January 29, 2022

Learning From Nomadland

My artistic statement (see my earlier post) makes clear my preference for direct cinema (with my mid-20th century documentary photography spin). Basically, I want to point my camera at stories (I’ll deal with that statement in another post soon). I want to stay out of the story (understanding that is a very problematic stance that I mean in a particular way; again, another post soon). Nomadland is a masterclass of documentary-style and direct cinema storytelling without the need (because it would have been odd for fiction) of formal interviews to make sure the audience gets it.

More vocabulary: What do I mean by “formal”? A formal interview is a command performance. The subject answers questions from an interviewer in a “studio” setting. The studio can be their own living room. But by the time my crew sets up gear, well, the idea of “their” living room goes away for a bit 🙂

I prefer to have subjects live their lives in front of my lens. If I have to ask something, I can hide that fact if the question and answer are made within a context of otherwise natural action. My favorite example of this kind of documentary filmmaking is Rich Hill.

Think about Nomadland early in the film at approximately 8:42 when Fern meets her former neighbor in a hardware store. Director Chloé Zhao achieves the documentary look and feel with a hand-held camera and natural light (almost certainly gently enhanced). The dialog proceeds naturally as Zhao follows the action. This is the kind of live sequence documentary filmmakers shoot once the subject trusts the filmmaker and becomes used to their presence. That trust takes time and effort to achieve.

Another scene at 10:23, Fern is in her van alone and adjusting the antenna on her radio. Now imagine a documentary director asking Fern in this moment: “Is it lonely in this van”? She’s busy with the radio, but she will likely look up to begin her answer. If trust has been achieved, she will likely soon return her attention to her task as she answers the question. This would be an informal documentary interview. I find engaging the subject while they are otherwise occupied to be a far more compelling way to let them tell their stories when it cannot be captured, or is inadequately captured, during live sequences.

The trick, of course, is knowing how much to ask at any given moment. It’s easy to destroy a scene by drawing the subject out of the action.

Formal interviews early in the process — we are still in pre-production — allow my crew and me to gather information and begin building trust toward the day when we are just part of the fabric of the everyday. For example, here is a teaser for a project I’m working on now about burnings of Osceola, Missouri and Humboldt, Kansas during the Civil War and how those events continue to affect the people and culture of those towns.

My edit of the concept video needs to show how this will generally look and feel even before we’ve achieved that trust. And I also need those early formal interviews for context and trust-building. A formal interview is a standard choice for an expert source, although I have filmed walk-n-talk and other active scenes with experts that I generally like better than the office interview you see in the teaser.

What’s the teaser even for, then?

Generating interest, trust, and money.

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