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Sat, 03/01/2003 - 01:00
Filmmaker Kate Davis talks about her award-winning documentary "Southern Comfort" which will be shown at the Woods Hole Film Festival Winter Screening Series 2003.By Amy Souza
Davis made her first films while living in Boston, including "GirlTalk," about three runaway girls. She then moved to New York City, where she lived for 15 years. Part of that time she spent producing documentary programming for A&E television. While working on a show about transgendered people, she met Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual from Georgia who became the subject of "Southern Comfort."
The film follows Eads through the last year of his life while battling ovarian cancer. "Southern Comfort" won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
AS: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
DAVIS: I went to Harvard College as a liberal arts major, and studied painting. They had a documentary filmmaking department and I just stumbled into it. I’d always loved film for its combination of elements -- music, psychology, its potential political impact. It’s also a less isolated way of working, more collaborative.
AS: Why do you make documentaries?
DAVIS: I think they’re a strong tool for getting people to think differently about the world. I don’t want to say feature films are bad, but I believe that fiction is ultimately escapist and not provocative. I don’t mean to sound like a snob.
[The substance of] documentary films, though the lines can be very blurred, is clearly the stuff of reality. Ultimately the films manipulate reality; you know as an audience member that you are perceiving some representation, but the core of the film is to show you something of the objective world, even if it’s filtered through the filmmaker’s gaze.
AS: What draws you to a particular story?
DAVIS: Character-driven documentaries. I find people who are easily overlooked in society and try to give them a voice in the film, so they’re seen as fuller and more complex human beings than they were perceived to be. We all use stereotypes to help us understand the world, but it hurts. "Southern Comfort" was a clear example of that. There were people who didn’t know that female-to-males existed, even people in the medical profession.
[In "Southern Comfort"] I try to humanize Robert and make him appear as a three-dimensional human being and break through stereotypes. He falls for a male-to-female so it’s a real gender bender film. But it’s also a romance and a story of prejudice. If you like Robert, you can’t leave the film and think of these people as just talk show oddities. They’re just regular Joes, yet they’re also the scapegoats of society and risk their lives every time they walk down the street. I was working off that irony. They’re so normal and that’s the most shocking part of the film.
AS: I’ve read that you became close friends with Robert. Does that happen with most of your films?
DAVIS: It does tend to happen. It’s a line which journalists aren’t ethically allowed to cross, but I can’t help it. It’s not in the plan. But to make something positive out of [Robert’s] situation it was hard not to become involved. The film is better because of it, the camera almost became transparent.
But Robert, I was so struck by him as a character. He’s magnetic. I thought if I felt that, I knew it would come through the camera work.
As a filmmaker I have paid a price. The project ends but my relationships don’t. I try to keep up with all of them as friends but it’s hard when I’m busy working on another film.
And every film has its challenges, but the hardest part of "Southern Comfort" was losing [Robert] and watching him die.
AS: How long do you usually shoot?
DAVIS: The longer the better in some ways. "Girl Talk" I shot for about 6 months. "Southern Comfort" for a year off and on. I didn’t live in Georgia but I tried to stay in touch and live and breathe what they were going through. I couldn’t have done it in a few weeks like with a TV documentary. Those shoot for 10 to 15 days. They’re narration driven, and the people in the films are examples, it’s not watching things unfold in their lives.
AS: What are you working on now?
DAVIS: I’m doing a rough cut of a film about thoroughbred jockeys. They’re another minority group not really heard from and the struggles they have are so different from baseball players or boxers. HBO has been incredible in letting the film take shape. It’s really the only channel that supports and can afford to fund long-form documentary.
We’ve shot for almost a year and we’re not done yet. One of the subjects is in the Derby in May.
I’m working with my husband, David Heilbroner, and it helps a lot to have somebody that I see eye to eye with. He can think of things that I wouldn’t think to ask. We share the interviewing.
AS: Is it just the two of you?
DAVIS: Sometimes we have one other person in crew. I would never work with more than three.
AS: What editing equipment do you use?
DAVIS: Avid DV Express. It came out in June and I’ve felt a little like a guinea pig, though I haven’t had too many problems. There’s a guy here on the Vineyard who can help out. I’m not a techie at all, in fact I’m a technophobe. But it’s great. Even just five years ago I couldn’t edit a rough cut for HBO on Martha’s Vineyard.
AS: How long have you lived on the Vineyard?
DAVIS: I’ve been coming here during the summer for 15 years, but this is our first year here year-round. It’s a trial living situation. It doesn’t feel nearly as isolated as I thought it would. I think people need each other so they come out. There’s also lots of music and people have time to socialize. In New York it always felt like a lot of running around so there wasn’t much socializing, surprisingly.
AS: Can you tell me what part of the filmmaking process you enjoy the most?
DAVIS: Usually, I would say the editing. That is where the film gels, naturally, and it is highly dramatic to see if your material holds together as a whole, and what the impact is. With "Southern Comfort," however, I had an incredible time during the shooting, as I was so fond of the people in the film.
AS: Why do you edit your own work, and what do you like/not like about the process?
DAVIS: I have little ego when it comes to editing my own work. Often I would just assume another person take over. However, especially when I shoot the material, I have a sense of how it should be cut (my background is in editing) and I think if I hired someone, it would be exasperatingly difficult for them and for me, if I were leaning over them and suppressing the impulse to undo their work. On the other hand, I would caution anyone who cuts their own films, and I caution myself as well, because we all become attached to our shots and lose objectivity in the edit room. This is why I always pull in groups for many rough cut screenings.
AS: When working on a project, do you do a lot of preliminary research? For instance, for the project you're doing on jockeys, have you read a lot about the subject or are you mostly interviewing people?
DAVIS: I read a bit about jockeys, but mostly let the situations unfold in front of the camera, and learn as I go. The film's subjects tell me what is most important in their lives, and I think going in too well-rehearsed may hamper me in terms of dealing with the live-action feel.
AS: Can you tell me a bit about the differences between making a film with your husband versus making one by yourself or with others?
DAVIS: I usually work well with some sort of partner or right-hand person. But working with my husband was very efficient, in a way, because we see things similarly and could react to what was happening around us in a short-hand way, with little miscommunication. However, living and breathing a project with the person I live with can be a bit much, and we had to learn to put it down at some point during a candlelit dinner.
AS: You said that, "Someone made a joke once that I don't make cinema vérité, I make cinema sympathy." Can you tell me a little more about that, and your reaction to it? Do you agree with the sentiment?
DAVIS: I think that was an accurate remark, actually, because intimacy and seeing the world through the subjective perspective of my subjects has become my filmmaking style. This usually involves a large degree of projecting myself into my film subjects' experience. So a lack of objective narration, or fly-on-the-wall filmmaking is replaced by a sympathetic relationship to their experiences. This approach hardly fits the tenets of cinema vérité. I am not even attempting to tell the 'truth', but to present a story through my own eyes and the eyes of the subjects.
AS: I read that you've been working in the industry for 10 years. Can you tell me a little bit about the changes you've witnessed in that time.
DAVIS: Funding is much tougher now, especially from arts organizations. But with a DV camera, one can shoot a film for virtually nothing. There are more networks, which show docs, and more festivals, but as the numbers of filmmaker grow, this keeps competition high. In the balance of things, however, I would say it is easier to do more personal or local projects. Just go shoot! But if you need a true budget for a bigger production, it may be tougher. Yet even in the 70s, I doubt that making a large-scale documentary was easy.
AS: Any words of advice?
DAVIS: "Southern Comfort" is an example of finding a story and just going and taking a small camera and doing it. I had no support when I started, no funders were interested. I figured I’d show it to a few people and I’d be lucky if I got it on PBS. So I was shocked it opened theatrically in Japan, in Germany, it won over 20 awards, the Jury Prize at Sundance, and I don’t say this to toot my own horn, it was just a shock [for] this homemade, home spun story made on a tiny camera. I urge filmmakers to just do it. It’s so intimidating to make a movie to many people, but don’t let what you think is a great story pass you by.
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