As told to A.frame
I grew up on an island—Bainbridge Island in Washington state—and I was just dying to explore the world. I saw documentary as a way to dive into cultures and places and periods of time and keep learning. All of those things have really proven true.
Initially, I was drawn to documentary after seeing The Times of Harvey Milk and being so compelled by the impact it made on me. As I started to become more interested in film and look for a place in it, honestly I saw a place for a woman in documentary more than I could see a place for myself in feature film.
I could watch a film like Harlan County USA and look at Barbara Kopple and imagine myself one day doing something like that. I went to a film school and two out of my three main professors at the Stanford documentary film program were women. They were incredible independent filmmakers as well as professors.
I think it just came down to that: I saw examples of women excelling and engaging in documentary around me.
When I was in high school, I was in a PBS documentary myself, about a mentorship program that I was a part of. We went on a retreat that was filmed by this film crew, who then kept following up with us throughout the year. And so I saw how it happened: the whole idea of intimately acquainting yourself with someone and following them over time and making a story out of it.
I think, in many cases, documentaries are as good as the relationships and intimacy that you develop with people, and that requires spending a lot of time. Not just time filming, but time just being, time experiencing things together, time to build up trust.
There's a saying in documentary that a film is never finished, it's just abandoned. You could keep working on it forever and at some point you have to choose not to. I think the best feeling is when you work your way towards a real sense of completeness and something about the cut that you've ended up with just feels like it's whole.
Often, you know you're there because you start to see that the response from people you show the film to is the response you want them to have. It's only later that you even understand exactly what were those tiny little things that you did to make it really work.
I think the films I feel the proudest of are the ones that I do feel I'm actually most at peace with.
It was completely fascinating to be involved in producing two VR films with Lynette Wallworth, the Australian artist who directed them. The first one, Collisions, was among the first 360 VR films to be cut pretty much like a documentary. It was fascinating to see how that documentary cinematic language translated into the virtual reality environment, and how you could tell a story in the way that we tell documentary stories, while leveraging a lot of that skillset and magic that Lynette brought from working in immersive media.
I think I brought some of that knowledge and thinking about immersion into Crip Camp. The footage was shot in 1971, but at the time, it was new media. It was the first feedback video that people, and certainly the kids at Camp Jened, had ever experienced. There's something about that, them just interacting with the camera in this completely fresh way, that I think makes the film so riveting.
I think that's why VR is so powerful right now. Our brains haven't fully adjusted to it yet. And so we experience this awe and wonder and amazement that is really engaging.
As technology continues to evolve, we will continue to be able to play with being at the cutting edge of cinematic experiences that are enthralling. There's an opportunity for artists and filmmakers to come in and tell really powerful stories that can help change the world with the extra added power of that fresh response to the technology.
Crip Camp, directed by Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, comes out on Netflix March 25.