Questions that ensue from spotting yourself in a documentary movie

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Its an enormous thing to be trusted with someones story, says documentarian Anne de Mare.
  • Courtesy Anne de Mare
  • "It's an enormous thing to be trusted with someone's story," says documentarian Anne de Mare.
Did you know? Chicago Public Schools classifies about 19,000 of its students as homeless. CPS has appointed two employees per school—teachers, secretaries, even principals—as "homeless liaisons" responsible for keeping an eye on these kids and helping them survive. In August, during a half-day seminar for its 1,200 homeless liaisons, CPS showed them scenes and outtakes from a new documentary, The Homestretch, about homeless teenagers in Chicago.

Last week my wife and I—forewarned by friends who had already seen the movie—watched The Homestretch at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We knew we couldn't afford to blink so we didn't, and sure enough, there we were, onscreen for a split-second in a tiny room in the basement of a church in Lakeview.

It was closing night at the Crib, a homeless shelter that in 2011 lost its state funding. My wife, Betsy Nore, was a volunteer who'd made breakfast at the Crib every Tuesday, and she wanted to be there for its last night, sure to be a time of both tears and rambunctious celebration. (These kids are out there, she told me.) I came along to see the place she'd been willing to get out of bed for at 6:30 AM.

I admit I forget things. As we watched The Homestretch I'd forgotten that a year earlier I mentioned it in an article on the first Good Pitch Chicago, in which documentaries nearing completion are brought together with potential funders and with nonprofits looking for movies that advance their message. The 2013 Good Pitch Chicago led to the connection between The Homestretch and CPS.

But I don't think both my wife and I could have forgotten that the last night of the Crib was going to show up in a movie. (Or, more precisely, the last night of that chapter of the Crib—it's since received city funding and reopened.) Hand-held cameras aren't obtrusive, but they're not invisible either.

Documentarians like to claim that if they do their job right no one thinks about them, and I've always been skeptical—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and all that. The Homestretch tackles an immense social problem that, locally and nationally, is vastly out of scale with the resources available to deal with it. (Compare CPS's 19,000 with the 20 kids the Crib can handle on an average night.) But it introduces us to homeless liaisons and the like who are so earnest, competent, and generous that as I watched them I thought, They know they're being filmed.

But that was before I saw us at the crib. We were all being filmed and we didn't know it. And for those who did, it was probably the last thing on their minds.

Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly shot and directed The Homestretch, their Spargel Productions working in conjunction with Kartemquin Films. De Mare shot the Crib sequence, and I talked to her about it. A brief conversation on the phone became a more extended exchange of thoughts by e-mail.

"We were filming at the Crib an entire week before they closed," de Mare said. "We spent a lot of time talking to people on camera and off camera." That final night, she told me, the staff made one request to her: keep her camera in the back of the room. "I don't think they felt the cameras would necessarily change what happened," de Mare told me, "but they knew that the evening would be highly emotional for the young people, and they wanted to give them a lot of room and respect around those emotions."

"It's easier for a camera to disappear in a moment of emotion," de Mare said. "It was just me with a hand-held camera and trying to be in the space but be a fly on the wall."

And she was. I'd have been aware of her if she'd positioned herself so the action—which was highly emotional, at times extravagantly emotional—swirled around her. But I'd also have been aware of her if the kids had played to her, or if they'd been telling each other that the Crib was closing but at least they'd all get to be in a movie together.

A camera can change everything. But they forgot all about her.

Other moments in the movie were much quieter and more intimate—such as the scenes of a high school senior in the home of a former teacher who'd spotted him living on the streets and taken him in. It's hard to be making a movie and go unnoticed in a cramped kitchen.

"Familiarity really helps too," de Mare told me, "and this was probably much more a factor overall for us working on this particular film than the emotional moment part. Capturing the quiet in Maria's home came from being a fly on the wall there for hours and hours and hours, to the point where they (almost) forgot about us."

She went on, "I think this is why long-form documentary is so terribly important as a medium, and it's something not a lot of people talk about. When a camera comes in and out of a person's life quickly, that's one relationship, but when you spend a number of years with a subject, the camera really does fall away, and the relationship with the filmmaker becomes stronger than the presence of the camera.

"Make sense? Intimacy is all about relationships, after all."

Intimacy is also all about trust. Don't a documentarian and her subjects agree implicitly on a contract—that they will speak openly and honestly in front of her camera and she, in turn, will portray them accurately and sympathetically? And isn't that contract a threat to the integrity of the project when the time comes for her to pick and choose among images and sequences for the sake of creating a narrative?

"It's an enormous thing to be trusted with someone's story, especially over time," said de Mare. "It can be a ruthless thing to try to distill a story to its essence, and for us, that has always been the primary task at hand—both when filming and in the edit room. But I think if the documentarians are consistent and honest with their subjects about the primary motivation for the film, the burden in the edit room is far less than you might expect.

"I think the hardest thing about this kind of relationship is actually the subjects you spend time with who are completely cut from the film. One was a young man who came to see the film at Siskel last week; he was incredibly moved and I believe (although we didn't speak directly about it that night) carries a real disappointment that he wasn't part of the final product. It's hard to take responsibility for that disappointment, especially in a young person who has been disappointed by the world so much. . . .

"Ultimately, you hope the substance and value of the film transcends the emotions that both the subjects and the filmmakers had when making it."

Which I believe is a way of saying that the film is bigger than anyone in it. You don't want to hurt any of those people's feelings, but you can't lose track of why you started the movie in the first place.

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