A Conversation With Nicole Opper (OFF AND RUNNING)
In post-screening Q&As, most documentary filmmakers always say that the success of a nonfiction project really centers on the collaboration between storyteller and subject. But during the making of the film, how many of them actually say to their subject, “You choose. Do you want this scene in the film, or not?” That would be a typical exchange between filmmaker Nicole Opper and her teenaged subject, Avery Klein-Cloud, during an edit session of their film Off and Running. While Avery does not share a directing credit, she does share a writing one: the two garnered a Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award at SILVERDOCS last June.
The relationship between 29-year-old Opper and 20-year-old Klein-Cloud could be said to be a love story, for in working together on this film (shot over the course of three years), each realized new personal and professional heights with the support of a strong partner and a shared vision. They met in a Jewish day school in Brooklyn a decade ago; Opper the new, shy teacher right out of university, and Avery, the rambunctious and joyful student, a beautiful dark-skinned black girl. This is also when Opper got an eyeful of Avery’s unusual family. With several professional credits under her belt as a filmmaker, she went back to them many years later and asked if they’d be the subjects of her first feature-length documentary.
Off and Running tells the story of the Klein-Cloud family, a white lesbian couple who are raising three children in a loving Jewish household. Before meeting, each woman had adopted a child—Tova adopting Rafi, a mixed-race boy, Travis adopting Avery, an African-American girl; after many years together, they also adopted Zay-Zay, a Korean boy. As Avery nears the end of her high school career and is getting ready for college, she starts to have an urgent need to contact her birth mother, curious about the roots she’s never explored. This catalyzes an intense identity crisis in the young woman and we share her rocky journey as she searches for her true north, as she attempts to gather together all the disparate elements of her identity—African American, Jew, transracial adoptee, athlete, sister, daughter. Click here to see the trailer.
On January 29th, Off and Running will have its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center. In addition to the above-mentioned prize, the film won jury nods for Outstanding Doc at Outfest and Philadelphia’s Q Fest. The film premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival (where it was a top-ten audience fave) and will have its national broadcast début on PBS’ P.O.V. 2010 series, airing this November. Many of independent film’s most prestigious and important organizations have been behind it from the start—Tribeca All Access, ITVS, P.O.V., the IFP, DocuClub and New York Women in Film and Television, among others. Opper was also named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film this year.
During this talk on a cold New Year’s Eve late afternoon over bowls of soup and crackers, we two old ladies sat and gabbed about storytelling. Nicole acknowledged that, “The ghost in the room is Avery and it’s a bit painful to even sit for an interview and talk about this film without her weighing in. She is the filmmaker, too.”
Hammer To Nail: How long have you been a filmmaker?
NO: Since 1997. I was making “backyard” videos with friends.
H2N: Did anything momentous happen to you when you picked up a camera?
NO: No, not really. At that point, it was just an extension of theater for me. I grew up doing community theater as a performer and then, as soon as possible, as a director. I directed things like comedy sketches, monologues, this and that. Originally, I was just really passionate about theater and performance; the camera was just an easy way to keep that going and to control a bit more through editing.
H2N: What excited you the most about directing?
NO: The collaboration—I love collaboration, the collaborative spirit, working with someone and trying to meld two visions, or three or four. I always questioned my abilities and authenticity in terms of being the right person to tell a story and I did during the making of this film—for a very long time I felt that way. I was actually quite open about it with Avery and it was a constant conversation between us. I would ask, “Avery, how do you feel about the fact that I’m directing this movie about you?” [laughs] And her answer would always change, which was fun. By the end though, she was saying that I was really the right person to tell it because she thought, in a weird way, I could understand what it’s like to be her. I thought that was interesting because I felt that I could never know what it’s like to be her. How could I be the right person? For her, it was the gay thing, as if by being gay I would know what her life was like growing up in a gay world with her moms.
H2N: It really doesn’t seem to me that she grew up in a “gay world,” necessarily. Is that how she saw it?
NO: Well, I think if you’re a child of gay people, there is a community there, automatically.
H2N: Due to the private nature of Tova and Travis, we don’t really see a lot of that, though.
NO: No, not in the film.
H2N: The Jewish aspects are, obviously, very much in place, since she was put into a Jewish day school as a kid. What was it about the gay experience, being raised by two moms, that was so profound, do you think?
NO: What fascinates me about the fact that she says this now, is that she was combative about it for so long. While the camera was rolling during interviews, I was always trying to pull that out of her, this idea that her moms could relate to her as an outsider in this way. She was the one to really educate me. She’d say, “Open your eyes, Nicole. No! Just because my moms are gay doesn’t mean they understand my experience, as an outsider, as a black woman growing up in a Jewish community.” By the time I really came around to understanding that, she turned it back on me by telling me that she thought I was the right person to tell her story because of my own gay experience. It’s a bit contradictory. That’s part of the fun of telling a coming-of-age story. Your subject is forever changing while you’re making the film. I got to track that. While we were preserving certain moments, everything was evolving. It’s really acute when you’re a teenager, even though we evolve throughout our lives.
H2N: In your next project, your main subjects are also teens, also outsiders, so you’re obviously strongly drawn to these stories of a young person’s evolution. What is it in particular that attracts you to those stories?
NO: I love watching people discover themselves and figure themselves out. It’s a gift when you get to see it firsthand. It’s not something that’s obvious; we don’t notice ourselves, necessarily, when we’re having revelations. They just happen organically. When you’re filming it, you get to revisit it in the edit room and actually track a person’s evolution. I just want to keep doing that over and over again.
H2N: What moments in the film are hard for Avery?
NO: They’re not the moments that I would assume would be hard for her. But that could also change over time and those moments that don’t seem to faze her now, might one day. But she was very mature in her thinking about a lot of the obstacles she encountered. She had a broad perspective about a lot of what she was experiencing. I was really impressed by that, always.
H2N: You never actually lived with the Klein-Clouds, correct?
NO: No, although it did come up at one point since they had a spare room but that was too much. What actually happened was that I was moving to Brooklyn with my girlfriend at the time and we were looking at a bunch of places to live and Tova got really involved and started looking on Craigslist for places around the neighborhood. I told her I wasn’t sure I should be right next door. [laughs] Living in the same house with them would have been weird. Although, I’m doing that for the next one; however, it’s not just one family.
H2N: Because you were friends with them, were boundaries an issue? Did that crop up from time to time? This is a constant issue to ponder in documentary, especially ones that happen over the course of several years.
NO: I don’t know; it’s hard to say. But yes is the answer, actually. Ethics are tricky. There is no defined document as there is in, say, journalism. We had a contract between us of sorts that went beyond a release form. When I approached them, I had a three-page document written up about what I was interested in, the specific issues that I wanted to explore in the film. I wanted to be sure they were clear about my intentions. Because one thing I doubted from the beginning was the fact that they were really hearing me when I said that this was going to be a feature documentary film and I wanted it to be on public television. So that was something we revisited over and over again. I appreciated how open they were being and how much access they were permitting. And yet, if they didn’t think it was going anywhere, then that made everything pretty much a moot point, right? It was important that they understood that I wanted this to go far.
H2N: But how does that change things in terms of their participation? Or does it?
NO: I know that there were certain things they wanted to remain private and never really shared. But, for the most part, because they saw how close I was to their daughter and because they believed that I was a good influence on her life, they were open to sharing whatever they could share. To some degree, it was a matter of desperation. There would be moments when they didn’t know where Avery was and I did. So we all had to be open and honest and trusting of one another.
H2N: And how did that affect the trust between you and Avery?
NO: I would tell her that I was going to call them to tell them where she was. It was just a matter of her not wanting to pick up the phone and deal. It wasn’t as though she wanted them to be sitting up at night sick with worry about her. She just didn’t want to be the one making the move. So that never really became a conflict for any of us, I don’t think. But, there were things that were conflicting. There were moments when Tova would call and tell me all about something Avery had done and I would eventually have to say that it was too much for me. I’m choosing to tell this story from Avery’s point-of-view. What she says contradicts what you’re telling me. I had to ask her to not call me with all the details. She was really wonderful about it.
. . . Actually, I think I got that wrong. She initiated all that and told me that she felt it was stressing me out when she would call and tell me things, so she decided to lay off. And I said thank you. There were moments when both of us knew that Avery was straight-up lying, but I had to stay committed to her, to the integrity of that idea that it was her story and we’re telling it from her point-of-view.
H2N: Did you ever worry that this whole process of documenting her story was, somehow, detrimental to her in any way?
NO: I worried about that a lot. I never felt that it was, but I was constantly policing myself about it, just to be sure. Going back to this question of ethics: so many of us end up relying on our gut instinct and hoping that we’re right, hoping that we have this moral center that’s guiding us. So, if I felt uncomfortable or uneasy or guilty about something, then I would stop and check myself. The question implicit there is, are we right when we’re following our gut? Does our gut really know what’s best? That’s where I was always stuck: I think I’m doing the right thing, but if there is no standard out there, how can we ever know? This is something that can still be discovered since I’ll be in touch with Avery for a long time. If she decides in ten or twenty years that I screwed her up, then we’ll talk about it then. [laughs] But that doesn’t seem to be the case right now.
H2N: The camera, oftentimes, is used a lot as a “confessional” tool with kids, without making it all that inclusive for an audience except in a very passive, voyeuristic way. Does that irk you, is that bothersome?
NO: The only thing that really bothers me, and should be thought about a lot more than it is, are subjects not being in on the agenda, subjects not being fully aware of what a filmmaker is after, what message they’re trying to send. When there isn’t transparency, and the filmmaker isn’t talking about his or her goals in the story he or she sees taking shape, and including the subject in the feedback sessions and editorial decisions, then I think real damage can be done, or there’s the potential for it. I worry about that a lot. Reality television has set many lows in exploitation.
H2N: It’s exposing someone in a way that has nothing to do with telling his or her story, that’s for sure. It’s all about the gotcha moment, more or less.
NO: That’s really what it comes down to: if, as a filmmaker, you can’t have just basic respect for the people being represented in your film, that’s a real problem.
H2N: Yet some filmmakers would argue that that also serves a purpose, that it’s part and parcel of documentary filmmaking, this idea of exposure, of uncovering something.
NO: Well, maybe I need to have a harder edge, but that kind of stuff offends me on a really personal level. That always needs to be recognized, this notion that the people in your film are not pawns and the film that you make is going to live with them and represent them for the rest of their lives. I know it’s been going on forever and ever and will continue, but if you can’t look the person in the eye that sat there and trusted you with their story, then how do you live with yourself?
H2N: Have you and Avery talked about revisiting her years from now, coming back into her life as a “where are they now” kind of thing? Why are you making gagging noises? [laughter]
NO: You know, we can’t all be Michael Apted. It’s too much, you know?! [laughs] We filmed a specific time in a specific place. I will always be fascinated by Avery, but I’d like the continuation of our relationship to be off-camera.
H2N: But capturing a larger trajectory of a life—is that interesting to you at all?
NO: Absolutely. I guess I would say if we can step outside the confines of a feature documentary, time length and all of these things, then there are a lot more possibilities. I just saw this update on Outside, Looking In: Transracial Adoption in America, in which the filmmaker himself is a subject, a transracial adoptee. He did this piece that was commissioned as a new media piece where he goes back and interviews his nephew again who’s now much older, very well spoken. He re-interviews himself, too, about where they stand now, several years later. It’s about a 15-minute piece that streams online. I can see something like that happening. But it would need to take a different form.
H2N: There are infinite possibilities for that now and that will continue to burgeon, I think. The way we share media is so different than it was even two or three years ago. The cycle, too, of creating and making a feature-length doc is burdensome—fundraising, grant-writing, rough cut after rough cut in review with any number of people. It’s a long endeavor in terms of time and stamina. Is there some other way in which you think about making films?
NO: I’m as excited as the next person about all the possibilities of social media, new media. But, I do really romanticize the traditional feature-length film, in particular, the communal experience of sitting in a theater. I think there’s something really special in that. I start to feel a little empty or alienated whenever people start talking about watching everything on their laptops. Maybe I’ll change with the times, but I love the theatrical experience and I hope it never goes away. The way I like to think of it is as complementary work to a long-form piece, extensions of it, if you will, rather than a replacement.
H2N: What draws you to another human being, in general, to make you spend that much time documenting his or her story and investing time beyond the project itself, beyond the exploration of all the external issues brought out in that process? In other words, where is the delineation between what that process feeds you as an artist and what it feeds you, personally? Coming off this experience, a particularly successful personal and professional partnership, what kinds of expectations do you have going forward?
NO: It certainly set a standard for me. I don’t feel like I could now make a film where the people in the film didn’t play a really important creative role—maybe not everybody in the film, but in this case, Avery, the main subject. I don’t know if I’ve been able to identify it; it’s really elusive. It’s kind of like magic, what these qualities are that add up to a person that you want to completely obsess yourself over [laughs]. Probably, first and foremost, is her willingness to be so completely honest and raw and vulnerable. It’s such a gift and an honor when someone opens herself up to you that way and if what’s revealed is really interesting and relevant and worthy of a story, then I’m going to want to follow it through and give up everything to do it.
H2N: She’s so intent on transcending her circumstance. It’s an exceedingly difficult thing to do. We still live in a society that’s quite intent on boxing people in more than anything else. In Avery’s particular circumstance, though, there’s really no way to box that girl in or define her in terms of her life, her family, etc. It’s something she seemed to have innately realized from when she was little. And on the other hand, at least the way this story is told, there seems to be an astounding amount of naïveté on the part of Tova and Travis about just that, that this circumscribed world of Jewish day school and birthright issues and the color of her skin wouldn’t, somehow, kind of blow up into a real crisis of identity.
NO: I would always ask certain leading questions about that, but you know I’ve kind of moved on this issue a bit, too. Number one, I really respect them as parents and I really do believe they tried their best. And maybe their best wasn’t good enough but we could say that about all sorts of things. It’s a tough one. Sometimes I get angry on this issue because I’m protective of them, too. We get to pass all sorts of judgments on adoptive parents, particularly queer adoptive parents are under real scrutiny about how they’re raising “our” children—society’s collective children. You would never get away with that with a biological parent. Those parents get to say, “Don’t tell me how to raise my child. I know what’s best for my child.” So there is this part of me that feels like saying, “Screw you, don’t tell them [Tova and Travis] how to raise their child!” They’re her parents; they’re the ones who have known her since birth the way nobody else has. They’re paying attention to all her needs, her personality, her special quirks that only they really know. At the same time, I totally recognize everything that the film is highlighting about racial difference and privilege. I’m a little bit reticent to comment further than what the film already says on that issue out of respect for them.
H2N: I certainly wouldn’t be one to demonize them for their shortcomings, if indeed that’s what they are. But I think their closeness to this child has created a bit of myopia and I don’t know too many instances where that isn’t true in any parent/child relationship. But from what you’ve told me about different experiences in Q&As, this is a real hard-core issue for a lot of people who are not shy at all about passing judgment on these two women raising three adoptive children of varying races and ethnicities.
NO: In a most gentle and respectful way, I ask people to just look at themselves and their own way of doing things rather than putting energy into deciding what’s wrong with the way Tova and Travis are raising their kids. All of us can always improve.
H2N: How have teens responded to the film?
NO: It’s a mix. I haven’t talked to a lot of boys about this film, but so far, for the most part, I sense that young women Avery’s age really glom onto it. They really relate. Young men are a little bit more, um, let’s say lukewarm, towards it [laughs]. Obviously, I hate gender generalizations; I know there are and will be some young men that can relate to her story in several ways. I’ve showed a lot of other young media makers the film—16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids that are picking up video cameras and making their own stories and they all appreciate it because they recognize Avery’s role in it. They see that she chose to leave things in the film that were probably hard for her. They see themselves in her and in the various situations in which she finds herself. There may be nothing in common on the surface in terms of their own personal experience, but they get Avery.
H2N: Did you have that particular audience distinctly in mind while making this?
NO: Yeah. I mean I certainly always hoped that it would resonate for teenagers, never really knowing if it would. I think the reality for most documentaries today is that if it’s going to be seen by that age group, it’ll be in schools and other educational settings, so that’s my goal, really, to get it there, beyond public television where the audience is much older. When I went to ITVS for orientation, they told us that the largest PBS audiences are those under six and those over sixty!
H2N: Well, that cuts a wide swath. [laughter]
NO: Stats change a little bit for POV and some other strands.
H2N: I think the other issue, of course, is content since there’s so little media that’s really substantive for that age group. It’s remarkable that more people are not tapping into this amazing resource of young people really hungry to see themselves portrayed in genuine ways. The best stuff I’ve seen is, in fact, made by themselves for themselves, you know? It seems you get that innately in the work you mean to do; it’s a very specific goal for you and that you consider this a vital and valuable way to storytell, in a sea of content that is not really all that vital or valuable. In this portrait of a young woman, you’ve captured such a mélange of elements that make up a life—both the great and not-so-great. They interchange constantly so that it becomes a very human story, i.e., messy and complicated. You’re right in your estimation of Avery’s bravery to share all that.
When you’re teaching filmmaking to young people, what kinds of ways do you impress upon them that that kind of depth is really important?
NO: I’m not sure I do. I try to draw it out in subtle ways, of course. There’s definitely no formula. Generally, I just call their bluff. If I see a lot of posing going on, I’ll say, “Tell me what’s really going on?” I think that has to happen in the moment or it’ll never happen at all.
H2N: The camera can also record something that we then re-watch and don’t recognize. Do you think young people get that something unexpected can be translated from “real life” to one that’s portrayed on video?
NO: Young people are incredibly savvy and they recognize that anything going into the camera will be manipulated in the edit. That’s why I advocate for them learning how to control their own stories. I think the concern is when they open up to an adult who doesn’t necessarily have their best interests in mind. They go off and make the film they want to make. The kids aren’t really a part of all that. That’s where I get really protective. There’s a mix of good and bad when someone is in charge in the edit room and trying to tell their own story. There are so many reasons, as we know, why autobiographical filmmakers choose to hire an editor in order to be able to look at their own work in a somewhat objective way. In the case of teenagers, it’s such an opportunity to reflect and learn about where they are in life and, as Avery puts it, what she may want “to change about herself.” I think it’s always preferable that they give it a shot, being in charge of how they manipulate their own story.
H2N: Do you think that might inform them on how to turn a camera on other people and do them justice? To me, that’s an essential exercise to go through for any media maker—first see how it feels to be the subject. Have you turned the camera on yourself?
NO: Never. A bit ironic, I know. However, just a couple of days ago, I did just that with a Flipcam. I made a little video diary, which I did not edit. I did it in the subway. And then I went home and I watched it. It was interesting. [laughs] I’m looking at myself as a character, a whole other entity. I’ve been on the other side of someone’s camera on occasion but certainly didn’t have any creative control. [Interestingly, since this interview took place, Nicole tells me that she’s been filming herself practically every single day.]
So far, in my experience in working with teenagers who are making their own work, they tend to be really, really honest and tend to try not to “dress up” their own image, at least not as much as adults do. There’s less of an agenda, maybe less at stake. I do notice that adults that are making autobiographical work will often create unrecognizable characters because of the message they’re trying to send, whatever agenda they’re serving takes precedence over authenticity. Teenagers, for the most part, are just trying to figure themselves out through the use of this medium. You can feel the difference.
H2N: What are some of the more profound aspects of that, particularly when they’re in the edit? What do you notice about the choices they make that might be different from the way you might edit that same piece?
NO: Obviously, teenagers are the most self-conscious people in the world. There’s always the “bad angle” issue or a place where they think they sound stupid. It’s really tough to generalize with these things. I guess I could say that this honesty and purity has become this diamond-in-the-rough way of working for kids that have become bombarded with so many un-truths in the media. You always recognize when they’ve delivered something that’s truthful. They attach themselves to that right away. They can recognize that when something moves them, it’s going to probably move other people, as well.
H2N: Circling back to this whole theatrical experience, we can say that there’s a lot of passivity in taking in media, a one-way exchange, if you will. But in a cinema, there can be a profound exchange with the audience, a profound connection can be made. It’s cheesy when you talk about it, for some reason, but that’s really what we’re all looking for, this transcendence that enables us to connect, especially to a story that might be really far away from our own reality.
NO: You’re helping me tap into something that I think happened with Avery a lot during interviews. There were so many adults trying to tell her what she should do and what they thought would be best for her. It got so overwhelming and jumbled in her mind, that interviews became this moment of, almost, a cry for help. “Here’s how I feel. Here’s what I think. At least you’re listening and your camera’s recording. Let’s just put it out there.”
H2N: The portrayal of the relationship with her and Rafi, this brother and sister act was, for me, one of the strongest aspects. Because you have this boy/man who can intellectualize, in a pretty facile way, what Avery is expressing in pure emotion. She’s experiencing a lot of trauma in the years you spent documenting her story. He’s so hyper-articulate, has a real gift for language. This, ironically, is how he probably dissembles a bit and keeps the chaos of being a teenager at bay. He’s the perfect foil for her, a sounding board that is distinctive from everything else around her—and also, he was raised the same way she was, he was adopted, too, he’s a mixed-race kid raised by two white women, etc. But he’s also male, he’s light-skinned, he has astoundingly ambitious academic abilities and goals for himself and he feels confident in those abilities. He also brings a real light-heartedness to things and can bring Avery back down a bit from the precipice when she’s about to really crack.
NO: It was both intentional and a happy accident that these two voices together create this unique perspective on things. He has such a way of controlling the conversation sometimes, both with his intellect, and then with his silliness. I certainly felt like it was important that people see how differently Avery and Rafi developed, the different ways they processed the same things and move through the world based on those processes of discovery about who they are and their place in the world. They were raised by the same two people. It’s important, for nothing else, to avoid these generalizations about what must happen when you put people in situations together. It was definitely a bit of a happy accident that he became such a foil for her in that way.
H2N: Does the finished film disappoint you in any way? I mean, specifically, in terms of its reception by an audience.
NO: More than anything else, I can’t help but feel disappointed when people just boil it down to a simple black-and-white issue of Avery’s way of making the right, or wrong, choices. I see it as this very complicated interplay of race and sexuality, difference and identity, adoption issues, the erasing of her birth history. I find it so frustrating when people ignore the weight and importance of that. It is a vital issue for so many adoptees, this negation of history. They have no contact with the birth family or very little information, which is still the case of so many. These are the only citizens that cannot access their own birth certificates. I get that there would be this knee-jerk response from a lot of adoptive parents, that they [Tova and Travis] are not quite doing it right. It’s so much bigger than that, though. When that happens, I feel like I’ve failed. But I also feel like it’s a bit out of my control. I do not feel like I failed in my portrayal of Avery because she’s very happy with the film. She stands up for it, shows up to every Q&A she’s invited to and has been enjoying the process of seeing it go out into the world. The moms have a harder time with it. They’re very private people. But they’ve also expressed their approval of the film.
H2N: You’re embarking on your next project where your subjects are from a different culture [Mexico], but are also teenagers finding their way in a particular situation. Knowing that this collaboration will be informed by the one you had with Avery, what are your particular concerns? Or is it just too early to say?
NO: It might be too early to say. I haven’t had a lot of fantasies about how it will go because it’s all sort of a vague blur right now. But it helps to know that I’m not walking into alien territory. I’ve been to this place before and I’ve been moved and changed and transformed by this place before. I know, more or less, what I’m walking into. Of course, there will be cultural differences, but at the same time, I was raised and grew up with this culture because I grew up ten minutes away from Mexico [in San Diego, California]. It’s not going to be like landing in a place in Africa for the first time. I feel connected to this culture even though it’s not mine. I want to allow myself to be surprised and not suppose or bet on anything that might, or might not, happen. When I step off the plane, we’ll see what happens. This method can be problematic when it comes to proposal writing, of course.
H2N: Yeah, but that kind of stuff you can make up knowing it’s going to change profoundly anyway—we’re talking about documentary here, after all. [laughter]
NO: I think you just absolutely have to believe that your project is not about you. It’s about the story and if everything you’re doing is serving the story and you feel strongly that that story can do some kind of good in the world, then the confidence will follow. That’s how it was with Off and Running. It was never about, “Oh, believe in me as a filmmaker [to potential funders, grant-giving entities, etc.].” It was more like believe in the worth and power of this story and how much Avery has to share with us. And I hope you’ll think I’ll be good enough to do the job. That’s really what it was about. It’s the same for the next one. I firmly believe that people need to know that this foster home for abandoned kids exists, this amazing, self-sustaining weird little social experiment of a home that has survived and thrived for three decades already and will continue to do so. But it’s kind of a loner out there and I wonder why it’s never been replicated and why more of them don’t exist. The foster care system there is in shambles. We can learn from it. I’m going to have to depend on the compelling personalities of these boys to get that story across. I’m expecting support for this project because of them, not because they might find me particularly compelling, but because I can do the job.
H2N: Whose work do you admire?
NO: Sam Pollard, definitely, first and foremost. Four Little Girls, the film he edited and produced, is probably the most impactful film I’ve seen; seeing that film made me want to do this. Macky [Alston], for sure—his films are great but, more than that, he’s a person I really admire, which I can say for all my mentors. Judith Helfand’s work has been a big inspiration for me, in particular, especially Healthy Baby Girl, which is very personal and raw, difficult to watch even. That’s the kind of stuff I love.
H2N: Would you ever turn the camera on yourself, do you think, be the protagonist of your own film?
NO: I’m not opposed to it. If it seems like the right thing to do, if the story calls for it. So far, it hasn’t. The performer part of me has really receded into the background.
This next project is just something I’m really anxious to begin even though Off and Running has a pretty intense course still to run—the theatrical release, more festivals, the broadcast in November. But I hope to devote a year of shooting for this next one after my three-month research trip. When I come back, I hope to have a much clearer answer for that. I’ve told them that for one year I need to live there and shoot every day. I want that structure, that defined time frame for both myself and for them. But I do want very much to develop a similar collaboration and that really will dictate the time frame more than anything. They’re opening themselves up and making the choice to participate and that’s what I have to honor above everything. It levels the playing field a little bit, makes things more fair.
H2N: We’d see different pieces of filmmaking, I think, if more filmmakers collaborated the way you mean to with your subjects. It is unique.
NO: Well, you end up being really surprised. I don’t know—maybe I had a miraculously unique experience with Avery and the rest of the family. I told Tova and Travis to please tell me about any changes they wanted to make. The most obvious stuff where they’re struggling and vulnerable and they’re lost a bit—they never asked to change any of that stuff or to not keep it in the final cut. It was usually just factual things that they wanted to set straight or the more subtle understandings about their relationship to Avery. It was never about censoring us. I just think people would be really surprised at how willing subjects are to be brave and let themselves be seen as flawed human beings for the sake of the film or the project. That’s what they did. They didn’t say, “Make me look better.” They said, “Get it right. Be accurate.” We also have to take into account that they were heroes of mine when I met them. They were the first gay parents I’d ever met and they were people with whom I wanted to maintain a relationship. I would hope that, regardless of how much I wanted that, though, I would still be respectful of their wishes. But in this case, in particular, they were real role models for me, guides in a way. They’re twice my age. There’s just innate respect.
H2N: Your generosity of spirit in truly understanding what that kind of collaboration involves, is somewhat rare, even in an art form that prides itself on that. But really what most filmmakers want is access and cooperation, a good performance, certainly. But this kind of collaboration where your subject’s in the edit room? Not so sure that occurs that often. The bottom line is that, Tova and Travis aside, Avery’s story, in the wrong hands, could have been disastrous. She traverses some very dicey territory and the way in which all that is documented could have potentially been very damaging—to all concerned.
NO: Definitely. But we documentary filmmakers open ourselves up to that vulnerability, too. More than any other art form, this one forces you to ask hard questions every step of the way. We feel compelled (or are asked) to show a work-in-progress—something not even finished—to expose our work to a lot of people we don’t even know. There are a lot of artists that reject that kind of thing. But it’s part of how we work. I had endless rough cut screenings with people I didn’t know, who didn’t know me. I felt like I gained a lot from that. Sometimes I thought it was a waste of my time. But usually it was really useful. I’m not going to generalize, but that seems a lot less common in other art forms. The narrative filmmakers I know would absolutely refuse to show anything they didn’t want to show and leave it open to criticism. It’s between them and their editor and people see it when it’s done.
H2N: There are plenty of documentarians that are like that, as well.
NO: I can make the generalization that it happens less with documentary because documentarians feel this responsibility, this obligation to representing this whole “social experience” to people. I don’t agree with that, necessarily. It depends on the film. Who’s that guy that made the Vogue movie? RJ Cutler, right?
H2N: The September Issue.
NO: Yes. I can sense he’s kind of a large ego, as well, but he’s always telling people that it’s wrong to expect that documentary filmmakers are solely out to get some kind of large sociological survey of something or other. I appreciate that because he says out loud what a lot of us are thinking but afraid to say. Sometimes it just takes someone very forthright and opinionated to say it out loud. You’re grateful somebody said it. Because it’s obnoxious. We’re all telling stories. I don’t always want to be justifying my work based on its social value and he was saying that in the guise of his own film—it’s not an exposé or major commentary on the fashion industry, it’s a portrait of a woman. He said that it’s a misconception (and I’m paraphrasing here) that audiences have, that we are only about telling these “collective experiences.” It’s just storytelling, like anything else.
— Pamela Cohn