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Open City Doc Fest: Telling Personal Stories in Documentaries


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Personal stories play a complex, but important role in documentary-making. Because it’s non-fiction, documentary filmmakers have to carefully balance the personal and the factual to give wider contexts and still tell the story they want told.

Speaking at a panel about the ‘Personal Lens’ in documentary-making at the Open City Documentary Festival, speakers Dónal Foreman (The Image You Missed), Cyril Aris (The Swing) and Zita Erffa (The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life) shared insights from their own work telling incredibly personal stories.

Image by: Borislava Todorova

A large obstacle that the three speakers all encountered was telling incredibly intimate stories in a way that will engage other people.

Zita Effra, who faces her brother after he joined a conservative Roman Catholic order in her work The Best Thing You Can Do In Your Life, ended up treating herself as a character in the story, as she was changing so fast.  

Speaker Donal Foreman, whose work The Image You Missed weaves the story of the Northern Irish Troubles with the story of a father and son, says that he found he had to give just enough information so that people can make a connection.

The Image You Missed merges the personal and political superbly, and presents an intimate conversation between father and son on the backdrop of their own cinematic work.

Foreman sets out to discover the late Irish-American documentarian Arthur MacCaig, who was dedicated to chronicling the Troubles – also incidentally Donal’s father – through his works, exploring the commonalities and differences between the two of them.

Through the process of creating the film, he had to think of ways to getting closer to his father’s work, while also putting the distance within the work itself. The images and footage left by his father were the only answers for his questions.

The Image You Missed teaser trailer from Donal Foreman on Vimeo.

As such, there is a need to create a character from the people you love, so that those watching the film can grow to love them too.

“People have to care about this subject matter as much as you do, otherwise it doesn’t work,” speaker Cyril Aris says.

His work The Swing offers a haunting commentary on the complexities of grief, as he captures the story of his grandparents, who are waiting the visit from their daughter gone on a journey to South America. The tragic catch, however, is that following the daughter’s tragic death, Viviane cannot share her grief with her husband, as it would inevitably affect his fragile heart.  

THE SWING (Official Trailer) from Cyril Aris on Vimeo.

The way The Swing was shot was pretty instinctive, Cyril shares, as putting his grandmother in the corner of the frame instinctively represented the elephant in the room. The location itself was also a character – the inside of the house represents a static, never-changing place, where time is standing still, while the outdoors changes with the seasons and the construction work nearing its end.

Similarly, Zita Effra finds the emotional importance of the frame in a shot of a bell, which dominates the routine of her estranged brother, whose newfound life she sets out to explore.

She retells the story of her brother – who joined a controversial conservative Roman Catholic order, the Legion of Christ – while examining its way of life, but also documenting her relationship with her brother.

Trailer_The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life from Zita on Vimeo.

The three films are very different in the nature of their topics, and as such the three filmmakers felt differently about being so exposed in front of the camera. Zita’s story is as much about the order and her brother as it is about her anger, which resounded with others’ anger towards the order. She also found it incredibly hard to be critical of the order in a constructive way, without letting her anger colour the perspective too much.

For Donal, the making of this film was an opportunity to reconnect with his father, whose story equally mirrors and contrasts his own, and try to understand him through his work.

Despite the heavy topic, the making of The Swing itself was much more joyful, on the other hand – Cyril recounts that his grandmother used to “hold his equipment hostage”, making sure that he would be back the next day. And in the course of the year it took him to shoot the documentary, he was also unknowingly documenting the last year of his grandfather’s life.

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