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The provisional intimacy aspect: A documentary paradox

Asking someone to share a personal story that leaves them both vulnerable to another person’s interpretation and portrayal of said story - as well as the subsequent public judgement of it - might seem like a daunting prospect at first. Yet, this is simply another reality that I face as a Documentary Storyteller. Through the few works that I have done over the past four years, I am always amazed at how genuineness can disarm the defences that people assumedly put on when a stranger encroaches into their personal space – both physically and emotionally.

And I am, in most cases, a stranger – a curious wanderer that stumbled onto a trail that led to their stories. In the relatively short time that we spend together, I need to earn their trust to the point where they find me worthy to wield pieces of their truth as the self-designated architect of this work. And when I did, the burden was heavy.

My first experience with it was during the post-production stage of The Conservation Conversation, my very first documentary back in 2016. At this stage, certain aspects and details captured during the production stage would find its way on the cutting room floor as the documentary was pieced together. It was then, in one of those long nights, that I attained a critical awareness of the responsibility I hold when I assume this role. Detached from the need of approval from the source, I have the power to shape their story for this documentary medium. There are an infinite number of ways to do so and thus many ways to do wrong.

To do right is also a relative assessment, one worthy of exploration in another article. But going back to the topic at hand, I am amazed by this power that I am granted by my subjects, for I am neither a family member nor a close friend. Yet, time after time, I am given access to emotional personal stories of life, death, and the magic in between – stories that you may not even share with your closest partners. And yet here I am, having my genuineness be reciprocated with the same, but on camera and not in private.

In these privileged moments where I sit across my interviewees while they are sharing something incredibly personal and intimate with me, I am reminded about one of the greatest joys of being a documentary storyteller. A private seat to witness another human being finding themself compelled to share a piece of themself to someone else, and then granting that person the opportunity to do so on their behalf. The best analogy that I can think of is a private view of a sunrise, one that only I can see as it ascends over the horizon, revealing something new. And I get to capture and interpret that for others. I cannot understate the special nature of this responsibility.

Yet, I am also keenly aware of the provisional nature of it all. Whatever we may have gone through during the production to reach a level of intimacy where this magic occurs, no matter how we have converged in this point in our lives, we will eventually diverge. We go on with our lives separately; in most cases, as strangers once more.

I find this aspect of the documentary process fascinating. Perhaps it is showing me how we as people can truly be with one another. That the earning of trust to the point of such stakes are not bounded by time spent or relationships. It frustrates me as well, because there is only so much time that I can spend on one person’s story. Perhaps in a few decades, my current appreciation for the human genuineness and what comes with it will deepen into understanding.

But for now, I can only be grateful.

OKJ