Right before you start a documentary film, before you shoot a second of footage, what do you have? You might know who your main characters will be, but you have no idea of how they will “perform” on camera. You might know the history behind your project, but who knows how you’ll portray it – animation, archival stills, sit-down interviews? And for sure, none of us start with an ounce of funding in our pocket!
What we do have, of course, is a vision of what the film can be. This can be an all-encompassing vision like “I want to examine the murder of Vincent Chin by two Detroit auto-workers and how the resulting response reflects the second-class status of Asian Americans in white America.” Or, a film can start with a very limited vision like “I want to see what happens when a former business executive decides to run a public school in NYC’s South Bronx.” This latter vision was the genesis for my documentary WHATEVER IT TAKES.
Along the way, however, there’ve been a lot of people who urged me to take a different path. Some said that I should tell a broader story of the “small school” reform efforts in New York City. Others told me that they preferred to see a documentary told (and shot?) from the students’ perspective, because they’ve seen too many “principal-as-hero” films.
But now that the film is in its last stages of completion – music, animation, sound, and color correction – I can recognize how sticking to that original vision has yielded tangible results that I can actually see on the “big screen”. For instance, last month I was invited to show my film at a work-in-progress screening for The Paley Center’s annual documentary festival in New York City. Because of that audience’s incredibly enthusiastic response, I’m more positive than ever that we made the right choice to focus solely on the personal story of the school’s principal and his dynamic relationship with his students.
Hopefully, the film festivals that we recently applied to will also feel the same way. We hear from The Sundance Film Festival later on in November, so keep them fingers crossed!