Making my radio documentary Longing to Belong was a transformative, intimate and often difficult process. That's the funny thing about crafting immensely personal pieces as they unfold – you have to relinquish a lot of control as a producer and constantly re-work the script in your head.
Longing to Belong was recorded over a 6-month period, during which I worked closely with my interview subject/storyteller Lorrie Edmonds. Lorrie and I had a very open dialogue about the project from the start; I didn't really know where it would end up, but I told her I was motivated to turn her story into a feature-length documentary.
Lorrie is a radio producer and artist too, but when we started recording she felt that she was too close to the story to do anything with it. When we started recording the piece we were casual acquaintances who had met in university, so the documentary really transformed our relationship.
Lorrie said the experience was very cathartic for her and appreciated that the process gave her an opportunity to share her story in a new way. She says, "to do something with the trauma of what happened over the past year ... has been really important. That you are the one working on it, finding something to do that's creative with it, is truly humbling, but so very therapeutic." As a documentary maker, Lorrie's positive feedback was the greatest reward.
I wanted to hear from other producers about how they build trust and navigate their relationships with their interview subjects/storytellers while making intimate radio documentaries. Here's what they had to say.
Kate Montague | Murder in a Small Town (2015, for ABC's Earshot)
Kate Montague produced a two-part radio documentary that digs into her own past as she returns to her hometown and reconnects with her friend whose mother was murdered when they were 10-years-old. The documentary is striking in a number of ways and it took months of planning, recording, and editing for this story to come together. Kate says that taking the time to craft a documentary of this magnitude was an essential part of its construction.
“This kind of investment builds a lot of trust with the storytellers and a familiarity with the process of recording. The microphone kind of becomes invisible and we're often deep in a one-to-one exchange. It's incredibly intimate, and brings out moments of very emotionally raw and honest tape.”
Since she grew up with the people she interviewed, Kate had shared experiences and understanding that allowed her a level of pre-established proximity to her subjects. While these relationships created the foundation of the piece, she also had to negotiate them carefully.
“I had a rapport with the community and the family that another producer might not have had. However, having access to the story in this way didn't necessarily make it easier. Reconnecting with these people from my past and my personal investment in the story meant the stakes felt higher. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to get the documentary right and there was an extra level of caution in my approach.”
Tally Abecassis | First Day Back (2015)
Tally Abecassis is a documentary maker of many forms. Before starting her documentary podcast in 2015, Tally worked as a filmmaker, giving her a unique understanding of the documentary-making process. I asked Tally about getting close to her subject and how that can be tricky both professionally and personally for a producer.
“In most of my films and now with my podcast, I follow people over a long period of time. I try so hard to make it clear that this is a professional relationship, not a friendship, but it's one of the things I struggle with the most. I always work on stories with people who I fundamentally like and I spend a lot of time with them. Over time, I naturally grow to care for the person and it seems (to me, at least) that the feeling is mutual. I can only hope it leads to more openness and trust between us, which should lead to better material — a good thing for both of us.”
Openness and trust are fundamental to this type of documentary making and it's important as a producer to explain your intentions in making the piece, so there aren't surprises for your interview subject or storyteller in the final piece.
Mira Burt-Wintonick | Kaddish (2016, for CBC's Love Me)
Mira Burt-Wintonick and her co-producer Cristal Duhaime worked with emerging producer Grant Irving to produce a story about his struggle coming to terms with his father's suicide. The result was a heartbreaking piece that explored the emotional depth of the difficult relationship with father and son, but Mira also recognizes how the story you tell as a producer can't include every nuance of the full life experience that the storyteller expresses.
“It was impossible to completely capture that relationship in a 17-minute piece. It was a very delicate thing to try to craft the story in a simple and understandable and compelling way while also staying true to the rich and layered elements of the storyteller's personal experience. In this case, we were very lucky that our storyteller understood that and trusted us with his story. But it can be painful for a storyteller to let go of certain details or facts during the production process, especially with such intimate subject matter.”
It's important to note that the final story is always different from how your interview subject or storyteller tells it; it's the nature of crafting a documentary. As a producer, you aren't re-creating someone's life experience, rather as Mira puts it, but are building a bridge between listener and storyteller:
“The storyteller's full experience still exists on their side of the water — that never gets taken away from them — but the bridge needs to be designed and shaped in a way that is accessible to others in order for some of their experience to be shared.”
Neil Sandell | Between Friends (2006, for CBC's Outfront)
Neil Sandell's award-winning documentary told the story of how a past secret told between friends has an enormous impact on both of their futures. Neil worked with producer Jody Porter to share her story of sexual assault as a young girl and the impact that keeping this secret had on her childhood friend. Complex, profoundly personal, and genuine, this documentary is a hard listen and a portrait of an intricate friendship.
More from Neil Sandell ...
We are awash with personal stories on radio and in podcasts. We live in a culture of confession. There is very little that people won't talk about. What really distinguishes the personal stories I want to listen to are three qualities:
- Some personal insight, that is, making sense of your story
- Storytelling that keeps me on the edge of my seat and makes me want to know what happened next
“I saw my role as a midwife to the story. Like most people wanting to tell a personal story, Jody's wasn't fully formed. My job was to lead her to new insight about events she had lived and relived for 20 years. That meant gently pushing her to new revelations about the burden her secret had placed on her best friend. In our early discussions we agreed on the elements of the story. Jody gathered the tape and did a rough cut. I revised. We worked on the structure together. I did the final edit and mix. We consulted along the way.”
Dealing with traumatic experiences can put producers in a difficult role. Its often instinctual to reach out and comfort people in a time of distress, but Neil says it's important at times to ignore that impulse.
“I am empathetic, but I am also comfortable pushing my interview subject outside of their comfort zone to get deeper truths. Generally, when an interviewee is experiencing distressing emotions we have an instinct to say, "there, there", to comfort them. As the producer/interviewer, I ignore that impulse because it intrudes on a potent and revealing moment. There is time to comfort the person after the interview, and I think there's an obligation to help them regain their equilibrium.”
There's lots of other fantastic resources and pieces to listen that exemplify personal documentary making, including Neil's Third Coast Session Secrets, Whispers and Lies, Masako Fukui's documentary Will Kate Survive Kate about one young woman's experience with anorexia, Veronica Simmonds' collaboration with The Heart about discovering your sexuality in Coming of Age, and finally Sook-Yin Lee's masterful radio show Sleepover, which brings together three strangers overnight to share their personal experiences together.
About the author
Her documentary radio work has been featured on Third Coast and CBC's Spark. Michelle dabbles in the world of radio fiction and has produced work for the Australian Broadcast Corporation and Radiotopia podcasts. Her sound-rich work, Swimmers was short-listed for the Third Coast Short Docs 2016 competition.