Steve James: "The only honest way I can"

By Jonathan Marlow

Steve James: "The only honest way I can"
By Jonathan Marlow
September 2, 2005 - 5:23 AM PDT
"It was a pretty action-packed month."

In these days of penguins and politics, it's easy to forget that documentaries were once an extreme rarity in theaters. With Hoop Dreams, Steve James helped prove audiences would turn out for a great story, regardless of genre. Jonathan Marlow talks with James about how his latest, Reel Paradise, is unlike any film he's worked on before.


When you went into doing this film in Fiji, you had just come off of doing the mini-series The New Americans?

For the series, we gathered together five filmmakers or filmmaker teams who each documented a story of an immigrant or refugee over a period of years. In most cases, we started with them in their country of origin or, in the case of Nigerian story, which is the one I actually directed, we started in a refugee camp. Then we followed them over a period of years, coming to America where they settled different parts of the country. Then we took these stories, which represented 1,100 hours of material, and we distilled it into a seven-hour mini-series where we interwove these five different stories.

Your typical way of working, arguably your ideal way of working, is to shoot a great deal of footage and then cut it down. Obviously, with Reel Paradise, you didn't have that luxury since you were shooting for essentially a month. Was there ever any concern that nothing of interest would happen in that month that you could really structure a film around?

I certainly had that concern going in. Because on Hoop Dreams, on Stevie and on New Americans, all of those projects were films that were shot over a period of years, up to four or five years. While I was excited about the prospect of only filming for a month, for a lot of reasons that you could imagine, I was fearful, nervous about that. I remember telling John in emails, because that was the only way we would communicate leading up to me going to Fiji, I remember saying to him, "I'm not sure that this film will be like the other films, in the sense that there will be a lot of vérité moments; this may be a film that's going to be much more interview-driven - talking about your experience, talking about what it's been like to be in Fiji." He emailed me back, "What do you mean? Why can't it have vérité scenes?" I said, "Well, because I don't know in a month how much is going to happen." It's a very short window. I think as it turned out, it was a pretty action-packed month.

Let me guess - you were behind the robbery...

Yes, of course, you have to do what you have to do! But it ended up being quite an action-packed month between the ten-movie marathon and the projectionist not showing up and the robbery and some of the internal family drama, which really actually grew out of the robbery. What prompted Georgia to leave, the rift that happened that month between her and her family, was the robbery. It grew out of that. So it ended up being a pretty substantial month and so that did form the spine of the movie; but during that month, I also did a lot of interviews with them and local Fijians and the church folks to try and tell, as much as I could, a sense of the story of their year in Fiji.

How well did you already know John and the family? Were you very familiar with their interaction?

I knew John going back to Hoop Dreams because John was one of the first people to see the film before it was even done. He was a big fan of the movie and ended up being a real champion of the film when it came out. That was the beginning of my friendship with John. We had stayed in touch over the years; it was a fairly casual but lively friendship. Over the years, I had met Janet a few times but never really spent much time with her and I'd never met the kids. I really didn't know the family at all, really. I knew John but I really didn't know much about John's family life.

There were a lot of new things about this. I was shooting for a shorter period of time; this was a film that John asked if I was interested in doing; the other projects have all been projects that I have originated totally. This was a project that had been funded without me having to lift a finger. That was nice. There are a lot of different things about the project that made it a unique experience for me, including not having much of an idea what I was going to encounter when I got to Fiji. I knew, going in, that I was interested in the family's experience of Fiji. Sort of the New Americans in reverse - instead of an immigrant family coming to America and whatever their baggage and expectations are and how it plays out, this was going to be the opposite. I was particularly interested in that. I knew the kinds of films that John was showing. I was particularly interested in what the audience reaction would be to those movies. So those were the two topics of real interest, but I had no idea how that was going to play out once we got there.

With Hoop Dreams, you had to go through this whole process of deciding who your subjects were and allowing a story to come out of these people that you didn't necessarily know all that well, initially. With Stevie, it's exactly the opposite, in that you were very familiar with the subject. Which style of working do you prefer? Is it difficult to remain objective while working with the subject that you're personally familiar? It seems that the challenges of Stevie are very present in the construction of the film, challenges that are laid bare on the screen. Your experience of taking that film to Sundance, was it very difficult to then detach yourself from being so very intimately involved in the creation of it?

Stevie is a film that's near and dear to me. I knew that with Stevie, because at a certain point we did, in our own sort of bare bones way, a test screening or two with strangers, which we never did with Hoop Dreams. We were very curious to see how people would react to him, how they would react to me and how they would react to the construction of this film. Those screenings bore out what, in fact, sort of happened to the film, in the way that it was viewed critically. In other words, it was a good bell-weather of that. There were a lot of people who watched Stevie and were powerfully affected by it and said that they couldn't get it out of their minds and it was disturbing and all of those things. Then there were people that said, "I hate Steve James," or, "I hate Stephen Fielding," or, "I hated both of them." We saw that range.

I knew that when Stevie came out, whether it was going to be festival and then it eventually got theatrical, that it was going to be the kind of film that divided people. I mean, it never achieved the level of notoriety in the popular press to become a bigger issue of divisiveness, in the way a Michael Moore film does. The way people perceive it becomes a story in itself. I knew that was never going to happen to Stevie, but among people that see the film... it is one of those films that people have very strong feelings about. I felt like we had done our job right if that was the case. With Hoop Dreams, everybody kind of got it in the same way. Some people got it more deeply than others but there was unanimity to the way in which that film was perceived, and that was not the case with Stevie and it's not the case with Reel Paradise, either. Which is interesting to me.

"That I understand. That's human to me."

With Hoop Dreams, you were creating a traditionally modeled documentary that takes the characters from a certain place and ends them in a place where you would expect them to end, more or less. With Stevie and again with Reel Paradise, you're asking the audience to put themselves into the story and that's a much harder thing to achieve in a documentary.

With Hoop Dreams, two minutes into that film, everyone in the audience is rooting for those two boys. How could you not? They're fourteen-year-olds, they're wide-eyed, they have dreams, they live in a poor neighborhood and they have no money. What can't you get behind with that? The film became about the business of basketball, the meat grinder aspect of that, but that only makes you care about them more, not less, that they're trying to navigate those treacherous waters that achieve some measure of the "American dream."

With Stevie, I'm taking someone that our culture traditionally defines as a monster, someone that people feel more strongly about than murderers in a negative way, and humanized him and understand him without whitewashing him and, in the process, reveal my own shortcomings as a person trying to deal with him. And that's a much riskier terrain for me, as a filmmaker, to traverse and put myself into and for the audience to sit through. Because I'm in it and because my background is more similar to most people that see the film, part of what got under peoples' skin about it was that they had, more or less, a flesh-and-blood conduit up there on the screen grappling with this guy. It made it very uncomfortable for them as an audience person watching me do it because you couldn't help but put yourself in my shoes. For people who got the film, in the way that I wanted them to get it, that was a real strength in the film. For people that had real issues with Stevie and issues with the way in which I fumble around and grapple, it became cause to come down on the film.

I felt, when we met at Sundance in 2002, that Stevie was one of the more rewarding films at the festival, documentary or otherwise. If the viewer is willing to stick with it, then the film took you places that most filmmakers would be unlikely to visit because it's very personal. It's not safe. There is no logical place for the story to, in essence, end. The story continues when the film is over. These situations don't just disappear.

There would have been a safe way to make Stevie, but it wouldn't be the same film and it wouldn't have the same impact. I was fine, ultimately, with the hits I knew I was going to take because I felt like I did the most honest thing I could have done in telling the story. Short of not telling the story, which, I freely admit, maybe a better person wouldn't have made the film at some point. But if you're going to make it, I feel like I made it the only honest way I can.

I know the film has had an impact. When it showed on Cinemax, we had an outreach program and 250 agencies that work with people like Stevie in social services, downloaded our materials to use. I know it's a film that actually has a place in the world. So I make no apologies for the film now, but I think what I tried to do in Stevie is something that's carried over into Reel Paradise, which is dealing with subjects that the audience is going to have some issues with and trying to find a way to present people in a three-dimensional way, showing people doing things that many folks in the audience are going to criticize them for. I'm not saying I've completely worked this out, but I think it just goes with the territory. I'm trying to find a way to keep the audience from making quick judgments on everything.

If there's one thing I've come to discover in my own work, and it's really hit me with Stevie, and it's carried over into this film, is just how easy it is for audiences to just sit in the dark and make judgments. People want to do that, I want to do it; we all want to do it. We want to see somebody do something and we want to be able to say, "Okay, I've got that person. I know who they are." In Stevie, the goal there was to take someone that you immediately don't like and, once you've found out what he's done, you really don't like him, but by the end of the film you try and find some way to make you care about him even without condoning what he did.

With Reel Paradise, you know, John does some things... John can be a bull in a China shop. In some ways, the thing I like best about him is also one of his faults, which is that he shoots from the hip and he says what he means and he doesn't bullshit you. I think it's one of the things that redeem him, in my view, and one of the things that gets him into trouble.

Georgia is a teenager who is rebellious, who is going through a rebellious period like many teenagers. That put some people off. I also wanted people to see that she's also somebody who had a deep friendship with this girl Miriama and an ease in the Fijian culture that maybe nobody else in that family achieved. Those were interesting sides of her that, for me, when I would see her acting out with her parents and being more like, "I wish she wouldn't do that." I'd see this other side of her and I'd go, "I like her so much." I tried to preserve that, but I think it's a tricky part when you're making documentaries about people that we can't universally admire and love and feel for.

I think there are a lot of reviewers out there, unfortunately, who have a pretty conservative view of what a documentary is supposed to be. They tend to think that it's either got to be about a cause that we can all rally behind or it can be an expose about an evil person, it can be on Idi Amin and show just what an awful guy that is, or it's got to be about someone who we can fully embrace and admire. The same kinds of things that many reviewers look for in fiction films and decry the lack of in films, this lack of complexity, when it comes to documentaries - I feel sometimes they don't have the patience for it. They want to make a judgment and stick to that judgment.

Of course, our conventional cinematic language is unfortunately set up to encourage these quick assumptions. For Stevie or Reel Paradise, the reason that these films succeed is that you're allowing your subjects to show themselves as they are. People are more complex than we usually allow.

I probably shouldn't quote bad reviews, but there was a piece on Reel Paradise where the reviewer said something like, "John acts when his house was robbed as if it's the crime of the century," and he's right! John got very upset about the robbery. It was the second time they had been robbed. They had been robbed of probably $20,000 worth of stuff. I don't know about you, or this reviewer, but you know in our own little world that's pretty serious. It's infuriating, especially if you feel like you're somebody who's there trying to do something good. Now, whether everyone agrees with you about whether you're doing something good or not, that's another issue. But you feel like you're there trying to do something good and people are robbing you, that's something I can understand. I can understand that anger and frustration and then you have the landlord come in and try to hand you a bill in the midst of it. That I understand. That's human to me.

I think, sometimes, people watch movies and expect the people on the screen, particularly in documentaries, to be better people than they are in order to earn their admiration and affection. It's a tricky thing, but increasingly, I feel like it's what I have to do as a documentary filmmaker. The stories that I'm attracted to, more than anything, are ones where the central subjects have these complexities about them that make you wrestle with them as people. I just think that that's what makes us human.

To do a project like Stevie, did you find it easier to take on that topic after having such success with Hoop Dreams? Hoop Dreams was almost unprecedented in its reception when it was released. That's the sort of reception that any first time documentary filmmaker would like to see happen with their debut feature.

Yeah, it doesn't get any better as an experience.

Did that then free you a little bit?

Well, what Hoop Dreams helped get made was New Americans, mainly, because it was an idea that people could look at and go, "Ah, okay. I see the relationship there." You're talking about race and you're talking about people with a dream of coming to America and wanting to make a better life for themselves. It was an easy leap.

On Hoop Dreams, we had a devil of a time getting any money and it was just a constant struggle. On New Americans, initially, we got a nice, sizable chunk of money to start the series because of the success of Hoop Dreams. New Americans ended up being a three million dollar project so we ended up having our struggles with fundraising at the end, but at least it made it possible.

With Stevie, Hoop Dreams made everyone want to see a demo but we could not get a single American broadcaster to give us any money. We couldn't get any money from anybody. The money we got to make the film we got from the BBC, because of this guy Nick Fraser, who loved Hoop Dreams and saw the demo for Stevie and just said, "You know what, I'm going to support this. I think you're on to something here." So he sustained us and eventually a guy named Robert May came along and gave us a sizable chunk of money to finish this film. Otherwise, we could not get any support for that film. In fact, I got letters from people who would watch the demo and then, when I would talk to them, they would go, "I can't muster enough sympathy for this guy to want to see this film made." I even got a letter once from a European broadcaster that said something like, "I don't want to see this film get made." Thank you very much!

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