A review by David L. Brown
Stories Make the World: Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary, Stephen Most’s new book, is smart, well-written and engrossing. The author is a documentary writer/producer whose professional life is full of storytelling – for stage, page and screen.
Filled with fascinating detail and insight into a very broad range of storytelling, Stories Make the World is an important addition to the books on documentaries and on storytelling in general. It will be very valuable for all students and makers of documentary films and for everyone who cares about the power of documentary to tell dramatic stories and to enhance our understanding of the world.
Full disclosure: Most has worked with me on numerous projects as a documentary screenwriter and proposal writer since I offered him his first documentary gig in 1982, and I have collaborated on film projects with a number of the Bay Area documentarians Most writes about in Stories Make the World.
The author skillfully weaves four strands in his reflections on nonfiction storytelling: first, the crucial importance of storytelling as a human activity—from the created-by-firelight cave paintings at Chauvet to foundational texts of civilization, including the Bible and Homeric epics, and from indigenous oral histories to documentary films; second, profiles of influential storytellers Most knew personally, including a Peruvian shaman, Eduardo Calderón, the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, and Hannah Arendt, a brilliant thinker about politics and history; third, inquiries into the subjects of various documentaries Most has worked on as writer/researcher/script doctor; and finally, insights based on his experience “turning a wide range of subjects into stories for documentaries.”
The book includes a wealth of practical advice for docmakers, fledgling or veteran, who want to strengthen their storytelling skills. With fascinating detail, Most discusses casting, research, finding the frame and the focus, narration writing, and dramatic structure. He examines the central concepts of dramatic structure in describing its origins in ancient Greece. Most learned from Hannah Arendt, his graduate school mentor, about the importance of impartiality in storytelling, which Homer’s “Olympian” perspective brought into the world and which the Greek tragedians, beginning with Aeschylus, displayed onstage. Most explains: “Homer’s idea that the Olympian gods observe human affairs as spectators gave him a vantage point from which to respect the humanity of his characters.” This enabled epic poems like The Iliad and plays including Aeschylus’ The Persians to transcend the concept of “the Other,” the tendency to see other clans, nationalities or language-speakers, the non-Greeks, as “barbarian.”
Most distinguishes between impartiality and objectivity. Impartiality, as Arendt wrote, “may be the highest type of objectivity we know.” Filmmakers exercise subjectivity with every shot composition and edit, yet they work toward truthfulness in nonfiction storytelling through the examination of multiple perspectives while maintaining an open mind. The key to understanding reality in filmmaking as in science and the judicial process is “gathering every scrap of evidence and seeking testimony from every credible witness.”
In examining the storytelling approach of several documentaries, Most addresses the questions of truth vs. disinformation, propaganda and lies. “The failure to distinguish between fact and opinion is characteristic of an era in which information is limitless in quantity, immediately available, and removed from contexts that ground it in reality. Self-reinforcing mindsets pick and choose whichever facts lend them credibility while ignoring the commitment to factual truth.” Although unstated by Most, these issues of truthfulness and of demonizing the Other are especially resonant in the age of Trump’s Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and the media question, “Is Truth Dead?”
A unique feature of Stories Make the World is its link to a webpage from which readers can stream and download seven of the films Most writes about at Video Project. This URL, which is printed on a card inserted in the paperback, connects directly from the e-book edition. In effect, this book about films has its own online film festival.
The films Most examines in detail that are available online include Oil On Ice, River of Renewal, and Dark Circle.
Oil on Ice, he tells us, “intended to combat a powerful lie.” On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a senator holds up a blank piece of poster board and says, “There is nothing there,” using the absence of an image to justify drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With a wealth of irrefutable visual evidence and interviews with Native Americans and others, the documentary refutes the lie, showing an extraordinary diversity of plant and animal life that lives there, which includes caribou, aquatic mammals and migratory birds. The PBS broadcast along with an integrated public education and engagement campaign resulted in Oil on Ice making a large contribution not only to national awareness of the environmental impact of oil drilling in this wilderness area (millions of letters came to Congress), but also in showing the Arctic’s part in the larger drama of “the transformation of the natural world that results from human actions.”
By writing a detailed treatment for Oil on Ice, Most helped resolve a conflict between the co-directors, Dale Djerassi and Bo Boudart, on the vision of the documentary. Many documentarians who have collaborated or co-directed will appreciate this conflict resolution.
The value of impartiality in filmmaking becomes clear in Most’s account of the making of River of Renewal, his documentary involving Native American fishing rights, a decreasing salmon run, and farmers who need water in Northern California’s Klamath River Basin. The author has a long association with Native American history and culture and friendship with members of the tribes of the Klamath Basin, yet in the face of environmental conflict and a polarized political situation, he needed to understand the farmers’ perspective in the dispute over Klamath waters. In seeking a unifying storyline, he first followed the various sides of the story as it evolved, which led him to a number of stakeholders, from fishermen to environmentalists, from farmers to federal agencies. Since no one perspective could connect the dots of this story, Most asked his co-producer, Jack Kohler, a California Indian who is Welsh on his mother’s side, to be the on-camera narrator. Jack’s journey became the storyline that helped the audience understand all sides of the conflict.
The story that evolved over years of filming was “an ecological drama whose protagonists recognize their connectedness and join forces to fix the world.” Instead of fighting, they went out for beers, and through a process of conflict resolution and consensus building, they developed a shared vision for the future of the Klamath Basin.
Another film that uses a filmmaker’s narration is Dark Circle. This award-winning documentary by Judy Irving, Chris Beaver and Ruth Landy focuses on plutonium, the deadly element that links nuclear power with nuclear weapons, and on those whose lives have been affected by it. The filmmakers chose three principal locations, Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant on the central California coast, and Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). They also interviewed a variety of experts and people impacted by plutonium, including a Nagasaki survivor.
Although they had Ellen Burstyn, Academy Award-winner, on board to narrate, on the actress’s urging they opted for co-director Irving to narrate in order to personalize the story. In the film we see a photo of Irving as a child while her voice-over tells us how she was taught to “duck and cover in the event of nuclear war, to believe in Atoms for Peace, and to rely on our friend, the atom.” Then she tells us about visiting Denver when she read an article reporting that plutonium from Rocky Flats was contaminating the local water supply. Suddenly, she asked herself if a glass of water she drank would give her cancer. As 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt often said, “the audience is in the tent.”
Most details the filmmakers’ gathering of compelling evidence and stories including a plant worker’s death from brain cancer, multiple plutonium releases from the plant, and scientific data showing high levels of plutonium contamination in the area. Scenes include local antinuclear activists organizing and a Rocky Flats staffer stating the health effects of the releases “are too small to measure.” There was not a clear unifying storyline until one of the activists living in a subdivision near Rocky Flats, Marlene Batley, decided to sell her house and faced the difficult ethical dilemma of whether to disclose the truth about the soil contamination. Earlier in the film, Batley expresses deep concern about the plant’s health impacts as we watch her children playing with neighbor children in a dirt pile near her house. In the closing act of the documentary, Batley and her husband sell their house to a young couple with two children, passing on the problem of plutonium contamination to another family. Irving’s voice responds memorably: “As I watched Marlene make her final decisions, I asked myself what I would have done.”
“The film does not take sides where Marlene Batley is concerned,” Most writes. “It does not tell viewers what to think about the choice she must make. Rather it has them put themselves in her place.”
Some PBS programmers argued that Dark Circle is a biased antinuclear film. Most agrees that the film has a strong point of view but feels it is fair and impartial for its “multiplicity of perspectives” and its search for reality “supported by thorough research.”
Then he recounts the saga of the filmmakers’ long struggle to have their film broadcast on national PBS. The sequence that was most problematic for PBS executives showed logos and slogans for the corporations that make the components for nuclear weapons. General Electric’s slogan is “we bring good things to life.” Despite pressure, the filmmakers refused to cut the sequence. Calling the film “one-sided,” PBS executives refused a national broadcast until five years after its premiere when Marc Weiss created the POV series on PBS. Most laments that the film needed this broadcast slot. “To call Dark Circle a POV film is to marginalize it while concealing the falsehood of the official media’s claim to unbiased comprehensiveness.” Six years after it was blocked from broadcast, the film won a national Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Documentary.
An important aspect of Dark Circle, Most suggests, that applies to social justice documentaries addressing disturbing subjects like wars or global warming is a sense of hope at the conclusion. Hopeful notes are struck when one of the plant workers at Rocky Flats gets another job and the huge blockade at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant results in the exposure of gross design flaws at the plant, which delays its licensing.
For the large number of documentarians who hope their docs will inspire or catalyze social change, hope is critically important, along with reaching “beyond the choir.” Change is unlikely to occur when the audience is demoralized and discouraged by the daunting challenges they face. Viewers must see some hope and, ideally, a window of opportunity for their involvement in making a difference.
Most applied this lesson to the Academy Award-nominee Berkeley in the Sixties, which Mark Kitchell directed, when he joined the project in post-production. Kitchell had filmed a number of excellent interviews with key witnesses to the dramatic decade in Berkeley that saw the dawn of the student protest movement in the Free Speech Movement, huge protests against the war in Vietnam, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. The director had acquired a wealth of compelling archival material from several local TV stations and filmmakers. Editor Veronica Selver had edited a first rough cut, but in screening it, Most saw two fundamental problems: the emotional arc was dispiriting and there was no overarching story. The cut ended with Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, calling in the National Guard to break up antiwar demonstrations and, during the protests over People’s Park, to drop tear gas from helicopters onto protestors. “Without a storyline, central character or point-of-view,” Most recalled, “Berkeley in the Sixties could not fly.”
Most’s ingenious solution was “to recruit a participant witness as a voice of the generation that engaged in, and was formed by, the events of the sixties. Of the people Kitchell had interviewed, Susan Griffin stood out for her ability to be that voice.” She had been a member of SLATE, a student political organization at UC Berkeley, and a participant in the Free Speech Movement on campus. By the time Berkeley in the Sixties was in production she had established a reputation as a poet, playwright and feminist thinker, and two of her books had become finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards. Griffin’s role in the film solved the problem Most refers to as “the dismal decade,” for she was able to speak of the feminist and environmental movements that emerged from the tumult of the sixties.
Most reminds us of the international context for the release of Berkeley in the Sixties in 1989. It was a year of revolutions in Eastern Europe that accelerated the end of the Soviet Union and of the Chinese student protests that ended tragically in Tiananmen Square. “Having Griffin speak for her generation turned out to be more than the solution of a problem in documentary storytelling. Members of a new generation striving to change the world needed whatever lessons the rebellious youth of the sixties had to offer. Members of each generation bring something new into the world, and like every preceding generation, they have stories to tell.”
In the closing narration of Berkeley in the Sixties, which exemplifies Most’s advice about narration being clear, concise and simple, Susan Griffin speaks from her experience to those who rose up in 1989, and she offers wisdom to subsequent generations as well:
“Having gained the freedom to see the world freshly and the ability to act for change, we carried what we learned into the rest of our lives. From personal issues to planetary concerns we continue to explore the potential for change. And as we watch activists for human rights and democracy around the world challenge the powers that be, we know that each generation has its chance to make things change and that no generation can do it alone.”
Among the many other distinguished documentaries that Most examines (and I wish I had space to describe) are: Promises by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, on Israeli and Palestinian youth and the humanity they have in common; Green Fire, by Ann and Steve Dunsky, on Aldo Leopold, the legendary naturalist, and his influential land ethic; Freedom on My Mind by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, on African American activists in the Civil Rights Movement; and In the Image, by Judith Montell and Emily Scharlatt, which follows young Palestinian women of the Camera Project who film their encounters with settlers and the Israeli army.
There is also a chapter about Wilder than Wild, a documentary about megafires and climate change by Stephen Most and Kevin White. This film was not completed when the book was written, giving the author an opportunity to discuss factors beyond a filmmaker’s control that shape a finished work.
Reading Stories Make the World made me think deeply about the history and importance of storytelling. This book makes me proud to be a documentary storyteller, to know that the stories Stephen Most tells come from his great experience and insight that has helped so many of my friends who are exemplary documentary storytellers. I also take pride that we are contributing to the long tradition of such an important, fundamental and impactful human endeavor.
Stories Make the World, Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary (Berghahn Books, 2017) is currently available in both print from your local bookstore and as an E-Book. Online sources for both formats.
Many of the films discussed in the book are available at public libraries or for rental/purchase on DVD or streaming at Video Project.
The chapter “Making Promises” can be read here.
Read the book’s Introduction here.
David L. Brown is a three-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who has produced, written and directed over 80 productions and 15 broadcast documentaries on social, nuclear, environmental, health, engineering, technology, aging, peace and justice issues. His documentaries have received over 85 international awards and have been broadcast on PBS and in sixteen countries.
Recent work includes: Going the Distance: Journeys of Recovery, an hour-long documentary on four survivors of traumatic brain injury that former ABC News anchor, Bob Woodruff called “the best film on the subject”; Keeper of the Beat: A Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Drumming, an hour-long documentary on the life and music of Barbara Borden, drummer extraordinaire, Runner Up for the Audience Award for Best Documentary, 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival; Running for Jim, a feature-length documentary on a legendary cross country coach who contracts ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Best Documentary, Soho International Film Festival, Audience Award, Tiburon Film Festival; The Bridge So Far: A Suspense Story, a comedic 56-minute documentary on the troubled 16-year history of the new east span of the S.F.-Oakland Bay Bridge that received two Emmy Awards (Best Documentary and Best Graphics and Animation in a Program) and aired on national PBS; Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown; an hour-long profile of legendary 94-year-old surfer, Woody Brown (Emmy nomination for Best Documentary, Inspiration Award at Mountainfilm in Telluride) that aired on national PBS; A Span in Time, a half-hour film on the Labor Day weekend closure of the S.F-Oakland Bay Bridge to replace a huge bridge segment (Emmy Award for Best Graphics and Animation, Emmy nomination for Best Documentary) that aired on national PBS; Seniors for Peace, a 26-minute portrait of a group of articulate and passionate senior peace activists (average age 85) which aired on national PBS; and Surfing for Life, an inspirational one hour documentary on older surfers as models of healthy aging. It screened theatrically in 40 cities, was broadcast on over 140 PBS stations, won 15 international awards (including the Golden Maile for Best Documentary and the Audience Award at the Hawai’i International Film Festival), and was profiled in The New York Times Magazine, Parade Magazine, on National Public Radio and ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a treasure, perhaps the most intelligent treatment of surfing ever captured on film.”
Brown produced several films on nuclear and environmental issues culminating in Bound by the Wind, a moving documentary on the global legacy of nuclear weapons testing and the plight of the world’s “downwinders.” It won 20 international awards and has been broadcast on PBS and in 14 countries. The Boston Globe called it “far and away the best film on the nuclear legacy.”
Brown teaches Documentary Filmmaking at City College of San Francisco. He has written many articles on film for Release Print (Film Arts Foundation), Video Networks (BAVC) and CineSource Magazine. He lives in Brisbane, CA.
Visit his website at David L. Brown Productions where his movies are available for purchase.