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You can go your own way

by The Concordian October 4, 2011

Steve James was in town on Sept. 26, talking to students at Cinema Politica’s screening of his film The Interrupters. Photo by Thanh Pham

Two years ago, Steve James sat in a car and watched Flamo, a particularly volatile subject in his film The Interrupters, struggle with his thoughts. After a while, the troubled character spoke.
“You know, life repeat[s] itself as a cycle,” he said pensively. “You just be one of the people there telling the story. I’m trying to be one of the [people] telling the story.”
It was a poetic moment crucial to showing the man in transition, and an important part of the film as a whole. It’s those moments that make James happy to be a documentary filmmaker, and to have his camera around.
“[It was] perhaps not a moment that would’ve happened had I not been next to him filming,” James said. “He was struggling to articulate something as much for us as he was for himself. He might have just sat there and thought about it and looked out the window instead of saying it. But he forced himself to articulate it, probably for us. Does [that] make it any less true?”
For the director of Hoop Dreams, the interplay between his camera and the reality it captures is highly nuanced, and this complexity carries over to his films.
James’ films are so engrossing because he’s not giving a crash course on a specific topic, as you would see in an Alex Gibney documentary. You’re simply being placed in another world, inhabited by complicated social dynamics and equally complicated people. As James put it, he’s trying to distill his experience filming the movie into an accessible package.
“We boil it down from years of filming, in some cases, to a few hours,” James explained. “But I want you as a viewer to go on the same journey of immersion and revelation that I always feel like I go through.”
James is often referred to as part of the cinéma vérité movement, which strives for naturalism and tends to avoid direct interaction between filmmaker and subject. But he thinks making a film from this distance is unnecessarily restrictive.
“I always felt like vérité’s limitation is that it’s harder for you to get inside someone’s head,” he said. “I’m interested in really understanding interesting people and situations and immersing you, as the viewer, into the lives of such people.”
Instead of settling for the ‘fly on the wall’ experience of many cinéma vérité filmmakers, James lets you hear answers to questions you’d ask if you were there yourself.
Despite the strong moral compass that emerges clearly in his media interviews, James refuses to be polemic in his films. The absence of talking heads and broad voice-overs doesn’t mean a shortage of strong views, however, it simply means there’s less dogmatism.
“I hope to present the world in a complicated way so the viewer has something to chew on,” James said. “Something to think about and maybe even go off and, I don’t know, have dinner and argue about afterwards.”
None of James’ films exemplifies this more than Stevie, an intensely personal film about the man who, as a child, James was a Big Brother to. The film starts as a retrospective, but quickly becomes a gut-wrenching portrait of the emotional effects of an egregious crime on the perpetrator’s family and friends.
It’s shocking to watch everyone involved in the film, both in front of and behind the camera, struggle to come to terms with what Stevie has done. You can clearly sense James’ own doubts about his involvement as both a former mentor and a filmmaker. And it’s hard as a viewer to see Stevie’s fall, because the affection of those surrounding him in the film is so contagious.
This type of emotional involvement is common in his films. In Hoop Dreams, James watched Arthur Agee and William Gates grow up over the five years of filming. He built relationships that last to this day, and the level of comfort created was crucial to the film’s intimacy. But it was a double-edged sword emotionally.
“When William blew his knee out, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach as if my brother’s career was in jeopardy,” James recounted. “When he missed those free throws I was heartbroken. But I also realized, as a filmmaker, that was a very dramatic scene we just got. There are times you need to put something in the movie they might wish were not in there. But you want to come out of the experience feeling that you treated people with respect and empathy, and that your portrait shows that even if it shows some warts.”
James has focused on stories about the marginalized. In the U.S., this often means telling stories about inner city African-Americans. Being a middle-aged white man from Virginia, he’s often asked about racial obstacles he’s encountered. In his filmmaking process, James strives to avoid “making things a big deal.” He approaches race with the same pragmatism.
“I find being white and trying to tell a story about another ethnic group, as much as there’s a hurdle of sorts to get over, presents an opportunity,” he said with characteristic aplomb. “We live in such a stratifying society in the United States that I think there’s a tremendous amount of curiosity across lines of race. People want to actually talk to someone who’s white if you’re black, or vice versa. So the making of a film presents that opportunity – it can be a passport across lines of class and race.”
It’s clear, both from his films and the way he speaks, that James is a compassionate humanist. You become immersed in James’ films and hard realities cannot be shrugged off. But for James, the goal of the film is as much about the subject as the viewer.
“I think that making a documentary should ideally be a therapeutic process for [your subjects],” he mused. “You’re asking them questions, you’re curious about their lives, you’re spending all this time with them. And what you’re saying to them is that your life matters.”

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