A story goes beyond the storyline, the plo
t and its characters; rather, it is about portraying an image that the audience can relate to, one that provokes curiosity.
And this notion of curiosity is what transcends the conventional way of filmmaking.
Through seven feature films and seven shorts, all of which premiered at the Monadnock International Film Festival on April 4 to April 6, audience members were able to see how one simple idea was fostered through pure curiosity.
Award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker Dayton Duncan, who presented on the Documentary Film Panel with filmmakers Alex Mallis and Victoria Mudd during the film festival, said, “At the start of every film project, it is about remembering that I am now setting out to do a film where I already know what is there. For me it is the discovery of the topic and the discovery of the information that comes first. You don’t want to be setting up to write a story where you are trying to collect some quotes and facts for a storyline that you already have figured out in advance of any knowledge of it.”
Duncan, who works alongside Director Ken Burns at Florentine Films, said his work focuses on bringing to life America’s history.
“We believe that each topic we take on tells us different things and asks us to do things differently. We rely on a third person narrator, who is the reporter telling you what happened. Then we have our interviews with people, who either lived through the history we are telling or know a lot about it,” Duncan said, “In the sculpting of paring things down, with all the images and interviews we have done, we get down to what is the essence of the historical story we are telling.”
Through his work, Duncan is able to showcase parts of the American culture that would otherwise stay lost in history.
However, documentary filmmaking is not only a way to expose historical story– it is an opportunity to inform an audience.
On Saturday, April 6, Burns’ documentary “The Central Park Five,” premiered at the film festival.
This documentary examines the 1989 case of five teenagers who were convicted of raping a Caucasian
female all because of the pigmentation of their skin.
After spending 6 to 13 years in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime these five African-American and Latino teenagers were punished for.
“When making this film we asked ourselves two questions: How could something like this happen and who are they?” Burns said. “In a proverbial sense, pictures are worth a thousand words. If you look at them over the course of two hours, which is an awful long time, there is a kind of lie detector test that is going on just by watching another human being.”
It was this emotion that Burns sought to bring to the story he wanted to tell. However, it was not his story Burns wanted to tell, rather he wanted to showcase the voices of the five who were convicted that never had the chance to share their story.
Yusef Salaam, one of the convicted, said, “What makes this film very significant is it becomes a teaching point. Here we are speaking in front of young people who are going to be future doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, and police officers, and we have the awesome opportunity to show them what happens when the system fails.”
However, for Salaam, making this film was not solely about educating society about what occurred, but rather about offering insight.
“Here it was five innocent young people who went to jail, but this film represents something so much greater: the fact that it can be anyone’s son or daughter that could be trapped up and all of a sudden the media sways the people in a way they do so well,” Salaam said.
“I just bought what everyone else bought. I remember 13 years later when their convictions were vacated that it got very little coverage and while it did get some coverage a lot of that coverage was trying to pretend that the vocation that the convictions didn’t take place,” Burns said, “Race has been a central part of the American narrative, whether people want to deal with it or not. I have dealt with it in almost every film.”
Raymond Santana, one of the accused, said, “Back in 1989, we were 14, 15, 16 years old and we felt like the whole world was against us and we felt like this one nightmare that was never going to end. To finally hear our story be told, to finally hear the truth be told, which we always sought that someway, somehow it would be found.”
“It is also a sign of relief; it is part of our healing process. Now, we get to go around the country and interact with many people and to get the response we are receiving, it is awesome. Now, we know that the world isn’t against us,” Santana said.
But the film industry is not only a place for others’ voices to be heard, it is also an opportunity for the actors playing the characters to bring a voice to those they are portraying.
Actress Jessalyn Gilsig, who presented on the Television Panel on Saturday, April 6 alongside actors William Sanderson and Sam Huntington, who is from Peterborough, N.N. and writer and actor Adam Nee, said, “It not about me at all, its about the story, its about the character. I allow the scene to be what it is in that moment not what I thought it was when I was home working on it.”
Unlike Gilsig, Nee said it’s not about studying the role and rehearsing; rather performing the unknown allows him to develop a character that is organic and not manufactured.
“Most of the stuff I work on is born out of improvisation so I never know what I am going to do and that’s a terrible and terrifying place, but it’s also so exciting because you are operating at this different level. If I get used to something, that’s when I get worried because I have let my guard down, for me not knowing what I’m going to do helps,” Nee said.
Documentary filmmaker and local Keene native, Alex Mallis, said he never maps out his material or script; rather he lets the story he captures dictate the structure of the film.
“I think it’s very much the material that dictates the form. I think about what is the most important. What type of film am I making here?,” Mallis said, “You can conceptualize all day and all night, but to actually go out and start shooting, those problems dissipate after day one.”
Academy Award winning filmmaker, Victoria Mudd, presented on the Documentary Film Panel alongside Duncan and Mallis.
Mudd said she believes that not only are documentary subjects evolving, but the way in which they are filmed is changing too.
“[Documentary] style is getting less linear,” Mudd said, “I think filmmaking is breaking free of a lot of conventions and I think that’s important.”
However, Mudd attributes the popularity of documentary films among society today to the work that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has done.
“Thanks to numbers of people, including Michael Moore, I give him a lot of credit for bringing documentaries to the mainstream because it’s a way for the little folks to get their word out in a big way. I am on the Academy committee that gets to review all the submissions. My submission box was 167 films that were submitted for Oscar consideration this year,” Mudd said.
However, no matter what the genre of film is, there is always a story worth telling.
Whether it is through the documentary styles of Burns, Mudd, Duncan or Mallis, or even the stories actors such as Gilsig, Nee, Huntington and Sanderson give their characters a story is always present, it’s a matter of having the curiosity to pursue it.
Duncan said, “Everybody has a story to tell, they’re just not necessarily waiting for someone to tell it.”
Sam Norton can be contacted at