I still haven’t managed to find out exactly what George Stoney said about bringing a documentary film back to the place where it was shot, but Deanna Kamiel was kind enough to share her notes on remarks Stoney made on the topic at the “Tribute to George Stoney” in October of 2008 at the IFC Center.
On that occasion, Stoney showed an excerpt from Uprising of ‘34, and talked about some of the responses that the film’s subjects – the people in the film – had when he showed it to them. “It is right as a filmmaker,” Kamiel reports Stoney as having said on that occasion, “that you should be able to bring your film back to your subject.”
“Right”: that word from Deanna’s notes intrigues me most. It puts the emphasis on the filmmakers’ relationship with the subject and the moral onus on the filmmaker. It’s less about truth-telling — whatever that means when talking about documentary film — than it is about respect. It seems almost to suggest that bringing a film back to the people it represents re-establishes some order (some “right relationship”) that filmmaking can too often disrupt. Films are not, in this way of thinking, a matter of “taking” someone’s picture, but instead of establishing a relationship in which you are able to bring the film back to them – giving back, not just taking. The film could be a gift, just a way of restoring the moving image to its subject.
So today we flew to the Upper Peninsula, to bring our film back to its subject – the town of Calumet, Michigan. We are showing the film tomorrow at the Calumet Theatre and then again on Saturday. Many of the people who appear in our film will be there. And I am wondering about how this exchange will work. I am not expecting anything like a sense of closure or resolution. I am not sure what to expect.
As we walked around the town today it felt so eerily familiar, and somehow both real and imagined, actual and remembered, a story and a place, filled with the sights and voices and the sounds that are in our film (the sign outside Bill’s Electrical squeaking as it sways, the wind coming off the lake that so often made recording sound difficult, the rumble of an old truck making its way down Fifth Street). It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that, for me at least, the place now feels a little haunted by the film we shot here.
I’m ready to admit that this might just be the confusion of our first day in town, and I’m wondering how we and, more importantly, 1913 Massacre will be received in the days to come. I suppose we will find out if we got it right, or at least if some people think we got some things right.