An Interview With – Documentary Filmmaker Steve James
Best known for his 1994 debut film Hoop Dreams, a portrait of two young basketball hopefuls, Steve James has spent over 16 years making documentaries. His work often explores race divisions within American society, such as his 2011 film The Interpreters, which looks at gang violence in the Chicago area. He met Anna Rodgers, for Film Ireland, at Sheffield Doc/Fest and discussed his life in documentary and the virtues of being an outsider.
Here at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Nick Fraser asked us to respond to the question ‘why is documentary important – why should we make documentaries?’ How would you answer that?
It’s not something I ask myself because I get so much good from doing it. I think that I do it because I can’t think of a better way to explore the world and be engaged in the world outside of my own little circle of friends and daily life – it’s such a great passport to the world around us. I think that we live in an increasingly mediated world where our connection to one another and the outside world is mediated and, paradoxically, documentary helps to connect us to the real world.
Sometimes as filmmakers we make sense of things in our own lives through our work. Do you feel you do that?
Steve James shooting Hoop Dreams
Absolutely. I do that all the time. The films I’ve made that mean the most to me have been in response to something very personal, whether it was something I was very passionate about or a question I had. Hoop Dreams
was about basketball and my own white version of the dream. I became very curious about some of the guys I had grown up playing ball with who were African American. I had this epiphany when I realised there’s more at stake here for them and wanted to understand that. With Stevie
, I wanted to figure out a relationship that I’d had with this kid years earlier and to find out what, if any, role I’d had in his life. With my new film, The Interrupters
, urban violence is something that bothers me personally because through Hoop Dreams
I’ve seen the devastating impact violence had on those families since the film.
You manage to capture extraordinary moments of raw emotion and drama with your characters in The Interrupters. How do you manage to be there for these very personal exchanges?
I think a lot of it is how you approach people. We’re always very low-key and we’re a small team. I make no promises of what’s going to happen to the film. I think the more relaxed you make people feel about your presence, the more comfortable they’ll behave. I’m a firm believer that people want to be themselves; it’s easier than trying to be somebody else. I think when people don’t see you as there to judge them and they feel your empathy, then they relax and feel safe – that’s why the filming usually gets better as you go along. You may get some great things in the beginning but the percentage of great things that happen is always increasing the more time you spend.
In the current climate of funding is it harder to play the long game and follow people over many years?
Steve James shooting The Interrupters in Chicago
The filming on The Interrupters
was about 14 months but we shot more in that time than we did on Hoop Dreams
in four-and-a-half years. I do think that it is probably harder to do longitudinal documentaries these days but it was always hard. As one broadcaster said to me, ‘The problem with your films is that you’re always going on a fishing expedition and how do I know you’re going to come back with fish’.
I had a meeting with a broadcaster recently who said we love the idea of these kinds of films but for us it’s only safe to put money into films when they’re done. It’s not that they aren’t looking for any surprises but it’s hard to put funding into something when even we don’t know what the story is going to be.
Often I see documentary films that deal with difficult subjects in our society yet they don’t really provide a solution. Do you think The Interrupters somehow holds an answer to gang violence, even though many unanswerable questions might remain?
Sometimes at screenings someone will stand up and say, ‘I kept waiting for you to engage in some sort of analysis of the historical and social conditions that have led to these neighbourhoods being this way’. I’ve said to them that it is certainly a choice one could make but I tend not to do that in any of my films. I don’t want to hear from experts, I want to hear from the people who are living in that reality to be the ‘experts’, the voices of wisdom. So unless those people are schooled in that sort of sociological analysis it’s not going to come out, but I hope the films still feel informed.
In No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson Joyce Hobson shows a lot of resistance to being interviewed. She had a negative attitude towards you as an outsider; a white filmmaker coming in to make a film about ‘them’, and felt African Americans should tell their own stories. Do you often encounter that?
That’s something I hear a lot so I was really glad to get an opportunity to put that into the film. It’s the thing that you battle with in a situation like that; to try to get the person to trust you enough to do the interview. This film is about race so it’s vitally important to know why she resisted me. What I said to her is what I believe: a film made by an outsider will always be different from a film made by a member of that class or race – an insider if you will. I would say both have their advantages because there is something about being an outsider which allows you to look at something with fresh eyes. Whereas if you’ve lived it, you tend not to see things which have been there all along, because it’s such a part of your daily existence. However, as an insider you also can have tremendous insight from having lived it. It’s one of the reasons why in my films I try to bring in an outsider’s perspective but I really work hard to find the people who will be our guides and provide an insight. It’s through their words and experiences that we try to understand the subject. I am an outsider. I was making the film from the vantage point of a white guy trying to understand what happened. If we ever get to a point where we feel we can’t understand each other across those dividing lines, then I think we’re lost.
Stevie is a very ethically challenging film. In a previous interview you spoke of the ‘callousness of documentary filmmakers’. Sometimes there’s a moment when something is happening and there’s this human part of you that wants to stop recording and put your arm around the person, but then there’s this other part that might be thinking ‘hold the shot, zoom in, this is it’. Do you struggle with that internally?
Steve James fishing with Stevie
Those moments are always the most pointed reminders of the difference between you being a friend to your subjects and being a filmmaker documenting their life. You’re feeling bad for them on a human level, and you want to help but you’re also realizing the significance of this moment in a story, and speaking to a larger, important issue. I think if you stop wrestling with that, if you stop caring and keep making films then that’s too bad – I think maybe you’ve gotten to a place that isn’t healthy. I think you have to be willing to not film things that you really desperately want, if it helps build a connection and trust, just like you have to be willing to take things out of your movie sometimes if you feel the subjects want it out. In the best films you want to get to a place where you’re not making a documentary about your subjects but you’re making it with them.
We were both at the Irish documentary Knuckle the other night at Doc/Fest, which displayed an almost visceral addiction to filming a subject. This is thematically very similar to The Interrupters – both deal with an entrenched culture of violence and identity formation around it. How do you know when to walk away from a story that doesn’t have a natural ending?
Sometimes there are natural junctures or endings. In Hoop Dreams they go off to college. It was a rite of passage – they had survived and off they go to whatever their future is going to be. With a film like The Interrupters it’s not so clear. You look for moments within all the little narratives of the film that feel complete in some way, which can be dramatically and thematically satisfying for the audience. I like the idea of leaving people with the sense that even though we are stopping here, these lives will go on. If you read a great fiction novel and you meet the writer you don’t ask them ‘so what’s going on with the characters’? With a documentary that people love it’s usually the very first question people ask. That’s really great because it means they have really connected with the characters.
This interview first appeared in Issue 139 of Film Ireland Magazine.