The virtual edition of the Woods Hole Film Festival, which runs through Saturday, August 1, kicks off Saturday, July 25. Movie lovers will have 13 narrative and 29 documentary full-length films to choose from, along with 144 shorts.
With so many documentaries being offered, it seemed prudent to speak with some of this year’s documentary filmmakers and ask them about their process and motivations.
Karla Murthy is the director of “The Place That Makes Us” about new opportunities being forged in the former steel-mill town of Youngstown, Ohio. It began as a short news story.
Ms. Murthy described that path to this, her first feature documentary, as “long and winding.”
For the past 15 years Ms. Murthy has worked as a reporter and correspondent for several national PBS news shows. “This documentary represents a departure for me. So often, as a news reporter, I’d parachute into a place, spend a few days and then leave. This is an attempt to shift the tempo and to see what happens when you don’t leave and simply allow yourself to witness the pace at which real change happens. This documentary for me is as much a meditation on time as anything,” she said.
Filming for “The Place That Makes Us” began in January 2017 and wrapped up in 2019 and took about a year and a half of editing.
When shooting a documentary Ms. Murthy said moviegoers often don’t realize the volume of footage that doesn’t make it into the final film. “When you’re really trying to document a group of people across time, you end up shooting a lot of film,” Ms. Murthy said, adding, “the process of editing is the process of giving order to the splatter of life, of finding meaning in a series of small moments.”
Ms. Murthy said she hopes those who see the film will walk away thinking about “the beauty and poetry that exists in the small acts of struggle that make a place a home.”
A compelling documentary, in Ms. Murthy’s opinion, is about connection. “Sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s the mood and visual beauty, but always, for me, it’s connecting with the people in the film and the journey that they are on.”
“Life in Synchro,” which is about the sport of synchronized figure skating, is the first documentary from filmmaker Angela Pinaglia.
“I was looking to start a new project right around the time I saw synchronized skating for the first time,” Ms. Pinaglia said.
Nicole Davies, who would go on to be the film’s producer, is a synchronized skater and a coach. She introduced the sport to Ms. Pinaglia. “After I saw it, I went home and did some research right away and realized there wasn’t a documentary yet about the topic, so I jumped right into it with Nicole’s help,” Ms. Pinaglia said.
While she started out in what she thought was a traditional sports documentary format, Ms. Pinaglia said she quickly realized that interesting individuals and situations did nor fit into what she originally had in mind: “There’s definitely the competitive nature of it, but there’s also this amazing community that supports girls and women, and yes also boys and men, to become confident and self-assured individuals.”
One important aspect of documentary filmmaking, according to Ms. Pinaglia, is relationship building. “As a filmmaker, you have to gain the trust of the individuals in your documentary. Some people are easy and quick to open up, others take work. You have to rightfully earn that trust and also maintain it. I might be the one making the documentary, but it’s their story and their life,” she said.
Ms. Pinaglia said she hopes audiences who see “Life in Synchro” will find new appreciation for the sport and its athletes. “There are thousands of synchro skaters in the US, and they need our support. They need audiences to come watch them skate and compete,” she said.
Like Ms. Murthy, Ms. Pinaglia believes that a compelling documentary begins and ends with people. “If there are authentic individuals in a film, as a viewer you root for them. And having that connection to people is what makes the journey of the film exciting. You want to know what’s going to happen to them,” she said.
Ben Rekhi has directed three narrative features and some documentary shorts, but “The Reunited States,” a film profiling those who have dedicated their lives to promoting depolarization and communication across the political divide, is his first full-length documentary feature.
“After the 2016 election I wanted to move into nonfiction. It was a way to not only process the new reality that we were in, but as a means to give others hope in turbulent times,” he said.
Mr. Rekhi said the impetus for the film came from listening to Susan Bro give a talk on the need for difficult conversation for people to move past their divisions. Ms. Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. If someone who had suffered such an unimaginable tragedy could talk about reconciliation, thought Mr. Rekhi, “then what were the rest of us doing?”
The film took two years to shoot and edit. “This project brought me to 20 states I’d never been to [and] allowed me to interact with people that have changed me, and given me a deeper appreciation of our country and its potential,” Mr. Rekhi said.
In documentary filmmaking, Mr. Rekhi noted, “No matter how much you try to shape the film into your idea, ultimately the film tells you want it wants to people. People say filmmaking is telling a story; to me filmmaking is about deeply listening and truthfully reflecting peoples’ experiences.”
Mr. Rekhi’s hope is that “The Reunited States” reaches a broad audience: “I think it speaks to our times like nothing else I’ve done before. My greatest desire is that the film can give people some hope when it is so badly needed. That it can inspire people and remind us that things will get better and that we all have a role to play in building a healthier democracy. Because right now we need all the hope we can get.”
“Medicating Normal,” a film that follows the stories of five Americans who were harmed by their prescribed medications, is the first feature-length documentary from co-director Lynn Cunningham, who said she went into documentary filmmaking because she was “interested in the power of human stories.” Co-director Wendy Ractliffe is a first-time director, although she has been involved in other activist films.
The film took about five years to make.
Ms. Cunningham stressed that the film’s subjects and their stories are not anomalies or the result of “bad doctoring”; rather, they are representative of countless tragedies that have taken place all over the country. “So many vulnerable groups are being over-medicated,” she said.
And while the stories are disturbing, Ms. Cunningham said she and Ms. Ractliffe did not want to end with a a story of harm and devastation. Rather, “we wanted our subjects and their struggles back to health to give hope to our viewers and credibility to our premise,” she said.
Ms. Ractliffe called the documentary an “introduction to taking a critical look at psychiatric medications and how they are used today.”
In listing aspects of documentary filmmaking that audiences might not be aware of, Ms. Cunningham pointed to the “long journey a narrative-driven documentary film sometimes takes. The patience to follow unfolding human stories is critical, especially in a film that challenges a conventional narrative.”
Touching on a matter of practicality Ms. Ractliffe noted that when it comes to a documentary film, to get Errors and Omissions Insurance “lawyers check pretty much every statement by experts to be sure that it’s true and that the film can’t be sued for defamation.”
When asked what makes a compelling documentary, Ms. Cunningham first touched on the tangible: “The ability to record high-quality sound and images.” She then noted a more intangible aspect: “Equally important is the confidence to follow your gut and your heart and to not let others sway you. Also, it is critical in gaining credibility to honestly listen to and report all aspects of a story even when they doesn’t fit a particular narrative. I like documentaries that address big important social issues or that somehow change how I see something.”
“There is an element of luck and serendipity when you are following people’s real-life stories. You don’t know what is going to happen until it happens,” she added.
Darby Duffin and Adam Jones are the filmmakers behind “Fish & Men,” which is focused on the adverse affects of fish farming. This is their first documentary.
“I think a common trait for documentary filmmakers is curiosity,” Mr. Duffin said. “Meeting a person with a unique mission. Reading news that piques your interest. I think I’ve always found true stories more compelling than fiction.”
Mr. Duffin said the genesis for “Fish & Men” came about in late 2012 when he put together a pitch for a documentary film contest and reality TV show. He teamed up with Mr. Jones in 2013.
While locals here know that fresh, local fish is better, the main premise of the film according to Mr. Duffin is that most consumers in the United States have no idea where their seafood comes from. “Americans are obsessed with a small number of species like shrimp, salmon and tilapia—most of which is farm-raised and pose real risks to public health. Consumers should ask where their seafood is from,” he said.
With documentary films Mr. Duffin described the process as a “long, arduous path to the finish line. It’s not an instant-gratification business. Only the most persistent and passionate of filmmakers will persevere to the end.”
If you do make it to the end, though, “documentaries have the potential to change minds, hearts, policy, eating habits and worldviews for your audience,” Mr. Jones said. “This is a great responsibility, and we as filmmakers need to keep the bar high.”
Educator and filmmaker Thomas Keith is the force behind “Bullied,” which examines the causes and consequences of systemic school bullying. “There are solutions to bullying in schools that experts have been discussing for decades, but that are not being implemented in American schools,” said Mr. Keith, who added that in his opinion a compelling documentary film explores elements of the human condition and, in the case of “Bullied,” areas of social justice.
“The Book Makers” is the first feature-length documentary for filmmaker James Kennard who grew up under the influence of his award-winning documentary filmmaker father, David Having, and who has directed many short documentaries.
“Documentaries usually come about from the confluence of running into something interesting, forming some shape of narrative pitch and most crucially getting the money to do anything about it,” Mr. Kennard said.
“The Book Makers” is a love song for all things related to book making, book collecting and reading a real, hold-it-in-your-hand book, Mr. Kennard said. The film includes interviews with Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, Peter Koch and others.
One thing about documentaries that audiences might not be aware of is how much of a film’s budget gets spent on promotion. “We got taken up by American Public Television, which is great because it will be in front of more eyeballs,” Mr. Kennard said. “However, that means you have to pay a lot of fees for their work to make that happen. Money is always a problem. Find a patron and hold onto them tight. Meanwhile, make commercial things to pay the bills.”
Mr. Kennard said there is a documentary out there for every taste and interest and that good documentaries can range from informational to experimental.
“There are no rules. If you like re-watching what you made, it’s probably good enough for someone somewhere,” he said.
Mr. Kennard’s advice for would-be documentary filmmakers is, “Research the world, and keep interesting friends around.”
All-inclusive passes allow audiences to log in to the Woods Hole Film Festival’s steaming platform and watch a film at any time during the festival as well as take part in live events at scheduled times. Single festival tickets can also be purchased on demand. Purchases can be made through www.woodsholefilmfestival.org.