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Filmmaking (Actually) Ep. 5 "How Do You Documentary?? With Ansley Sawyer (Part 1)"

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Join Koura Linda in part one of a two-part series as she discusses the ins and outs, the ups and downs of making documentary films with award-winning producer and director Ansley Sawyer! Along with director Brandon Li, their films Hong Kong Strong and Nomads of Mongolia were featured as part of the National Geographic Short Film Showcase. And Ansley's directorial debut, Like We Don't Exist, focuses on a refugee community along the Thai-Burmese border, and the uncertain future they face amid the longest ongoing civil war in the world. Want to learn from the perspective of a seasoned documentary filmmaker the way to approach making docs, whether locally or globally? Then listen to this!

If you want to ask a question or just want to say hello, you can write to us at filmmakingactually(at)gmail(dot)com! You can also sign up for our mailing list through the "Contact Us" section of our website, for filmmaking tips and tricks, along with all the latest projects and updates on what we are working on.

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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:

How Do You Documentary?? With Ansley Sawyer (Part 1)

Hello, welcome back to my podcast, "Filmmaking (Actually)" - ta-da!

KOURA: You'll have to forgive me this week, I'm getting over a sore throat, so I sound a little bit like I'm trying to do a Barry White impersonation - enjoy. So I always ask in these podcasts if there's any specific questions people have. Last week, I was asked by the wonderful film student Erica Taylor: What it takes to make a documentary? I think that's a really good question because it's definitely a different process than narrative, but I don't have a ton of experience doing documentaries. I've produced a couple of them with my husband, but! I'm very, very lucky because there is a woman who is probably one of the best documentary filmmakers I have ever met. Her films include "Nomad of Mongolia," "Hong Kong Strong," and an absolutely incredible and very important documentary called "Like We Don't Exist" — that's available on Facebook, I highly recommend you check it out — and her name is Ansley Sawyer!

ANSLEY SAWYER: Hey! (laughs) Thank you for having me, Koura.

KOURA LINDA: Yay! Thank you so much for being here. I mean, you know I'm a huge fan of your work, and you really caught my attention when I first met you at the Women's Film Festival, and you were talking about making your documentary, "Like We Don't Exist," and I just really love, not only your voice, but your respect for your subjects. And, I could tell that you weren't trying to tell a narrative in a documentary way, but you actually wanted to document what was actually there, if that makes sense?

ANSLEY: Yeah, yeah. And it goes all the way down to just, sort of the vision and spirit of the film. And when we met actually, it was sort of part of a greater conversation about the presence of the director as an outside eye, and as somebody who curates, and what their responsibilities — or sort of, what are the ethics of having a point of view? And I think that we kind of jumped head long into this conversation because, like many issues that are worth discussing in this field, you know, there's journalism versus documentary, and then there's verite versus observational, and then there's scripted versus unscripted, and then, at the end of the day, it's just like: What kind of story are you trying to tell? And that's, sort of the guiding theme that really helped us, specifically with "Like We Don't Exist," but also just in the way that we approach our projects in my production company, but also with friends like you, Kour. Even passion projects, even one-minute films, even little camera tests. It's not about the gear, it's not about the budget, although those things are important; But it's really about the stance that you're trying to take, or at least the mission. Why are you making this film? If the answer is, “I just want a symmetrical number of laurels on my poster.” that's not a good answer, you know what I mean? (laughs) But that's just a little bit of my philosophy of why documentary in the first place.

KOURA: Awesome! So in one of my first podcast episodes, I walked through the procedure of making a narrative film. From the first moment of, "I want to make a film," to, "I have a film that's been distributed," or it's in festivals or whatever, and everything in-between. And I thought it would be cool if maybe we talked about that process, but from a documentary side, and I have my outline from the first episode, because I thought it might be kind of cool to compare the two.

ANSLEY: Yeah, let's do it!

KOURA: Yeah? So awesome! Erica asked, "What are the steps for making a documentary, specifically?" So I will say that I know, for me, as a narrative filmmaker, I feel like it's important for people who are going into filmmaking of any kind to have their own process and to find what works for them. Like, for narratives I say that whether it's a two-second decision made by someone on the ground, or some twenty-year decision that some studio executive takes to make in their boardroom, it's still a process that somebody is going to have to do. Would you say that goes the same for documentaries, or is it a little bit more codified?

ANSLEY: Well, so just to start off, I think that when I'm speaking to my experience with documentary, it's in a very specific style. And so, when I'm answering these questions, it's Ansley's answer. It's not like, “This is what documentary is!” Because, to be clear, I didn't go to film school. (laughs)

KOURA: Hey, me neither!

ANSLEY: I didn't, you know? And I’m not trying to — I mean, every storyteller or production company or everything in between needs to understand: What kind of stories do you want to tell? Not just, How do you want things to look? Good! Or, How do you want people to feel? Good! But what kind of stories do you want to tell? And that informs very much your process. And so, I think that the process is an important skeleton by which you can facilitate the storytelling, but more importantly than that, you need a vision. And if you don't have a vision, then you won't have a motor to push you through the inevitably difficult times. Especially in documentary, letting the story unfold in front of you, and feeling like you're kind of adrift without a rudder. And the process is not what lets the story unfold, it's very much the vision, and it's the mission behind “Why you are making the documentary.”

So you can have processes like, okay, in a 24-hour cycle on a two-week production, I'm gonna wake up, and then I'm gonna go have some protein, and then I'm gonna go shoot with my subject before dawn, and then I'm gonna shoot for three hours and then I'm going to give them a break, and then I'm gonna log footage. Like, that's your process. But why are you doing it? Do you know what I mean? So like, if you're doing it because you want to make a baller film, that might be true, but it's probably not enough to allow the real story to resolve itself and to unfold itself.

So to give a very specific example, with my film "Like We Don't Exist" — and I'll just give a very brief description of it — it's about the longest ongoing civil war in the world that nobody knows about. Specifically, it's violence that's been perpetrated since 1947 by the Burmese military, on all of their ethnic minorities living in modern colonies in Burma, which is also called Myanmar. And so my very small team and I lived on the Thai-Burmese for close to two years, and we were very deeply embedded with this community of people called the Karenni, and that's the community that we focused on for the purposes of this film, even though their experience is representative of many other ethnic minorities who are experiencing like, warfare right now, including the Kachin, the Karen, and their experience is very similar to other immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities that are destabilized by just general violence in the world right now. In Africa, in Europe. I mean, we're just seeing super destabilization.

And so, you know, as a storyteller, as a producer, as a director, as a filmmaker, as an editor, as all of these things: Why would I want to tell a story like that? And all too often, especially in journalism, we almost look at it like, "Well, we just need a story that fulfills a certain headline, because we're trying to flesh out our programming." But for this kind of work that I'm speaking to, our mission was to provide a platform for a previously unheard voice. And it's not that the issue had never been given attention, the issue was that it was always a white person who, you know, parachuted in, and stood in front of them saying like, "As you can see behind me, these people are suffering." And that's just such a myopic perspective of a decades-long conflict that is complicated, honestly, and stories are complicated!

And that's our work that we have to do, is separate out the beginning, middle, and end, and also be fair to your subject. Treat them with utmost compassion, and not be overly biased, but instead try to present a story that moves people, but without stuffing truth down their throats. And so to do that, sometimes you just kind of have to release your grip on the process. Like, when you come in and you're working with non-actors, and you're asking people about the worst days of their life, the last thing that you can do is rely on your process. Because they don't care about your process. They care about what you're gonna do with the videotape of them talking about the day their father was killed. Or the day the military came in and r_ped, burned and pillaged the entire community. So the process is a good internal mechanism, I think, and I think it's the only thing that keeps me sane (laughs) when we need, you know, inevitably have low funding, or we need more fixer resources, or language resources or technology resources. But I think that really practicing sort of an agnostic sense of like, "Okay, yeah, let's shoot with an iPhone right now, because it's a little bit sensitive 'cause these lights are scaring people." You know?

Your process needs, at least in my case, to be nimble and flexible because it's all about giving ultimate service to the story. That's personally what I believe. And the reason why is because, once you inevitably come up against these obstacles of people intimidating you, or people being scared to be on camera, or what have you. And that's just story-related obstacles, not even production. Like, your van gets stuck on the side of a muddy mountain road, and you need a spare tire, and you're six hours away from civilization. Like, your process doesn't matter there! (laughs) It doesn't matter, and it's not gonna get you out of that situation. What's gonna turn that obstacle into an opportunity, is saying, "Okay, what is my fixer saying? Can I do an interview with him? Is there something else going on? Can I get b-roll of the hillside? Where are we, and how does this relate to the story?" And sometimes that means putting down your goddamn camera and just releasing your grip a little bit off of your process. Because you're there to listen, especially in documentary. And it's almost never a bad idea to take an opportunity to let go a little bit, and make sure that the story that you think that you're hearing, is really what's being projected.

KOURA: Okay, so that's our episode, ladies and gentlemen! No, I'm just kidding. (laughs)

ANSLEY: (laughs)

KOURA: So many things you said in there are such — obviously, I'm not a documentary filmmaker — but there's things that are important to me as a human being, you know? Like, putting down your camera sometimes, being involved with the humans in front of you. So —

ANSLEY: Yeah, especially, I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt —

KOURA: No, no, please!

ANSLEY: But I mean, that's such an important point, because people have such a different relationship with cameras when they're not professionals, or when they're not often around cameras. And even me, I work with cameras for a living, and I get weird when I can tell that somebody's filming me. And so it's such a sensitive dance of knowing when to be very daring, and when to turn the camera on, and not flinch and not turn it off. But like, with everything, there needs to be a balance, and if you're always in people's faces — And I've seen this a lot at cultural or ethnic festivals, especially, where it's sort of like a human zoo kind of feeling, of like, lots of international photographers. Like, "Nomads of Mongolia" was like that. We originally thought we were — There's this region in Mongolia (Just to explain to your audience) that's really interesting. It's western Mongolia, it's populated by primarily ethnic Kazakh people, who are nomadic. And they have this really special thing where they have golden eagles that they use to hunt, and we were like, "Okay, that's really cool!" And this was before the whole golden eagle phenomenon kinda swept through the visual community with — what's the film about the sixteen-year-old girl, she's now like 18 or 19? Anyway! (Editor's note: "The Eagle Huntress," a documentary released in 2016, featuring thirteen-year-old Aisholpan, who trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her nomad family to become an eagle huntress.)

In the Altai mountains, this whole community is there, and there's this thing called the Golden Eagle Festival. And we're like, "Okay, yeah, we'll just fly in for this cultural heritage festival." And it was all foreign photographers, with their five-foot-long Canon lens telegraphing into people's f-----g souls. Excuse me! (laughs) And it was like a hog fest! It was a lot! It was a lot. And we just kind of looked at each other — my creative partner, the director of the film and the editor, my amazing mentor and just person who taught me everything I know, Brandon Li — and we were just kinda like, "This is weird! This doesn't feel like a real, good story. These people are just displaying their lives, and it's very much like a parade, it's very much a show." And part of that was us being like, "Okay, so our film idea is stupid." And we had to put down our cameras, and be like, "Okay, what's the real story here?" And it took a couple days of being like, "Well, let's meet people. Let's get invited to their homes. Let's see what their real lives are like." And that's what this story ended up being. And so, not to go too far down that rabbit hole, but that's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Like, you have to do service to the story before you try to fulfill your process. Because often the process can lead you down a path that will fulfill your budget and your investors, if that's who you're reporting to, but you might not make a satisfying story. And that's really what separates the incredibly compelling visual journeys that you see that are staff picks, that are festival winners, with like, "At a certain point, we just needed to get this done, and it might have originally been a good idea, but I'm just happy that it's not unfinished on my hard drive" kind of thing, like you know? (laughs)

KOURA: Yeah! No, I think it's important, like you said, to get it done. Maybe the story is more compelling than the lens flare, and like some sort of Arri Alexa Mini that you shot on.

ANSLEY: Right. I mean, I just want to say something about the gear really quickly, especially with documentary, the kind that we do. I mean, Mirrorless 4K, Blackmagic Pocket 6K, Sony a7III cameras, are what's up. Like, yeah, okay, it's a prosumer camera. It's not an Arri. It's not what I would bring onto a set. It's not what I would delegate for a narrative. And no, I can't go shot by shot and frame by frame. I have a very different process, particularly, and I'm not trying to be a smartass and say, like, there is no process, process doesn't matter. Because it really does matter! (laughs)

KOURA: Oh, I've got a whole line of questions, don't worry!

ANSLEY: Okay, good! (laughs)

KOURA: Yeah, no, I wanted to get this like — Your overall thoughts, and then I've got an outline that we're gonna go through in a second. (laughs)

ANSLEY: It's just not the most important part to me! It's really not. It's listening, and coming in with a very clearly defined understanding of : What are people are interested in? Like, why would they tell their story to you? And everybody has a different motivation. But just really just understanding: What kind of story do you want to tell? What kind of storyteller do you want to be, in general? Like, is this part of a greater body of work? And why are you telling this story? And sometimes, the answer is, like, "I really like music videos, and so I'm making a documentary about this musician and I'm gonna make a music video out of it." Or maybe it's like, "I'm really concerned about affordable housing in my community, and I'm just gonna walk around and interview three different people about it." Whatever it happens to be, but if you don't have that passion, if you don't have that drive — You might as well stop, because there's no greater direction that's going to propel you towards telling a compelling story. Which is a shame, because there are so many compelling stories that need to be told!

KOURA: And, it's funny, but I actually feel like, that maybe is a commonality between narrative and documentary. Because I was just talking to somebody on a narrative project, and I was like, "Usually I'm like, 'I love making movies, I wanna do this forever,' but right now, I'm just like, 'Movie-making sucks! I hate this process, I don't wanna do it anymore!'" And I can see why people get bitter in either field. I think being connected to your purpose is an important thing for either a narrative or a documentary.

ANSLEY: Oh, yeah! Oh yeah! I mean, I'm not the kind of person — I don't mean to cast any judgment, but what's the point of being a storyteller unless you're really proud of the story that you're telling? I mean, accolades are really nice, but if you're just doing it so that you can have a lifestyle? That's not what motivates me. Now that's not to say that it's not about KPI, it's not about SEO, it's not about commercial success, ‘cause it is! 'Cause a lot of times, it's not your own money you're playing around with. And it's not about the money, and I've been misunderstood when I've said that in the past. (laughs)

KOURA: (laughs)

ANSLEY: I've been very misunderstood. And that's okay! Like, you can run that and be like, "Okay, this female documentary filmmaker, she's like, 'It's not about the money, man!'" and that's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say is: Unless you have a compelling story that deserves to be well-told, then don't do it. Just don't do it! Wait until you have a better idea and spend all of your energy and resources on that. Because the other thing is that, from the idea to distribution, all along the way, you're gonna need to convince people with your own passion why this story needs to be told. And that includes your team, that includes the people that you're gonna be interviewing. And also, if you come in with a lot of confidence and you're like, "I think your story is fascinating, I think it deserves a greater audience, I think people could learn something from this," or what have you, then people will be excited about being involved. And if people aren't excited about being involved — Again, then what are you creating that hasn't existed before? How are you adding value in a way that somebody needed that value in their lives? And I believe that if I'm not doing that, I'm wasting my effort, and I should wait for a better opportunity to come along, and I can, like, edit old photos or whatever, or like, do my taxes in the meantime. Seriously, because life is busy! (laughs) Work on things that you really, really care about. Work on stories that are fascinating to you! Because people will be drawn by that. It's magnetic! When you're passionate about something, people can tell, and that extends past distribution, that extends past film festivals, you know, that extends past Vimeo curation, or whatever. If you bring that passion to it, and you put the story first, that's what makes all the difference.

KOURA: For me, I have a personal opinion, and this is for documentaries that I've worked on, and documentaries that I've started. I feel like — Like you mentioned scripts. Okay, if I want to make a documentary about a car show, and I know the car show is at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday, there's these types of cars, these types of people come to it. I've been there, I've seen it, and I'm just gonna go document it — and it sounds super boring, but! I feel like having a sort of beginning, middle, and end of what I want to show about the car show. But let's say I want to make a documentary about what it's like to be a 20-year-old ballet dancer in New York City. Like, how scripted — 'cause I feel like you shouldn't script, I feel like you should say, "I want to tell a story about what it's like to be a 20-year-old in New York City," and unless you already know someone's story and you're just trying to capture the pieces you already know, how do you not script documentary to the point where you're no longer observing what's in front of you, but you're starting to see through a lens, literally? When you're in the development process, we're talking about, "Okay, I'm gonna make a documentary," how do you put the idea together, in a way, and do you agree about the script-or-no-script? I don't even know if I'm asking that question right, but does that make sense as a question, or should I re-explain? (laughs)

ANSLEY: No, I think it makes sense as a question. I think it strikes at a couple different points, and I'm just gonna take what you said and kind of run with it. So, I think you very clearly identified the core challenge of documentary, as I understand it, which is: Finding a clear beginning, middle and end. And the end is especially difficult, especially for events that are unfinished or unresolved, and it's outside the scope of your production schedule, or for whatever reason. Like it happened in the past, or there just is no conclusion, like civil war. Like as if I, a 20-something filmmaker, could come in and figure it out (laughs) which is extremely precocious to assume, especially when it comes to what I'm presenting to an audience. So especially once you start to throw in some ethical things like that, structuring the story becomes really crucial. And this is where the process, especially from, as you said, a developmental level, becomes really important. So to all the way back to ideation and where I start — And my history is I started as a producer. Not a producer in a Hollywood sense. I'll just give a short background. I went to theater school after undergraduate studying international relations, I was working as a performer, as a singer, as a theater actor, and in the off seasons to make money I was working as a sailor on sailboats in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean —

KOURA: I hate you. Sorry. (laughs)

ANSLEY: I know, it's stupid, it's funny sentences.

KOURA: No, it's amazing!

ANSLEY: I know, it's like, ridiculous, but you gotta do what you gotta do, like, "Pay those bills, girl!" And I accepted this gig delivering a yacht from Mexico to Cuba, and — long story short, read my memoir in 20 years — I got stranded in Cuba, and it was crazy! And through a maelstrom experience of literally, like, 500 dollars left in my bank account, and I'm like, "What am I doing?" Because I want to tell stories of people, but theater is too isolated, and it only allows me to deliver a certain story at a certain time to a certain audience, and it all tends to be pretty much the same people paying the same amount, listening to the same message. Which was very frustrating, and I wanted to incorporate travel. So I ended up meeting my mentor Brandon Li.

I saw his video, and I sent him a message. I was like, "Do you need help? I make a great grilled cheese sandwich, like whatever you need!" Did not expect to hear from him. He emailed me back, he said, "I need a lot of help!" And then I ended up becoming his assistant, then his producer, then I was pitching him projects, then we started traveling around the world together making cool videos. And I was basically his everything, an editor, I booked hotels and stuff. And so I saw firsthand through him, like, that was my trial by fire. Instead of going to film school, I worked with an incredible nomadic film director, and just learned his method, basically. And just learned — I didn't even really particularly have an interest in getting behind the camera until I was the Beta Cam. And the two of us there wearing all the hats, DIT, production. So when I say producer, I mean I'm one of a two-person crew trying to get the impossible shot. He's the director, I'm the producer.

With "Hong Kong Strong," he's like, "I wanna get up on top of the bamboo scaffolds on some of these high-rise construction projects." Which is impossible! And so it's my job to socially network my way into getting that shot. So to go all the way back to your original question, which is: From a development phase, how do you make sure that you're telling a cohesive story that's consistently interesting to your audience? It all comes down to like — Let's take your ballet dancer in New York. We're interested in the ballet dancer in New York. Why? Why are you interested in them? Maybe because they have a difficult family life, or maybe because you're trying to highlight the systematic oppression that they feel in other parts of civil society, or whatever your angle is, that is kind of in your back pocket, and you pick your subject accordingly.

So for me it all starts with getting the right support. Because, for me, ideation needs necessarily to go directly into production. As long as I know that I've given myself a safety net of the resources I’m gonna need, because most of the stuff that I'm doing is international in nature. So I'll give you an example. When I started working on "Like We Don't Exist," I was like, "Okay, I need to meet refugees on the Thai-Burmese border." And so I started reaching out to friends who might work in the non-profit, NGO space who might know of some people who are living on the Thai side of the border, and then you meet a person who knows a person who knows a person, and then within a two-day timespan, I had found my subject. Or at least, I had found the person who was to introduce me to the community, and he became a part of our production team and a very close friend of mine, his name is John. But I didn't know that I wanted to find John, I knew that I needed to find somebody like John.

KOURA: Right.

ANSLEY: And then when I sat down across from John, I was like, "Oh, you're it. You fulfill the list that I drafted for myself two weeks ago." And again, the list was: Human rights; access to refugee camps; speaks English; speaks the native language; is interested in film; wants to bring the story of their community to the outside world; has available time; understands that it's a passion project, and that we're not trying to make a profit off of this. It's just an awareness film, and so we had, sort of, better motivation. And so a lot of that is connection, and you have to learn how to say a lot of no's. Sometimes you'll meet people who really want to be in your film, especially in documentary, and they're not the right person, and your time is really precious.

And so, like I said, you have to give yourself a deadline. So I gave myself two days. I was like, “I'm gonna fly in on this day, and we're gonna start filming on this day.” This is when my co-director and the DP of the film, Cory Embring, was gonna fly out. I was like, "Okay, by the time he flies out, I need to have found the subject." And not giving yourself any opportunity to put it off till next week helps light a fire under other people, to like, catch your feels, basically, for the story. And it makes it spark, it really does! Within a week, we were in a refugee camp and shooting and living and working with these people, and getting a deeper understanding of: What is the real story here?

The story we filmed in the first week was not the story that we ended up telling, because I think the second part of my answer would be: Time and trust. You can't come in if you're trying to tell — I mean, you can, you can do anything! But the more time that you have to give to your subject, the better it's gonna be, and the more time that you have to give to the edit, the better it's gonna be. Because your first draft is gonna be interesting, but do you have people interested? And have you listened to what the real story is? And have you stuck around, and kept rolling, and just got people comfortable with the camera, and have a fly-on-the-wall sort of presence? Time builds that trust, and the more you can have your camera open — I mean, yeah, okay, you need to get a G-Drive, like you need 8 TB drives, that's what it means. (laughs) And it's hard! And you have to do your dailies, and you have to do string-outs, which is what we call them, just the best shots from every day, one 4K timeline, one HD timeline, and one aerial. And it's exhausting.

You're working 17-hour days when you're in production, and eating meals with these people, and playing with their kids, and it's just the most exhausting thing I've ever done, and that's why I love it. Because it's not just the edit, it's not just the "Story" with a capital S in quotes. You're dealing with people's lives. Those are true relationships that you can invest in. You're not dealing with actors, that's a different process. Working with actors, I can only imagine how lovely that would be to work with a professional who you ask them to go through an internal emotional process and to project it for others so they can feel something? That's so cool, and I haven't done that in years, and that's something I wanna start working on, honestly. But instead, to work with non-actors in a way that makes them feel comfortable, makes them feel heard, makes them feel understood — and this is mirroring the process.

My process is somewhere between observational — I don't even know what to call it. You know those overlapping Venn diagrams of cinema verite, whatever I don't know what it is. What I do is, I sit right behind the camera, I get these people really comfortable with me. I set up the whole space, and I won't let them be the person testing the light or the sound or anything like that. I spend a lot of time with them before I sit down and interview them. I don't give them any idea of what we're gonna talk about. I give them lots of warm and fuzzy conversation, just listening to them. I never come with a list of questions prepared. And then we go deep. And then you ask really hard questions. You just listen to whatever they have to say. And it's really hard, but that's the work that you have to do. Like, if you didn't work to build that relationship, you wouldn't have the trust, and they wouldn't feel comfortable being vulnerable in front of camera, crying in front of camera, or saying something they've never said to anybody else before. That's the story. That's how you get the story. People will give it to you. You just need them to trust you.

SPACEY: That’s it for Part one of this two part series. The next episode will be the last half of this conversation between Koura and Ansley. So join us! Wont you? Okay. That’s it. Bye!


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