Filmmaking Amateur Confessions | My First Documentary
by Scott U
I've been spending the past several months shooting footage for my first documentary at a mental wellness facility in my hometown. I say mental health because that has a more positive connotation than mental illness facility. And that is what it is referred to by the man who created and manages this facility. He's a survivor of depression and knows all-to-well that a positive attitude can go a long way.
I know there is a tremendous story to be told here.
Rather than hide the property in a unmarked building, in the back of a hospital or on a farm away from society, this operation is next to a popular park in town and is brightly colored making it impossible to ignore. They utilize a garden as a way to keep their clients (those being served) busy, focused and productive. With the fruits (or should I say vegetables) of their labor in the garden, they also operate a market that allows them to sell the food they grow. Not only does this help to offset the costs of operating the facility it also provides a unique way for people to interact with people they may normally go out of their way to ignore.
It's not uncommon to see clients walking around having conversations with themselves. Or hearing random announcements coming over the loud speaker announcing that the carrots need to be picked and cleaned. The place is bubbling with activity, positivity and love. Every time I leave I feel better than I did when I drove in. I'm excited. I feel like I've discovered a new band that no one knows about. The band, this story, is mine-until everyone else knows about it. Then it becomes common place.
I've never made a documentary before. I've made a number of educational-type videos for non-profits and some news stories and with each of those productions I knew going in the expected outcome. Most of what I have done in the past is less than five-minutes in length and I was doing it on someone else's dime. But this time, I am not being paid or asked to tell this story. This time, it is all mine.
From beginning to end, every aspect of the story is totally in my control. I don't have to seek the approval of anyone other than myself. And this is where my excitement is turning into confusion.
I was an Art major in college. We were told our final assignment was going to be the most challenging assignment of our studies. I wondered if what we would have to create. A painting? A sculpture? A photo essay? Something hand-blown from glass? Jewelry? A combination of everything we had learned? I wondered what we were going to be told to do. When the assignment was finally handed out, I soon realized how difficult it was going to be. The assignment was simple, yet, for me at least, a bit mind-blowing: Do whatever you want.
Gone were the walls. Gone were the confinements. No longer did we have to worry about pleasing a professor. Everything was on the table. EVERYTHING was on the table. My mind froze at the possibilities. I was not being asked to use red. I was not being asked to paint or sculpt or take pictures. I was not being asked to do anything that I did not want to do. It was a vastness of freedom that I thought I wanted when I was constantly being told what to produce and how to produce it. Careful what you wish for, right?
Well, twenty years later, here I am again. Looking again into the vastness of absolute freedom. How do I want to tell this story? Will it be funny? Will it be sad? Will it be 10 minutes or a ten part series? Black and white or color? Heavy use of design and graphics or simple in its elements?
I don't know.
And that's what's frustrating (and exciting). I know I have my hands on a powerful story that can help a lot of people. I know, if handled correctly, my first documentary can be powerful. I guess, if I'm honest with myself, I'm scared. I'm scared that I may learn something about myself that I don't want to know; that I am not the "filmmaker" that I think I am or could be or want to be. I had the same fears with that final art assignment. I was scared then that I may learn that I don't have the skills, tact, intelligence, creativity or vision that I told myself I had while I was being constrained by previous assignments.
I am proud to say I graduated from art school and completed my assignment. That's not much consolation as I find myself once again mired in confusion and self-doubt. Will I finish this documentary? Will it fail? Maybe. But I am determined to tell this story one way or another -- if not for me, for the people at the mental health center whose story needs to be told.