Indicate Direction

When you start your film, the odds are you don't know where you are going. You've decided to talk to members of your family about the past, about roots, about a few family secrets. You are intrigued by the problems your grandfather faced on coming to America. You wonder whether the family was happier before Joe died in Vietnam. You are curious about the branch of the family no one ever mentions. Intrigued, but without much direction, you plunge in without much direction. If you are Lilly Rivlin, you just start filming and talking to your aged parents as they lie sick in bed. If you are Amalie Rothschild, you start shooting your grandmother and only later do you realize the real focus is your mother.

How does all this fit with what I stated earlier, that before you begin you need to establish one defining statement, or one clear underlying concept—for example, This film is about the search for the atomic bomb, or This video will discuss the role of the university in the twenty-first century—that will set you off in the right direction and provide the impetus for the film? Unfortunately, and for very clear reasons, this rule is rarely observed in family films. In family films, we often just do not know where we're going. We work on impulse and feeling. Very often, we wander for years uncertain of direction—and that's all right. It's all part of the game. You are searching for meaning, and it may take years to emerge. But—and it's a very big and important but—by the time you're finished, a clear line of where you're going must be there. And not only must it be there, it is usually very important to let the audience see it at the very beginning of the film.

The line is important because family films tend to wander all over the place. They often seem to have no clear trajectory, and it is easy for the audience to get confused. If you can define a clear line at the beginning, and tell the viewers where you hope to go, then it is much easier for the audience to stay with you and understand your twists, side steps, and convolutions.

In Minda Martin's Mother's Heritage, the film opens with an aunt speaking:

There were so many emotions at that death. It was a death caused by accident. It created anger. For some reason there seemed to be a lot of Who's to blame for this? But the real question was not Who is to blame for the shooting death? but rather Who is to blame for her life?

This opening has a double advantage. It tells not only what the film is about—an examination of blame for a life—but also that we are going to see events leading up to a shooting, though we don't yet know of whom.

Deann Borshay Liem's First person Plural opens this way:

I've been several different people in my life. I had three mothers. Three different sets of histories. I've spoken different languages. Had different families. Different birthdays.

We hear all this over bleached out pictures of a pretty Asian woman of about thirty. We are again intrigued but also know immediately that this film is going to be about a search for identity.

For her part, Lilly Rivlin starts Gimme a Kiss with a line that hits us all between the eyes. "Who of us knows our parents?" This is then followed by Lilly's brother: "What a hell of a life they had." Her sister comments: "There was no hugging, no kissing." And of her mother, Lilly's father says: "I always loved her!" The opening line, "Who of us knows our parents?" presents us with a question that we all have asked at one time or another but have probably never thought deeply about. A second line of inquiry into the relationship of the parents is then opened up by the siblings comments and the father's declaration that he always loved his wife. The comments of father and children clearly oppose each other, and we know the picture will help show us which view is correct.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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