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The birth of a documentary

Shauna Farnell
Special to the DailyPeter Kohn, middle, is the humble presence in Middlebury's lacrosse scene. "Keeper of the Kohn," tells his story.
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Whether it’s the process of painting a landscape, a refugee struggle or the story of a soldier who saved dozens of lives without touching a gun, anything can be documented. There are plenty of subjects out there that somebody finds important, but for documentary filmmakers, the biggest hurdle is to make audiences realize how important their subject is. The gravity of the subject must register with audiences on a deeper level than simply that of entertainment. And in a sense, making a documentary is like giving birth. Filmmakers know in the beginning that something special and delicate is on its way, but they’re not entirely sure how it will develop.”If we didn’t have documentaries, there’d be many points in history that would be lost,” said Terry Benedict, director of “Conscientious Objector,” a documentary about Desmond Doss, a private first class in World War II who, despite refusing to carry a gun, went on to win a Medal of Honor. “When everything is said and done, you look back and realize that you’ve saved an important piece of history, or that you’ve brought an important subject to light,” Benedict said. “And, you might even affect what happens in the future.”

Benedict has been involved in making films for more than 15 years. His body of work includes “Terminator” and several Stephen Seagal films. “Conscientious Objector” was his first documentary. Although he is currently writing the script for the motion picture version of Doss’ story, the integrity and power involved with documentary filmmaking has him hooked.The power of the truth “I think there’s no contest in the reality of it,” he said. “When you see somebody that’s the real deal as opposed to an actor, there’s just something special about it.”Documentaries aren’t always the bare truth. As filmmakers like Michael Moore have demonstrated, a documentary is still the filmmaker’s perspective of some portrait of reality. This perspective can be as loose or as slanted as the filmmaker allows.

“With our subject, we really wanted our film to be credible. We wanted it to be as balanced as possible and as unbiased as possible,” said Avon resident and Vail Valley Medical Center nurse Lisa Sleeth, who, along with Minturn resident Jim Butterworth, directed “Seoul Train,” a documentary depicting the North Korean refugee crisis. The undertaking marked the first time either filmmaker had ever operated a video camera. “I’d say the most difficult aspect of making this film is that we can only say what we have the footage to support,” Sleeth said. “Even though we know many more aspects of the issue and many more terrible stories, it’s very difficult to get footage of some of the worst stories and to get people on camera who are largely responsible.”Some of the most vital footage in “Seoul Train” and “Conscientious Objector” was the archived footage given to the filmmakers. In Sleeth’s and Butterworth’s case, the archive footage depicting the most poignant scenes of refugee families attempting to escape from China was given to the filmmakers by a group of underground railroad activists, but not until the day before they left South Korea.”We were there for two months building trust with the activists,” Sleeth said. “Some of the most powerful footage we obtained one day before we left town. We didn’t even know it existed until then.”

Going on for hoursArchive footage aside, Sleeth and Butterworth shot more than 100 hours of their own footage. Benedict did the same, as did David Gaynes, director of “Keeper of the Kohn,” a documentary which tells the story of Peter Kohn, a 70-year-old autistic and partially deaf man who has served as the equipment coach for Middlebury’s lacrosse team for the last 20 years. Even Tony Cane-Honeysett, director of “Royal Academy,” a documentary about Cane-Honeysett’s mother and her attempts to get her paintings displayed at the prestigious Royal Academy in England, shot 22 hours of footage for his 60-minute film. The whittling down process, filmmakers say, is one of the most essential, not to mention one of the most difficult aspects of creating a documentary.”It took a solid year just to whittle it down,” said Gaynes, who shot about 15 hours of footage for his film during the 2002 Lacrosse Shootout in Vail and dozens more once he discovered that his subject, Peter Kohn, had many other important aspects of his story – or of the story that Gaynes wanted to tell – such as Kohn’s relationship to a friend who was dying of cancer. “I worked with an editor, and we figured out how to carve out a story,” Gaynes said. “You’re constantly redefining where the story is. The slightest tweak makes it work when it wasn’t working.”

Sleeth claims that documentary filmmaking for her is absolutely “not an artistic endeavor.” Still, documentary directors, like any filmmakers, have a common goal of moving their audiences. And some directors have no idea whatsoever of how to cut the emotionally evocative cookie out of their expansive sheet of dough until it’s all been laid out on the table. “You don’t start off with a script,” said Cane-Honeysett, whose film might have had something to do with the Royal Academy’s sudden alteration of its judging techniques. “You put the story together after you’ve filmed it. It’s more the process. At first I asked myself, ‘How hard is it going to be to make a documentary?’ It’s a lot harder than you’d think. I didn’t think this was a film that would get into film festivals. I didn’t think Americans audiences would appreciate or get the humor in it. Now I’ve been invited to do a talk at Yale. I’ve been talking to film students. All of a sudden, I’m somewhat of an authority on this. But I did it as a labor of love. And my mother? She hates it. She thinks her bum looks big in all of the pictures.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado


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