“It’s this strange zone,” says documentary director Donal Mosher. “These are not organic friendships. You end up having deep, caring relationships with your subjects. But they are not natural.”
Mosher is referring to the relationships filmmakers have with their subjects. It’s familiar territory for documentary filmmakers, but it’s rarely discussed in public.
In effect, directors act to gain the favor of their subjects. You can see it on the screen when Michael Moore puts on his soft, bedside voice when speaking with a woman ravaged by the injustices of the health care system in Sicko.
What’s he doing? He’s playing a part, altering his persona to better relate to the subject, which produces a better interview for his film.
I recently considered this issue when I wrote a story for The New York Times about couples — brothers, married couples, friends — and how they navigate the terrain of being filmmakers while maintaining a personal relationship. I noticed that one of the great assets of being part of a directing team is that subjects come to trust different people differently, and so being two filmmakers ups the chance of gaining confidences.
But to what degree does a documentary filmmaker construct whom he or she is to make the best film possible?
“You want people to know who you are,” Mosher continues. “But sometimes it’s not useful or appropriate to bring certain things up.”
Mosher co-directs with his working partner Michael Palmieri. They are a skilled doc team whose October Country, which focuses on Mosher’s own dysfunctional family, won a Cinema Eye Honors award for best debut documentary in 2010. Their second film, Off Label, is an unusual dissection of the health care crisis. It’s as damning of the health care system as Moore’s Sicko — if not more so — because it’s impressionistic, lyrical and more focused on story and character than it is on bombast or message. (Off Label premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently on the festival circuit.)
These guys, as it turns out, have given a lot of thought to how directors adapt to their subjects. “Documentary filmmakers are engaged, in a way, in performance in conjunction with their subjects,” Palmieri says. “And the good subjects are also aware of the performative aspect that they are a part of.”
We all put on different personas for different people, so it only makes sense that the same happens when a filmmaker is thrusting him or herself into a subject’s life, and hoping to win trust. In the classic Grey Gardens, Little Edie had a thing for David Maysles, and after winning her over, she “performed” very well for him.
In their case, Mosher says Palmieri is particularly good at engaging subjects and making them feel comfortable. (For his part, Mosher says he’s pretty good at winning over grandmothers.)
This subject takes a whole new level of complexity when the subjects make assumptions about the filmmakers, such as, for example, that they’re straight. Which Mosher and Palmieri are not.
“When you are gay, you are often in performative context to match the situation,” Palmieri says. “That’s where things get interesting.”
When working in the field, Palmieri and Mosher don’t wear their sexuality on their sleeves, any more or less than a hetero filmmaker would. “But when we are in the middle of Iowa,” Palmieri notes, “being gay doesn’t figure well.”
Of the Off Label subjects, some knew the filmmakers were gay, and others didn’t. A war veteran subject, whom you might think would be thrown by their being gay, “didn’t give a s—,” Palmieri says. “And in the situations that they don’t know, it wasn’t that we were hiding it.”
What their subjects would find out is that Mosher and Palmieri were a couple, although not any more. “There is not a socially defined term for the relationship we’re in,” Palmieri says. “It’s platonic, but deeply loving. It began as a romantic relationship and now the creative side has blossomed.”
It seems Palmieri and Mosher would just as much prefer to not put a label on their relationship with each other, as with their subjects.
How would you, doc filmmakers out there, describe your relationship with your subjects? How much do you reveal of yourself?