How I Learned the Power of the Documentary Filmmaker (and How to Wield It Responsibly)

Rachel Dretzin, whose new film Far From the Tree opens Friday, on a formative experience that shaped the way she approaches her work.

In retrospect, the most decisive moment in my career took place in a teenager’s bedroom in Conyers, Georgia, in the fall of 1998. Together with my husband, Barak, I was directing a film for the PBS documentary series Frontline. The film, called The Lost Children of Rockdale County, told the story of an outbreak of syphilis among a group of very young teenagers — 13 and up. The kids were mostly white, many of them from affluent homes. The outbreak started when a group of friends became involved in very high-risk sexual play, and the community, which still taught abstinence in high school, kept it quiet and out of the press.

To report the story, Barak and I moved to Georgia for a number of months, our infant son in tow. Since no one was talking about the outbreak, we had to build trust with the teenagers in the community before we could really learn what happened. We spent what felt like weeks wandering around Conyers, which was basically one desolate strip mall, trying to figure out where the kids hung out. One Friday night, we wound up in the local bowling alley, which we had discovered was one of the few places in Conyers teenagers were permitted to gather. We befriended a group of precocious thirteen- and fourteen- year-old girls who were all too eager to tell us about their lives. Since they were female, they readily confided in me: an interested outsider and surrogate older sister, who wanted nothing more than to hear all about the things they loved to talk about.

A few days later, I found myself in the bedroom of one of the three girls, along with my camera crew. Well, actually, only part of my crew; the room was about eight feet by eight feet, only big enough for me and a cameraperson; sound had to operate remotely from outside. The three Lolitas were sprawled out on the bed, surrounded by a mountain of stuffed animals. They were the picture of innocence. Their parents were elsewhere. This community was filled with parents like theirs, who worked in the city and left their kids alone and drifting. No one seemed particularly concerned about what the kids would say to a film crew when left to their own devices.

As the camera rolled, one of the girls, Katie – who looked all of 11 or 12 years old, but was closer to 13 – puffed ceremoniously on a cigarette and recounted the harrowing story of how she had lost her virginity to a one night stand. One by one, each of the girls told a similar tale. Then, using their stuffed animals to demonstrate, the three of them showed me a game their friends played called “riding the train,” in which one girl lies still while a series of boys have sex with her one by one.

It was an unforgettable scene, and it became the signature moment in the film. The documentary went on to win a Peabody award and become one of Frontline‘s classics. Oprah Winfrey invited several of the characters onto her show; CNN did a live town hall meeting. But not long after the program aired, I received a distraught phone call from Katie. She had walked down to the five-and-dime store to buy a candy bar, and the local shop owner had refused to serve her because, according to him, she was a “slut.”

It was clear to me in that moment that Katie had had no idea or understanding of the possible repercussions of participating in a documentary like this. And years later, I still have a hard time watching that scene. It feels compromising and a little sleazy. I don’t know what became of Katie or her friends, but I know one thing: I overstepped. Of course, I knew on some level that these girls didn’t fully comprehend what they were doing, that they hadn’t thought through what impact their revelations would have on a conservative town, on their teachers, parents and friends. And if I didn’t help them consider those repercussions in advance, who would?

My career has been dotted with experiences like these. People open up to me, often in front of a camera, at times more than they probably should. Perhaps it’s because I’m not judgmental, at least not in the moment. When I’m interviewing someone, I often get completely immersed in their point of view, even if once I get some distance from them I take a more critical perspective. At the moment I’m in their presence, I’m 100 percent sympathetic, and I can’t help but radiate that. And many people long to be listened to; when earnestly asked, they can’t help but confide.

As documentary filmmakers, we have a powerful ability to harm our subjects. There aren’t any real guidelines for these situations; it comes down to instinct and self-control. Lawyers and doctors have to go to graduate school, pass rigorous exams, follow a strict professional code of conduct. Filmmakers don’t have to do anything of the sort, but we have the power to alter lives just as profoundly.

Of course, sometimes we calculate that some damage to a subject is necessary in order for a larger truth to be revealed. But often, it’s not that stark a choice. Barak and I had an infant son when we made Lost Children, and we went on to have two more children, all three of whom are now teenagers. Being a parent has taught me more about making documentaries than any film school would have, and it’s instilled in me a protectiveness toward my subjects that film school wouldn’t have given me either. As I’ve continued to direct films, I’ve noticed that I refrain more and more from including those moments that I fear could harm my subjects, even if they don’t always see the danger themselves.

Rachel Dretzin (second right) during the making of Far From the Tree

My latest film, Far From the Tree, is about families who have children who are profoundly different from them: they have Down Syndrome or dwarfism; they are autistic; or they reveal themselves to be a psychopath. It’s ultimately an uplifting story about loving what you have right in front of you, even if it’s the last thing you thought you wanted – but the road to acceptance isn’t easy. To make the film, I spent the better part of two years following five families through some of the most painful and intimate moments of their lives.

Building trust with the families wasn’t difficult. Feeling I had really earned their trust was. I made a promise to myself when I started the film that I wouldn’t push any of my characters to go further than they were comfortable, and that I would not compromise their dignity under any circumstances. At times, that meant not using scenes that would have been very powerful for an audience to see: for example, a teenage boy who still has to wear diapers, being dressed for bed by his middle-aged father. In that particular case, while the family was comfortable having us film the scene, I made the decision not to use it in the film because I was concerned about it ultimately being embarrassing for the boy.

However, in the case of Far from the Tree, my perspective on what would or wouldn’t compromise my characters was complicated by the fact that I was a non-disabled filmmaker making a documentary about people with disabilities. My assumptions about what might be comfortable or uncomfortable for them, compromising or uncompromising, was necessarily conditioned by my outsider perspective. I learned while making the film how easily and often the most well-meaning people get it wrong. What feels like understanding or compassion to one person can often be read as condescension by the other. So none of this is – or was – simple.

I relied on my heightened awareness – and my immense respect for the subjects of the film – to guide me through some delicate decisions. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s the rare moment in a film that is irreplaceable. What can’t be replaced is the damage to someone’s dignity, and that has to be handled very carefully. As filmmakers, after all, we only have ourselves to rely on.

Director-producer Rachel Dretzin has been honored with numerous awards for her documentaries, including the Emmy Award, the Peabody, the Du-Pont Columbia and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. For many years she has directed and produced documentaries for Frontline, PBS’ eminent documentary series. With her husband, filmmaker Barak Goodman, Dretzin is co-founder of Ark Media, a Brooklyn-based production company and a leading producer of nonfiction content. She was the senior producer of four major series for PBS, including The African Americans and Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise. which premiered in 2016. Her latest film, Far From the Tree, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Andrew Solomon, is released by Sundance Selects on July 20. (Image by Meredith Zinner Photography.)