POV: What is observational filmmaking?
Jon Shenk: I think Al Maysles says it’s just getting close. Observational filmmaking is just getting as close as you can be with a camera. I think that every person that does it does it differently. Some people have strict rules, D.A. Pennebaker will not ever interview somebody. He says that he doesn’t know how to make a film where the action has already happened, where you have to talk to somebody about it, because he can only stand back and watch it. Other people will mix traditional verité filming — which is sort of fly on the wall — where you’re trying to reduce your interaction as much as you can with the people that you’re filming. In our case, we did a lot of that and then the occasional moment where we threw some questions at our characters because we felt like we just wanted insurance. We wanted to know that in the editing room if we didn’t get this emotion, or this kind of reaction, or this plot point, or whatever it was, that we at least wanted to have [something] in our back pocket that we could pull it out.
Peter talks with friends after school at Olathe East High School in Olathe, Kansas. He graduated in May of 2003.
Lost Boys of Sudan is an observational documentary. It is a verité observational documentary film. There’s no narrator. There are no formal interviews. There’s very little of what you’ll see in a traditional historical documentary. Ninety percent of the time the camera is on the camer aperson’s shoulder. The camera is sort of a human eye. It’s wandering around the room, seeing, sort of reacting in a relatively visceral way to what is going on. And it’s the same with sound. Occasionally we do have interviews in the film and we had the incredible task of relaying a historical context in which the story is happening that we do at the beginning of the film. We rely on some voiceover and still shooting to do that. So there are some other styles that come into it, but ninety percent of it is you’re in the room with the characters observing what they do.
Because at the end of the day, you want to tell their story, and you want to do it the best way you can and you don’t want to hamstring any of the issues that you’re trying to get across by some kind of a silly rule that you set for yourself. But we were surprised. It’s partly a hunt. Physically it’s a really demanding thing to do. At the end of a day filming this kind of film you’re exhausted. It’s part athletics. It’s incredibly intellectually rigorous because you’re constantly trying to figure out what’s next and where the right place to stand is and is the equipment working and so many things have to go right in order to get a good scene. And when you shoot a good scene, you know. You get to the end of it and you just want to give your partner a high-five, cause it’s just this great feeling that you’ve done all those things…you’ve done all the research and you’ve gotten yourself to the right place and you put yourself in the room, the equipment is working right and you’re at the right angle and, and more than anything, the thing that is true about the character was somehow portrayed in the conversation that went on or the action that they did. It’s a very exciting way to occupy your mind. Time flies and it’s a very satisfying effort.