Returning this week to our series of interviews with the filmmakers who made some of 2008's best films...
Margaret Brown's THE ORDER OF MYTHS debuted at Sundance 2008 where it was immediately hailed as one of the best films of the festival. It has gone on to have a lengthy festival run - winning the Cinematic Vision Award at Silverdocs - and recently received two nominations at the upcoming Film Independent Spirit Awards (Best Documentary and the Truer Than Fiction grant).
Margaret talks about showing her film to her subjects for the first time, her editing process and the desire to be told what to think.
ATWT: I've been asking other filmmakers about last year's Sundance and what they felt at this time last year. I know that you, in addition to getting your film ready for your premiere, were also in the process of showing the film to your subjects. What, if any, were your concerns in showing ORDER OF MYTHS to those who appear in it?
Margaret Brown: I showed the film to my subjects - Helen Meaher, Brittain Youngblood, Joseph Roberson and Stefannie Lucas, the night before the film premiered. We were really down to the wire - we had put the master on a plane earlier that day - so I was nervous both about finishing the film as well as showing the film to them.
I was nervous about showing the film to them because the film ended up being more about race than I think they had thought, and it's something that make people uncomfortable, not just in the South but all over. But through their initial shock, they dealt with it very well, and ended up traveling with me both nationally and internationally to represent the film. I think they all had to watch the film a few times for it to really sink in. I think people from Mobile are so accustomed to things "being how they are" that seeing the film focusing on the complexities and problems with some of these traditions....well, let's just say that there were more than a few late night phone calls.
I've had this conversation with people recently about your film and they talked about something that I find sort of surprising, in that some people didn't know what to make of your film because you don't advocate for a certain position. In fact, you present these folks who may have perceived racial prejudices and your film doesn't make any judgments on them. I find this incredibly humanistic, but do you think that some people have come to expect that documentaries are supposed to tell them what to think? What is the role of a documentary film circa 2008?
I don't like films that tell you what to think, I think they are insulting to the audience. I don't think documentaries that preach to you are very effective, and I'm bored when I can tell where I'm being led by a film. I want the audience to feel "in" the film, to have my film not only be truthful but as experiential of an experience as possible. I would like to try to get away with some kind of old-fashioned notion of documentary as medicine.
I'm not sure that the audience needs the filmmaker pointing a finger at a subject and saying "judge that person". I would rather present the situation, and let the audience bring their own prejudices and biases to the table. I mainly want there to be a good conversation after the film.
You clearly had more than one team working at a time because your cameras are in so many places during Mobile's Mardi Gras. Can you talk about the physical process of making the film?
We had three camera crews the last week of Mardi Gras. Two teams the week before, and one camera crew the week before that. Since I walked into the film not really knowing what it would be about - except that, unlike my last film (BE HERE TO LOVE ME), it had a clear beginning and ending with the mardi gras season - I knew that I had to over-cover while shooting. While I paid for this dearly in the edit room, I definitely would not have gotten the film that I have now without shooting this way.
About a month after Mardi Gras, Mike Simmonds (the Director of Photography), Ricardo Springer (the assistant editor and often the sound guy) and I went back and filled in the holes with follow up interviews all the way up to three weeks before Sundance. That was when we filmed the sequence with the trees, got most of the shots that established Mobile as a place, and shot most of the footage in Africatown, since we did not know the story would extend to Africatown during Mardi Gras proper.
It was actually really exciting, when we found out the connection between the two queens, at that point the research became like something of a detective story. I had always wanted the film to show how the past was alive in the present, and this connection showed that in a way that was so tangible.
You mention the editing, which I'm curious about, because I felt that while you had so many threads to deal with, but you handled your multiple characters so skillfully. How much of your edit was laid out in advance and how much was being done as you shot?
While we were shooting, we would have meetings at night, talk about what our characters were doing, and which camera crew I should be with for the day. But mainly that was to make sure we were covering everything, and that I was always in the place where I thought the most dramatic activities would be happening. But really the film was made after we were finished shooting and we knew what had happened that year.
Your film has been a favorite on the festival circuit this year. Do you have any experiences that were particularly meaningful to you?
Paul Sturtz of the True/False Film Festival called me when he read about the distribution plan for my film, and he and Toby Leonard - who are both part of the Sundance Institute Theatre Project - organized a small tour for the film and me. I was thrilled that they thought my film would be a great test case for their new idea about doc distribution. In terms of screenings, the first screening in mobile was one of the more surreal day of my life, and the screening in Columbia, Missouri with Lee Bohannon, a former Black Panther was incredible because of his ability to draw out the audience in the Q&A after the film.
Along that same vein, what nonfiction films or moments from films have stayed with you?
Immediately I think of TROUBLE THE WATER, when Kim is singing straight to the camera, or of the footage she got during the storm. Also I think of the guy who aided Philippe Petit and how after their heist they never spoke again. I think that spoke volumes about the sometimes skewed nature of artistic collaboration.
After watching EXAMINED LIFE I badly wanted to have drinks with Cornel West and Judith Butler. Probably not together.
Finally, you are nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards - Best Documentary as well as the Truer Than Fiction Award. This is a fairly unusual situation - it's only happened a handful of times in Spirit Award history. What does it mean for you to be recognized by Film Independent?
I don't know what to say, I am so happy, it's a huge honor. I know the judges take it very seriously.