Story: The Power of Discovery Comes Tumbling Home to Me

My Fredrick Wiseman Moment?

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

This is the first time I’ve been fully responsible for the material in a documentary. I’ve cut documentary shorts, given notes and consulted on screen stories. Opined on countless films from a professional and personal perspective. But now, after my first time leading a documentary crew during the Go Public film project, I witnessed for the first time the powerful moment when a filmmaker discovers a story.

When I first started reviewing the footage that we shot on May 8th, it was with a mind full of the remembrances for the day’s events. Foreknowledge that we had captured events which had unfolded in rather dramatic ways. What I didn’t realize was how both good fortune and the strength of my team in DP Neil de la Peña and Sound Man Richard Newton that we were able to capture things that I hadn’t realized we had seen.

During our “Day in the Life” of Eliot Middle School Librarian, Mrs. Large we saw many of the things you’d expect to see. A quiet, but active place where Mrs. Large devotes her days to educating all levels of students: the struggling, the grateful and the apathetic. By midday, when my team and I ran out to catch some exteriors, we found ourselves returning to a school evacuation. One of the students, we quickly learned had set off a fire extinguisher and fire alarm.

The heat of the day was near oppressive as students and faculty alike were sent to the athletic field. Although we initially returned to Mrs. Large’s side to capture the way she interacted with students who were trying to make sense of the where they were supposed to be, in my mind, I had a responsibility to the Go Public Feature Project, and getting the greater story at hand. We did so by following the school principal, Mr. Pannell as he not only wrangled the student body, but coordinated the efforts to track down the culprit. This also led to being present for the moment when Mr. Pannell skillfully and constructively dealt with the perpetrator.

When it came time to review the entirety of the footage, I was blown away by the things I found.  The young man who was responsible for the fire extinguisher event, was present in the library with (I presume) his mother early in the day.  I put two and two together and quickly went back to the footage that we got in the security office where he was dealt with.  The look on his face.  In time, I discovered that my team managed to capture almost everything but the offense itself.

At one point, I seriously considered cutting a short film focused on this young man’s mistake.  I felt thrilled on the one hand that as a filmmaker, I had material that captured a memorable moment in a person’s life.  The sort of thing that could just as easily represent a wrong turn in life, as it could a blip in a fairly average teenage boy’s life.  I also felt a moment of sickness that rose from a wash of empathy, remembering kindred moments in my life at that age.  Even a wish that none of it had ever happened.

But now, having had the experience of directing and producing my first documentary short, I realize just what a compelling experience working in this craft is.  I have long had a love of story and finding the ways of not only telling a story editorially, but letting it unfold as a director.  When I went in the day of filming, I took with me the arm’s distance that I have come to crave when shooting still portraits of individuals.  I’d rather show my subject or audiences things and moments captured, rather than something put on display for the camera.

Upon completion of my four minute “Go Public Cut”, I was left feeling like there was so much more to tell.  So many more stories to be shared.  That is, if a filmmaker is lucky, the sense they are left with even after the most successful cut has been completed.  Even in the days approaching shooting, I was left with trepidations about just how much I would be able to capture in a quiet library.  But in retrospect, I realize that libraries, including Eliot’s, have been captivating me my entire life and the source of a great many stories to tell.

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