I've been faced with many challenges, especially relating to on the one hand, the need and desire to film "reality" (ie not just performative pieces like cute kids singing songs), and on the other, a discomfort with filming in difficult situations. I'm noting how my own anxiety and the perceived and/or real discomfort of the subjects play off of each other. The dilemma came up abruptly when four of the children’s (siblings) biological father was very sick with TB and in the hospital. He was an alcoholic and absent most of their childhood and thus they were in the care of the school/home where I'm filming. Still, they loved him and would go visit him in the hospital. The relationship was complex: the 14 year old boy, Rajendra said to me, "I love my father, but I don't like when he would beat my mom".
Rajendra had previously ran away from the school to try to take care of his father, but then realized it was futile when he refused to stay in the hospital, choosing instead to drink and smoke. After he got sicker, the father was again hospitalized, and I’d wanted to film the kids taking care of him at the hospital. Actually, I hadn't 'wanted' to film at all -- the mere thought of filming at such a time made me sick to my stomach, but I felt like I "should" -- wasn't that my role, after all? Shortly after I arrived however, the father’s health deteriorated to the point where he was dying. So, do you film kids with their dying father? To non-filmmakers this idea likely seems very distasteful. Though this is changing perhaps (for better or worse), for most of us, filming is either associated with A) home videos to capture happy times B) for news or c) for entertainment. Though it could be argued that the type of film I was making was some mix of all three, it was also somewhat in a fourth category. Documentary filmmakers often want to capture ‘story,’ ‘life’ and emotion for their own value -- there is a lot of talk of the "human condition". So, from this perspective, asking to film them with their father is not pushy or exploitative, but honoring them, and his life, wanting to show their love and bond. I tried such rationalizations to myself, but my gut still churned at the thought. Was I worried about hurting them? Or worried about being viewed with suspicion or resentment? I felt that even if I didn't think it were true, that they would be angry at me for trying to film at such sensitive time. I also realized of course, that having someone else in the room in a private moment inherently changes things and their privacy was an important consideration. I went back and forth, arguing with myself and telling myself to be neutral and that if I felt confident and tried to stay neutral, then that would be perceived, and if I didn’t, so would that. The more I tried to get out of my head, the more sticky the dilemma felt.
As it happened, the father died before I could decide whether to ask to film them together or not. So, then of course, another excruciating decision about filming at the funeral arose (obviosuly my angst was nothing compared to their loss, but I’m writing from my roll as filmmaker here, not making quantitative judgements about angst). The director of the home/school where they were living, whom they'd say they considered their “real” father, said he thought it would be okay if I filmed, and to run it by the oldest daughter (aged 19) to make sure she didn't think relatives would object. She agreed, and Rajendra had been very open about being on camera so I wasn't too worried about him. I’d spent a lot of time with all of the kids at the school, and explained the purpose behind my film, and showed examples of good documentaries. I had shared personal stories about my own familial losses and shown them a short film I had made about one of those. We discussed how difficult situations, in proper context, do not make people look “bad” but rather shed light on universally felt themes and emotions. So, I reminded myself of this as I set out to film at the adhoc funeral ceremony, setup under a small awning next to the road. I was still nervous but had little reason to be, at least at first. There was so much going on, chanting, singing, people milling in and out, etc. that no one seemed to even notice I was filming, and those who did didn't seem to mind. Maybe it showed some interest and concern that I would take the time to film, or else they just didn't care because they were preoccupied. After the songs abated, the ceremonial part sort of devolved and there was lots shouting and cursing by various friends of the father's who may or may not have been intoxicated as they fought about the best way to carry the body-- wrapped in sheet and duct tape, to the burial ground). Still, no one seemed to notice I was filming.
My presence later started to get noticed and perhaps resented, towards the end of the burial. As the kids were looking sad and being comforted by Michael (the stand-in father figure) as I kept filming, one of the girls from the school, an 18 year old, turned to me and said, "Aunty, why are you filming, it was fine during the ceremony but now they are sad!" Her tone was angry. One of the father's relatives also glared at me. I understood her point but also felt defensive. I explained that I didn't think ‘sadness’ was bad, and that it was an important emotion to show the kids’ love for their father and bond with Michael. But, despite my answer to her, and feeling justified overall (it was the organization I was filming about that had really cared for the father and the kids, and it was its leadership's approval, as well as the man's children's that were my primary concern), I still felt that burning discomfort that comes with judgement and reproach. Taking a different tact, the same young women challenged me further, "aren't you going to pay your respects?” she asked, gesturing towards the now-burried body. Obligingly, I handed her the camera and she filmed me (she was a student in my film class), as I awkwardly followed the others and waived incense in a circular motion around the burial site, saying a short prayer, and then, according to their instructions, washed my hands and feet. She seemed content after this, I guess I passed her test, proved that I didn't mind being filmed and was really trying to be respectful. Still, the initial confrontation left me slightly on edge, but I felt better later when that same girl became passionate about the film she was making in my class, and seemed to let down some of her suspicion; or perhaps, after more experience on the other side of the camera, simply had more empathy for the dilemma inherent to this type of documentary filmmaking: real emotion is interesting and important, and capturing it can feel empowering or exploitative, but there is no clear-cut recipe to ensure the former.
A few weeks later Rajendra asked to see the footage of the funeral, though his siblings didn't want to watch it. He thought it was a good experience and even laughed a few times, like when, amidst literally screaming and wailing from his sister and grandmother, loud chanting, breaking coconuts and drums beating, the unofficial leader would curse at the others and, they back at him. Rajendra translated for me that that man's wife was shouting at him, "you should have died first you @#$#$%&". Rajendra had been fairly open about his sadness and processing, and it made me happy that he could crack a smile too. Anyway, while watching the footage, Rajendra's younger brother, aged 13 didn’t want to watch the funeral (I don't blame him -- though Rajendra saw some humor, there was of course mostly sadness, and the body was barely shrouded in a thin sheet). I told them how brave I thought they were for being so present at the funeral and that that was important to their grieving but that, from my experience, they also needed some distractions and breaks. So, because I was teaching them about movies, we found distraction in Soul Surfer, an American film about a female surfer who loses her arm in a shark attack and finds deeper meaning in life. Of course the boys were glued to the screen throughout, and thought it was particularly funny when the girls went shopping for bathing suits. In this scene Rajendra commented to his brother, about the bikini top, "that's like an eyepatch, you can't wear that for a surfing competition!" We all had a good laugh, and they asked if everyone wears such little clothing when they swim in America. I said no, um, not everyone.