On the chase with David Gutnick: how to find a local story

So, it's morning and your kit bag is loaded: a couple of recorders, microphones, a windsock, cables, extra batteries. A camera, pen, notepad. You're dressed for anything that comes your way. Veteran documentary producer David Gutnick gives us his guide to finding stories where you live.

So, it is morning and your kit bag is loaded: a couple of recorders, microphones, a windsock, cables, extra batteries. A camera, pen, notepad. You're dressed for anything that comes your way, not too sloppy in case you have to talk to office folk, not too neat in case you have to sit in a squat.

You've heard the morning news — nothing really jumped out — read a couple of papers and web sites and nothing really jumped out either. Damn, you are supposed to have a story ready in three days and as you lock the door and head to the bus or subway your stomach has got that little queasy thing going on. You like to think of yourself as solid, reliable and even on good days a creative radio documentary maker and damn if you have just hit a wall: no idea what you are going to be chasing today. 

So be mindful.

What's in the air, what posters are pasted on the poles, what are the stories your hearing in the air as you eavesdrop on a conversation as you grab a coffee.

Imagine the high life of a foreign correspondent you think, feeling sorry for yourself as  they always have access to cool stories.

Buzzz. Wrong.

A foreign correspondent is just reporting on the neighbourhood stories where their shoes are. That is where all the best stories always are: where you are standing.

So look at your feet and start thinking ... you see a poster advertising some crazy healer from the Philippines in town to faith heal folks. "Can cure cancer," says the poster. The event is happening tonight. Hmmm, wonder what Health Canada says? Wonder if this is legal? Wonder who will show up? How come? What are their stories? What does this say about our public health system if folks need to put faith in this fellow? Is this really crazy? Perhaps it tells us something about how other cultures see health and healing?  And your mind is on fire now and so you head into the office for that sit-down with your producer and your stomach is feeling better and you think you are on to something.
David Gutnick on location at Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal, Quebec. (Andrew Budziak)

And you and the producer are adults, right? So when your producer asks 'why should i care?' you have thought about that. And you come back with some answers that make that poster come alive and you talk about how you've read that there are all kinds of trends out there that mainstream medicine is not taking into account. You talk of rising immigration, you talk of your brother-in-law who swears by homeopathic pills despite the scientific evidence they are worthless, and he knows that but takes them anyway. 

And your producer bit​e​​​s. And away you go.

So finding local stories? Well just keep looking around, keep juggling ideas ... a story is not a fact. A story is not report. A story is not an inkling or a suspicion or a headline or a list.

A story that merits being made into a documentary is about people doing things because ... and your own street, your own neighbourhood, and everywhere else is full of people in action, in their bodies, in their minds and it is up to you to figure out what exactly makes those people's stories important for others.

So where have I found stories?

  • In an obit. She died at 101. Turns out she founded an all-female orchestra in the '40s that played Carnegie Hall [It Wasn't Teatime]
  • On the shelf in my grocery store. Peanut butter prices were skyrocketing. How come? Turns out peanut butter was invented in Montreal in the 19th Century. True story [Peanut Butter Crunch]
  • On a small town news web site, turns out that in Canada in the 1960s we were water boarding handicapped children [The Gristle in the Stew]
  • From a Rabbi who called saying he had a patient in palliative care who was on his last days and needed to talk to someone about his best piano student ever [Beethoven's Bust]
  • On the 80 bus when I overheard a conversation between a woman who I know and who is of Palestinian origin and her friend who is an Orthodox Jew. They were discussing the upcoming municipal election campaign and the Palestinian was convincing the Orthodox Jew to run and she would be the campaign manager 

A queasy stomach and mindfulness can lead to making radio art. Or at least never stop trying.

About the author

The Sunday Edition documentary producer David Gutnick
David Gutnick grew up on the prairies and the Northwest Territories and has been living in Québec for thirty years. He has won a number of Canadian and International awards. In 2012, David's documentary, The Gristle in the Stew, about the compensation battle led by former patients of Ontario schools for the intellectually disabled was honoured by the United Nations, won a silver medal at the New York Festival, received the media award given out by Community Living Ontario, and was short-listed for a Prix Italia.


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