I can't. I'm the father of two teenage daughters who are up and out of the house, and I think I'd be remiss if I said I loved one child more than the other, and I don't. Each film has meant something to me, so one film like the Civil War might get more attention and more awards and more whatever, but that doesn't mean that the energy and love I gave to the Shaker film is any less, and so I love it just as much. Just as a child who went on to become somebody famous and celebrated—a doctor or a lawyer—doesn't get more love than a child who has a more modest existence. They're still your own children and they represent the best I could put in at that time, and that's the other thing that I've been fortunate enough to do. I haven't had to abandon, and I haven't had to change, and I haven't had to alter. I've been able to say, when we've locked the picture and rung this beautiful little bell as each reel of film is locked in the editing room, that we've done our best.
For some people, filmmaking is a personal quest; for some, it's a mission to effect change, or an opportunity to challenge themselves, or an opportunity to push something in the form. What does filmmaking represent for you?
It represents all of those things. I don't know where that history interest came from, although my mother, who died when I was eleven years old— there was never a moment when she wasn't sick when I was growing up. I remember commenting about ten years ago to a friend that it seems that I'm still keeping my mother alive. He just looked at me and said, "What do you think you do for a living?" And I said, "Excuse me?" And he said, "You wake the dead." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln come alive for everybody else. Who do you think you want to wake up?"
So that is at the heart of my exploration of history and even my interest in race, because my mother at her sickest occurred when the fire hoses and dogs were being set upon innocent citizens in Selma, Alabama. And I transferred a great deal of my understandable anxiety from the cancer that was killing my family to the cancer that was killing my country. And so, I took to heart at the deepest level of my being not just an abiding interest in American history but an ongoing question about race and racism and slavery and equality in our country that's informed almost every film that I've done. And it's born of intensely personal things that would qualify it as mission. At the same time, I'm a filmmaker; I'm not a historian. I'm exploring how to push and change and solve problems and arrive at solutions that work in a medium, in a corner of a form of my medium. That gives me tremendous satisfaction.
Everyone has the ability now to buy a camera and chronicle the experiences in their lives. Does the accessibility of technology have any bearing on how documentaries will be shaped and how they'll be pushed?
It does indeed, but we have to remember that with every positive thing—and this is just the way the universe works—there's unintended consequences and quite often negative things that come with it. We love the new technology and the accessibility to everybody, that democratization of the process. But at the same time, we see, particularly with regard to the Internet and video, the way in which the technological tail is now beginning to wag the dog. I think we've lost touch with story, with narrative, and I don't mean that in a feature-film way, but I mean, just our ability to follow stories. And we still have to realize that this is a process that involves discrimination, in the best sense of that word, that we need to be able to choose. It isn't enough to throw everything up on the screen or up on the Internet. The great danger of the Internet is that the flood of information doesn't in any way indicate its relative truth or fact, so lies go around the world three times, the old saying goes, before the truth gets started. And the Internet speeds up the truth in that. So I think that we can look with a great deal of excitement at the democratic possibilities that these new technologies permit us all.
But the same laws as old as Aristotle's Poetics still exert their force on material that works, on art that's created. And these are things that will both bedevil and delight filmmakers and then audiences, as people struggle to come to terms with these new technologies. And so it's really important to be bold and to investigate and to explore. But it's equally important to be rooted in the old, very human verities of how you organize, how you structure, how you eliminate, how you discriminate, how you choose, and how you actually create. Because the great danger is that in all of this new stuff we'll forget to actually exert the whole reason why we're playing with this stuff at all, which is to create and to have messages that are a synthesis of parts that have in their totality more than the sum of those parts.
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