going to bring. You have to be open to all kinds of possibilities. I haven’t shut the door on doing a narrative one day. That’s something that has some kind of appeal. I think we’re both going down the road of doing some commercials.
We met originally over ten years ago at a production company in New York. We were both working for this filmmaker named Jonathan Stack, and he hired a lot of young, ambitious people who didn’t know much at the time. Ha!
So we met through him, he sort of took us under his wing, I guess, so to speak, and after a few years working for him, we decided to strike out on our own. We wanted to make our own films and have more control over every aspect. We really didn’t know what we were getting into at all because we’d never had to raise money for a film so it was a real learning curve. It took like a year to get something sold–we didn’t starve, but we came close.
TM: Okay, so my last question: We look at you and Rachel as revolutionary documentarians…
HE: Well, that’s cool!
TM: That’s why we’re interviewing you, because this is our Revolutionary Issue, and so we’re interviewing people in every field who are revolutionaries in their field. But I wonder what filmmakers, or documentarians specifically, do you see as revolutionary yourself?
HE: Hmm. Revolutionary?
HE: I’m a huge Werner Herzog fan. Herzog is so badass.
TM: Ha! That’s exactly who Rachel said! And I agree.
HE: I’m sorry, that guy, he’s revolutionary because he is such a singular voice. He has absolute confidence in whatever he does, even if it’s a total boondoggle. Whatever he’s interested in at the moment, we’re all going to be interested in, and he’s going to make us be interested in Antarctica or cave paintings or that guy who chases bears, I mean to me that’s revolutionary. What’s amazing is that what he has to say, what he has to show, is of widespread interest to the rest of us, and, in another filmmaker’s hands, it would absolutely not be. So for me, I gotta give it to the old German dude.
TM: I couldn’t agree more.
HE: He’s awesome. He’s the first person that comes to mind. There are others, there are so many different ones, so many documentary filmmakers are fighting the good fight, and I admire them. Josh Fox with Gasland, he’s a tireless activist. There are so many badass documentary filmmakers out there right now.
TM: For sure. It’s a good time for documentary filmmaking I think.
HE: I agree. But, yeah, overall, for revolutionary, I guess I have to say Werner.
TM: Yeah, what I love about Herzog is that between his fiction films and his nonfiction films–which is a distinction, you know, that he always says he doesn’t like, he looks at them all the same…
HE: Right, uh huh.
TM: He always manages to get at certain Herzogian themes. There’s a link between all of them, even though the subjects are so disparate and the modes in which they’re made are different. He does have one, you know, some sort of voice, and certain themes that he teases out of everything. But I think for him what is revolutionary is that he can find these stories that are so dissimilar and find some sort of similarities so that they all fit in this constellation of thematic interests of his, and then work them within the trajectory of his career.
HE: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, for me, look, this is the deal: for me, I really am interested in a body of work. I’m interested in the entire body of work, and each film fits somehow. You know, you grow as a filmmaker, you become better, or you learn something, or you become humbled by the experience, that it was harder than you thought, or it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, but it presented something completely new. I’m looking at the long-term. I’m looking at the body of work. My favorite filmmakers, I look at their body of work, and there are all these little gems in there in which you can see sort of a progression of their personality. You can see a maturity and, you know, that’s kind of what I hope for my own career.
And even the lesser films, you know, they still fit. When someone has such a great body of work, even the lesser films add to the whole. Obviously Herzog’s films aren’t all perfect, but you know what, there are minor works and there are major works, there always are. For authors and for playwrights…
TM: Definitely. And I think you two are well on your way to creating that sort of body of work that harmonizes together in a way.
HE: Well, thank you very much.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are documentary filmmakers.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Edited by Meaghan Coffey and Tyler Malone
Photography by Clint Spaulding for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, GUCCI Tribeca Documentary Fund Celebration, Cherry Lane Theatre, NYC, September 17, 2008, Photography by Clint Spaudling for Patrick McMullan.com