Filmmakers discuss lessons learned from video production

By Eric Acre, contributing writer

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, a married couple and Academy Award-winning documentary filmmakers, imparted some of the many lessons they have learned through their work, giving a presentation entitled, “Reel Life: Lessons from the World of Documentary Filmmaking,” at this week’s Common Hour.

Sean and Andrea are renowned for creating moving documentaries from all corners of the world, including War/Dance, an account of Ugandan school children who use music as a means of relief and joy in their war-torn country, and Life According to Sam, a story of the ambitions and struggles of Sam Berns, a young boy with progeria.

War/Dance went on to receive an Academy Award nomination, as well as win Emmy Awards for cinematography and best documentary film.

One of the children on which the film focused, Dominic Akena ’16, is a student at F&M. He took to the stage to give a heartfelt introduction for Sean and Andrea, whose discussion focused on the wisdom they have gained through their documentary work.

The Fines’ talk consisted of the 10 most important things they have learned during their time as documentary filmmakers. Although Andrea started with the caveat that the two originally thought of many more than 10 lessons, she said they did their best to share the information they thought would be the most insightful and useful.

The first of these life lessons, as Andrea called them, was that “there’s beauty in pain.”

Andrea explained that she did not mean pain is beautiful for its own sake but instead, that pain is the sister of resilience. The focus, according to Andrea, is not on the pain itself, but what one does with the pain he or she feels and how that person improves his or herself by harnessing that pain. She referred to Innocente, a homeless teenager in California and the focus of Innocente, another documentary by Andrea and Sean, as an example of resilience through pain.

The second lesson was to “never underestimate the power of listening.” Here, Sean explained how the ability to listen and consider what someone else is saying is a powerful tool that can convey important messages.

Perhaps the most personal of these lessons was Sean’s.

“Freaking out helps no one,” he said.

To illustrate this, Sean explained a tense encounter he had one night with a Ugandan militia guard that mistook him and his crew for rebel soldiers while he was filming War/Dance.

“[Staying out late at nights on the road] was something that you’re not supposed to do because that’s when the rebels often abduct people,” Sean said.

The crew had to stop the car they were driving when they come across a log in the road and were immediately jumped by men waiting in bushes alongside the road.

“A 15-year-old boy with an RPG, which is a rocket-propelled grenade, put his RPG to my head,” Sean said.

In that moment, instead of panicking and making the situation worse for himself and the crewmembers, Sean remained calm, eventually communicated with the boy, and discovered he was not a rebel but a militia guard on patrol.

“[Eventually we calmed things down] and we all ended up having a cup of tea and sitting around a fire for the next two hours talking,” Sean said.

This jarring tale is an extreme example of how remaining calm in a tense situation often leads to a better outcome.

Other lessons included “using doubt as fuel,” meaning that doubt can be a powerful tool to motivate one’s self to achieve in the face of adversity. Another lesson, “the power of UNO,” described how communication barriers can be broken down and built into relationships by finding one thing in common, even if that is something as simple as a mutual fondness for the card game UNO.

One of the final lessons, “knowing when to put that camera down, and knowing when not to film,” Sean explained as the importance of having respect for others and their privacy. He said this is especially important for a documentary filmmaker, who must understand that there are some moments that are too deeply personal to be filmed.

Andrea and Sean concluded their talk by saying they hoped every audience member would be able to remember at least one lesson from their speech.

 

First-year Eric Acre is a contributing writer. His email is eacre@fandm.edu.

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