Make Something That No One Else Could Have Made

A Q&A with Indie Documentary Filmmaker, Scott Kirschenbaum

Scott Kirschenbaum isn’t too concerned with the typical Hollywood hustle. For the past 10 years, he’s been focused on telling hyper-intimate stories that are all too often left out of the spotlight. During our interview for Making Ways podcast, Scott talked about his path to independent filmmaking and his approach to art. Here’s an excerpt from our extended conversation with even more of Scott’s story.

Rob: I want to talk about your career and what you’re up to, but first I thought I could learn a little bit about Of Woman Born, your new documentary about pregnancy and childbirth.

Scott: It’s about one woman’s physical, emotional, and spiritual experience during labor. I looked all over the country to find the best subject. It turns out she lives in Greenville, South Carolina. I found a midwife there named Emily Graham and reached out to her to see if she had any clients that she thought would be good subjects for the film. But she was interested in getting pregnant herself. So we’ve been on this journey for a number of years as I’ve been waiting for her to get pregnant. Finally, she gave birth on December 6, 2016, to a beautiful girl.

I’m really curious about what it’s been like for you as a man to dive into the birth community. What made you want to approach this subject in the way that you did?

I would say ignorance was a motivating factor. I’m just around guys constantly who know much more about sex than they do about birth [itself]. I mean there are not many bros I know who are geeking out about how much they love birth and labor. My film partner Gracie. . .had two home births, and I had the great privilege of hearing her tell a birth story to me of her second labor. It just was so stunning from a screenwriter’s perspective. I was overwhelmed because I could never imagine something being that meticulously organized, with everyone moving through the space in such a fluid manner. And I’m someone who’s very drawn to films that take place in one location. So this kind of seemed like the ultimate opportunity. I was very drawn to the possibility and the challenge of it all.

There’s a theme I see emerging where you put yourself into difficult situations to confront difficult subject matter, but is the goal to also create art that is difficult or challenging for an audience?

I don’t know that I want to intentionally make things hard on an audience, but I do want audiences to sit in their seats and not flinch or feel that urge to leave because it’s different than what they’re used to. . . .Nowadays, we can check our phones or tune out what’s going on if we’re bored (or we just turn off). I would love the opportunity for audiences to say, “You know, I’m somewhat uncomfortable, and I’m going to stick with it because this is unusual and this is something that I can grow from experientially.” In my own everyday life, I like to be faced with unique experiences and sit with or be present with them — not run away from uncomfortable emotions. . . .Some people might say they’re more depressing or intense, but that’s life. We might as well make art that’s challenging.

Tell me about the project you did for Haiti. I’ve seen pieces of it, and it seems really wonderful and worthwhile. When did that happen?

[When] the earthquake in Haiti occurred, I remember vividly going to a party that night. I randomly picked up a newspaper, and I saw statistics about how many people had died in Haiti and images of the earthquake and the wreckage. And I felt nothing. . . .I had no immediate response, and I couldn’t understand why I had gotten to this place in life where that was the case. Like how can you just not have a visceral response? At the time, TED Talks were in the early stages and were very popular here in San Francisco. So I thought about hybridizing TED talks and doing a speaker series in Haiti, except instead of doing the presentations in conference halls and auditoriums in a formal, procedural way, we did it in the raw wreckage of the earthquake with Haitians talking about the work that they were doing for the recovery process. What seems so lame to me was that every other government and all these newspapers tried to tell the story of what Haiti needed to do to recover without any context for the history of the country. I’m not a Haitian studies scholar, but I wanted to give Haitians the opportunity to respond themselves.

What was your experience putting it together?

It was definitely the most arduous filmmaking process I’ve ever had. We had a lot of struggles in the first five days just trying to figure out how to make speeches happen in a timely manner, because we’d schedule something, and the person who would be giving the speech wasn’t there [because they were] busy dealing with some crisis in their community. And we were not getting the content that we wanted. I lucked into a conversation with two anthropologists from the States who were working over there. They said, “Listen, your project’s too important for us to let you fuck it up, so we’re going to take over and help you understand who you should be interviewing and who you should be working with on these speeches.” And from that point forward, things really started to click for the project. One of the big cell phone companies [in Haiti] decided to sponsor the film, and we ended up airing it on all the TV stations on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake.

Wow. What was the reaction of Haitians and people the world over?

I wish that it would have made more of a response internationally. I know that in French-speaking countries some of the speeches are still taught, and DVDs are incorporated into seminars in Haiti specifically. It seems like a pretty uplifting experience for people to be watching these speeches.

You’ve been doing documentaries for about 10 years. What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers — people who either want to study documentary filmmaking or want to get their first project launched and are curious about fundraising?

First and foremost, make the film that no one else wants to make. Be as brash as you can be, and come up with a subject that is so out there that it’s singularly yours — that you are the one who has to make it. Secondly, you’re not going to make a lot of money doing documentary films, so if you’re in it for money, you might want to consider a different avenue or take on work for a production company. If you want to be completely independent, you’ve got to accept the fact that a lot of the time, you’re going to be relatively broke. But that’s exciting to me. It’s a daring adventure, as Helen Keller might say. The stakes could not be greater each time, because if a film doesn’t succeed, I have to start back at square one.

So the advice I’d give a newbie is this: To hell with what the establishment is telling you. Just do the film that you need to make, and don’t make it too broad and don’t make it for the masses or to present at this or that festival. Make something that no one else could have made.

That’s amazing advice. Are there any films that you thought followed that singular focus and had success in what they were trying to prove creatively or reached an audience because they were so true to what they were trying to produce?

Absolutely. One is this movie Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait [by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno]. It’s just 20 or 30 cameras all following the soccer player Zidane through the course of one match. . . .I love the fact that all the cameras were trained on this one player’s experience from start to finish. In a way, Of Woman Born is the same kind of idea, which is following one woman start to finish and staying with her no matter what transpires.

Another movie is Into Great Silence. It’s a very slow, very tedious movie because it takes place all in a Carthusian monastery with silent monks who don’t say anything except for prayers. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour film, and it’s slow as can be, but it’s glorious in that you’re staying within that energy the whole way through. I love that filmmaker Philip Gröning imposed his will on the feeling and the aesthetic of the piece, and I also love the fact that the filmmaker waited 16 years to make the film. The monks had said no for 16 years and then finally were like, hey, what the hell. You can come here and do it, but you have to do it alone, and you have to stay six months.

One more movie that I think was really exceptional is the French film To Be and to Have, about a teacher in a small one-room schoolhouse in rural France. I think it’s the most popular documentary in the history of France. I love that director Nicolas Philibert stays in this micro-universe and is not trying to overly philosophize or editorialize what this teacher is all about. You can tell that that’s kind of something that I strive for with my own projects.

Listen here to Scott’s episode of Making Ways podcast and learn more about his path to independent filmmaking and his many adventures in storytelling.

Thanks to Scott Kirschenbaum for joining the program. You can subscribe to hear his episode and many more on iTunes and SoundCloud. To learn more about Scott, check out the film sites for Of Woman Born and You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t or visit MakingWays.co for show notes from his episode.

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