Over the next month, we at International Documentary Association (IDA) will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to launch this series of conversations, here is Martin Smith, director of Jimmy.
Synopsis: A day in the life of Jimmy McIntosh, MBE, who has tirelessly campaigned for disabled rights since 1972. An incredibly intimate portrait told from Jimmy's point of view, a wheelchair user living with cerebral palsy. Nothing stands in Jimmy's way.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Martin Smith: I had done a few experimental documentary films--all shot on Super 8--but I couldn't get my head around how I would shoot a documentary in the same way I approach my drama films: getting a strong point-of-view insight into a unique character's world. It wasn't until I met Jimmy and had the idea for the film that I thought I'd be able to make a documentary that was in keeping with the spirit of my drama work. I guess it was all about finding the right subject--someone whose story drew me in.
IDA: What inspired you to make Jimmy?
MS: I was shooting a short film and one of the locations was my local community center. Jimmy ran one of the groups there--a support network for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. I was introduced to Jimmy and got speaking to him about his life and his story. I was amazed by what he had been through--40 years institutionalised because of his disability. In those days, people with Jimmy's condition (cerebral palsy) were institutionalised and were considered 'Mentally Deficient' despite having no learning difficulties whatsoever. The treatment of the patients was at times really brutal. I was shocked by his stories, but more importantly I was inspired by what he did about it: He fought for, and won, the vote for the institutionalised disabled, a right that had been denied to them. I saw Jimmy as a modern-day Emmeline Pankhurst or Nelson Mandela, and what amazed me was that so few people really even knew about him. That was something I was keen to change.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
MS: Initially the challenge was earning Jimmy's trust. I knew Jimmy was happy for me to film him at work; he's really confident and comfortable in public, but I quickly realised that if I wanted a full insight into his life ,I'd need to get into his home and his relationship with his partner, Elisabeth. Jimmy was understandably protective of her, so I had to prove to Jimmy, through the process of spending time with him and following him as he went around his daily business, that I wanted to give a real insight and that my motives were going to be right and for the best of the film. In earning trust there is an exchange. I give something of myself and in doing that I got something from Jimmy. It made the filming process much richer for me, I got to know someone deeply, over the course of six months. I feel incredibly fortunate for having had the experience. Also, through the making of the film, I got to understand some of the huge challenges that are faced by wheelchair users; it had quite a profound effect on me. Having shot the film over the course of a Scottish winter, we had the issue of snow. I couldn't have imagined how much of an effect this could have had on someone like Jimmy. He was housebound for a couple of weeks, so I'd go over to his home, and actually it was a lovely period for me. I really got to know Jimmy well through that time; I even dug out his driveway when the snow got really bad. The snow presented continuity issues; it disappeared as quickly as it arrived. One night in late December I saw the snow falling again and called up Jimmy--was it snowing where he was? He looked out his window-- yep! I drove over there and we went out and shot another sequence when we could get the chance. It was a real collaboration in that sense.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
MS: Initially I was going to shoot a conventional observational documentary, and all my research shooting was lensed in that way, but Jimmy's story was so unique that we had a conversation about how we could elevate it, whether the shooting style had to be something more. I was always planning to take a day-in-the-life style format because from the very first time I met him. I saw he covered so much ground in a single day-- campaign meetings, electioneering, consultancy work with various organizations--and he has an active and varied social life. The key was going to be how to capture that in a satisfying narrative. I asked Jimmy about how he felt about the point-of-view style and he was happy to try it. Once I saw the first footage I found it very powerful; I felt it almost put me in his body. So we went with that, and I found myself acting as Jimmy's eyes for the next six months, trying to harness his unique physicality. I edited as I went along. If the footage worked, it stayed in the timeline; if it didn't, I questioned why that was and often returned to reshoot sequences. Finlay Pretsell, my producer at the Scottish Documentary Institute, would come round and see the edit and we'd chat about where the story was going. I felt I had the main body of the film nailed quite early on, maybe two months into filming, but coming close to my deadline, there was a key element I knew I needed to get. From time to time Jimmy would make campaign speeches, and I hadn't been around to get one of these. I didn't feel like I had a full insight into his life without hearing him speak about where he came from and the campaigns he fought. Fortunately, about a week before shooting ended, I filmed Jimmy as he gave one of these speeches. For me it was one of the most powerful moments in the film.
IDA: As you've screened Jimmy--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
MS: When I first saw the film in a cinema, I thought to myself, "What have I done?" The POV style was so intense, I wasn't sure what I had made, and if it was a complete disaster. It wasn't until audience members came up to me and told me how much it moved them that I thought I'd have to let it settle. It probably wasn't until I had seen it screened three or four times that I recognized it as the film we made. There have been quite a few audience members in tears, and I can understand why; Jimmy's story is really moving. People often come up to me afterwards and tell me how much it moved them. That's incredibly rewarding as a filmmaker, particularly as this is a film I wanted to make so I could give an insight into a life that I thought was truly remarkable. But if Jimmy had hated it, I would have been completely traumatized. Thankfully there were big smiles, and a few tears from him when he saw himself on the cinema screen. People are drawn to him, he gets so much attention. I'm really delighted by that.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
MS: Albert Maysles is really one of my cinematic heroes. I first saw Salesmen and Meet Marlon Brando on a worn-out VHS many years ago. At that point I never even understood what the term documentary actually meant. Where I came from, I never knew people could be documentary filmmakers. I was lucky enough to visit Al when I was last in New York and headed up to the Maysles Films office. It was like spending time with a hero. What an amazing guy; he's not only an innovator in his field, you feel the empathy he has for his participants in every frame of his work. I love all his films, even his commercials.
One of the first documentary films that I saw in a cinema was Steve James' Hoop Dreams. I'm a big fan of films that deal with a social concern, and I hadn't seen an insight into that life before. I'm always on the lookout for a subject in real life that will trigger a similar response in me and inspire me to pick up the camera again.
Jimmy will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City. For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here. This article can be found on the IDA website here.