“The aliens are always with me.”
What was your first thought when you read that line above? Typically, when working with subjects that have unique lifestyles or beliefs, an audience’s first reaction is to write them off or laugh at them. Unless you are making a film that’s sole purpose is to make fun of someone — which I highly suggest you don’t do– then you are going to want your subject to be respected. The more bizarre the beliefs, that harder this becomes. Here are some ways to battle this during production and post production.
First, give your subject any due credibility. If your subject has big claims, people may start to write off most of what she/he says. Putting any credit where it is due will ground the subject in reality for the viewers. Research is going to be vital. Look into what your subject says, go to the places of which they speak and show as much as you can to support your subject’s views. Of course, not everything is worthy of “proving,” but if you think it will ground your character, it is worth a shot.
Next, If your subject has “out there” beliefs and loves to talk, remember to give your subject breathing room in the edit. Documentary filmmaker Lana WIlson suggests showing your subject doing typical everyday things after the audience hears one of these big claims such as running errands or interacting at work. This reminds the audience that, despite your subjects views, she/he is still a person worthy of respect.
If you are following a person who says some outwardly shocking things, you are bound to get laughs. The decision here is, do you want them? If you want to cut down on inappropriate laughter, documentary filmmaker Eric Hynes suggests holding your shots longer after the statement. Many times, subjects will humanize themselves if you give them the room. Something as simple as a thoughtful look, an uncomfortable laugh or a remark about what was just said could make all of the difference.
Sometimes your subject may need a little more help after her/his statement is made. If you feel holding the shot did not do quite enough, director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Stacey Woelfel suggests addressing the potential for judgement with your subject on camera. Many times, subjects are aware of how other people view them. Having them attest to this can give the audience more sympathy or respect. Your subject will become more relatable to the viewer.
Audio can do a lot for your subject. Documentary sound designer Lawrence Everson says that building an audio environment will bring your viewer into the situation instead of them being a disconnected spectator. It is something very subtle with a huge impact. Building an audio environment consists of getting room/environmental tone and adding in specific sounds from things the viewer is seeing like finger tapping, water splashing in a fountain or a cat purring. If the audience is within the environment, it is easier to understand where the subject is coming from.
Through all of these options, never forget to allow your subject to be funny. Overprotecting your subject can cause just as many problems as you are trying to solve. The whole point in the end is to allow your subject space to be themselves. Just because someone’s mind may work a little bit differently does not mean that person cannot be funny like anyone else. In the end, filming a subject who is vulnerable to crude judgement is a balancing act of personality and respect.
Editor’s note: Author Abbey Reznicek is working with a subject on her current film, Until Arcturus, who believes she is an alien living on earth in human form.