Before I became a filmmaker, I was a photojournalist. It was a job
that often put me in risky and dangerous situations. Hanging out of
helicopters thousands of feet above ground, or finding myself with a
loaded gun pointed at my head—these were all part of a day’s
work. But none of the perils of photojournalism compare to the fear
I’ve experienced as a documentary filmmaker: the moment when I
show the completed film to my subject.
To make a meaningful documentary portrait of someone, you have to spend
months—even years—with them. During this time, you develop
a bond that even their closest friends don’t have. The subject
puts his or her trust in you, and often allows you to film their most
intimate and vulnerable moments. Then, after you’ve distilled
hundreds of hours of film into a coherent, organic piece that you think
tells the essential truth about someone, your subject sees his or her
life played out on screen. The problem is, it’s often not what
they think of as the “real” them.
Every scene can bring a different reaction from the one you expect.
I happen to think that it’s my duty as a responsible filmmaker
to show the finished product—the film in which they, and all their
warts, have a starring role—to my subjects. In person.
Then, I have to sit quietly, while they tell me exactly what they think—usually
in excruciating detail.
This is what I have come to call “the moment of truth.”
I learned from my photographer days not to show my subjects any photos
until after the assignment was over. Seeing a still picture, particularly
a candid one, is usually a shock and elicits reactions such as “Oh
my God, is THAT what I look like???” The way we picture ourselves
differs drastically from how we look in photos or on film, and this
difference is starkly revealed when a subject sees his reproduction.
When I became a filmmaker, I remembered this lesson. After all, a film
is millions of still photos, along with the added element of
sound. And, if you don’t like looking at yourself on film, I bet
you’re not going to like to listen!
It can be very hard for people to watch themselves, and harder still
for them to accept the inescapable fact that thousands of other people
are going to see them in all their glory. A word of advice to other
documentary filmmakers: To avoid disaster, get a signed release from
your subjects before you film a single frame.
But a signed release doesn’t let you off the hook entirely. You
still have to show the film to your subjects. When I finished Me
& My Matchmaker, I vividly remember the afternoon in Chicago
when I went to the house of Irene Nathan, the Jewish matchmaker I’d
been filming for nearly two years. I probably worried more about that
screening than about making the film, debating endlessly where we should
watch it, and whether to show it to her alone or with a group of her
friends (who could hopefully convince her it was good if she didn’t
We ended up in her kitchen watching the video on a tiny TV with rabbit
ears. As the credits rolled, she turned to me and said, “My dining
room table looks so messy in the movie. It’s a disgrace! Can you
cut that part out?”
The stakes were much higher on my most recent film, Tell Them
Who You Are, which is about my father, the cinematographer
Haskell Wexler, and our relationship. Being a veteran filmmaker and
documentarian, he knew the power of the image and how, through the editing
process, events could be portrayed in many different ways. That’s
one of the reasons why he refused to sign a release until he saw the
I prepared for the screening by listing every scene
he might object to—it was a long list—and wrote out
detailed reasons as to why each one was
important and had to stay in the film. I even consulted an astrologist
to determine which day to show it to him. (Hey, Nancy Reagan uses one.)
While this film was being made, my father and I dealt with issues on
camera that we had never talked about face-to-face.
I came to know him better in two years of filmmaking than I had in a
lifetime as his son. It was an intimate look at him and our relationship.
And now, he was going to see it all from my perspective, to step into
my shoes and essentially look at himself through my eyes. The night
before that screening, I got no sleep.
The one thing you can count on is that your subject’s reaction
will always surprise you. After watching Tell Them Who You Are
with my father, he praised it, said he hoped many people would see it,
and didn’t ask for a single change. And, he signed the release!
It was a moment I’ll never forget.