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Cinema Verité: How Filming My Friend's Cancer Fight Renewed My Passion For Documentary Film

04/26/2013 08:02 EDT | Updated 06/26/2013 05:12 EDT
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Is the art of cinema verité at risk of becoming extinct? While making Chi, my documentary about a friend seeking alternative cancer treatment in India, I headed out hoping to film the truth of whatever happened, without the camera altering the reality. After 30 years of directing drama, of controlling every moment of action, could I just let the journey unfold and have the camera follow rather than lead the story? To be there and capture the important human moments in focus, lit, and well-composed would be the ultimate challenge.

I was blessed to have a subject, Babz Chula, who loved being on film, who was naturally open and outspoken. She strived to be real. But when you are fighting for your life (as Babz was while seeking treatment for cancer) and you want to be a part of a film that could give people strength in times of difficulty, I imagine that her first impulse was to act. Act brave. Act funny. Act dramatic. She was an actress after all, and a good one. I still watch some of the scenes in Chi, wondering if she was putting on the performance of a lifetime, or letting herself be raw and natural; not giving a damn if she was flawed or illogical. We talked about it. It was a struggle -- Babz was a natural entertainer. Near the beginning of the shoot, she would shift from one emotion to another, thinking about what message she was sending to the viewer -- I could see her technique kick in. But then I witnessed how the film became integrated with her life. It became her companion, her other voice -- someone with whom she questioned and shared the life she was living.

In India, we were a tiny crew of three. In Canada, we were two. For the last month, I was alone. There was a freedom to follow the story, without interference. No one pressuring me. This was partly because the film was shot entirely on a research budget.

Unfortunately today, most funders, when considering an investment in production, want proposals that spell out exactly what a film is going to show and say. Filmmakers are asked to write a script as though they can predict the future. Then, when shooting, they find themselves guiding the film so that they can deliver what they proposed. It's hard to gamble that reality will deliver a story -- they want guaranteed intrigue. The filmmaker is left to manipulate the situation so it follows a structure and delivers a message that has been preordained.

And I appreciate that these proposals serve to clarify a filmmaker's thoughts and help the team to plan and prepare so that opportunities are not missed. The crew can get prepared so that the images are focused and lit to perfection. We all love beautiful images and well-constructed stories...but let's leave room and give value to the priorities of cinema verité film. I particularly admire the originals that did not have any narration and in which the ending was left undone.

The avenues by which artists can finance cinema verité are few. I was extremely fortunate with Chi that the National Film Board of Canada and BCFilm stepped up to the plate when they did. I know next time it won't be any easier. It's always going to be a risky game but this was the only way a story like Chi could be told. We had a small window of opportunity when Babz could travel and we took it. We couldn't wait, we couldn't plan -- we just followed what was happening now. Yes, it meant that we had to live with the unexpected and the unconventional story twists and turns. But that's life -- which can't be forecast or discovered before the cameras start rolling. Sometimes you have to lay your bets and go for it.