Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Meanwhile, in -- well, in Virginia at least...

More pictures ... because I can ...

Volunteer firemen from Buena Vista, Virginia, in the final stages of a house fire. I happened to have the camera from the station with me that night in anticipation of Lee-Jackson Day ceremonies the following morning (more on that, more or less, in a bit).

The firemen had gotten the thing under control -- it started as a chimney fire, they said later, and spread quickly. When the firemen arrived, there were flames shooting out the windows. It was a surprisingly large house, up a private road named Hound Haven Lane. I could actually hear bloodhounds braying in complaint as I approached. The eight people who lived there moved in with relatives; the house was completely destroyed.

The owner was none to happy to see me when I arrived, and it is to the credit of the fire policeman -- and older fellow named William (I fear I've forgotten his last name) -- that he moved me on past the dismayed fellow, pointing out that my TV coverage was probably to his advantage. "I told him you're his best friend right now," William explained when he rejoined me.

This is an awards ceremony -- officially a "Freedom Salute" -- for the 1-116th Infantry Battalion, a unit from the Virginia National Guard that recently returned from a tour in Iraq. They all received a service award from the governor and an Army Commendation Medal, as well as a campaign medal and, in some cases, an Infantry Combat Badge.

Each name was read after the various speeches and appearances by important people -- plaques were presented, wives were thanked -- and then after each name, the number of tours of duty, and the awards being presented. It was humbling as, following name after name, "Three tours," "Two tours"...

As with all wars, the soldiers were young men, and the room was full of young wives and small children. It allowed the comfortable like me to remember their sacrifice can be more than just wounds and death...

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonell is interviewed by local TV after making an appearance for Republican candidate Greg Habeeb. It's the same day, actually -- convenient to schedule the rally because the governor was in town for the Freedom Salute.

Yes, that is the camera I'm supposedly running at the moment on the right. However, as you can see, there's not a lot of movement in this situation (and I actually had a reporter to ask the questions), so I felt safe taking this one picture.

That's Habeeb, on the right, talking with his campaign manager before coming down the hall for his own interview. This is the back hall of the small office building in Salem, where the rally had just been held. Habeeb won handily on election night, taking the seat formerly occupied by Morgan Griffith, who was elected to the US House in November.

This is not Lee-Jackson Day, as the participants would be quick to tell you. The Sons of Confederate Veterans had applied to fly Confederate flags on Lexington's Main Street for the Saturday parade from Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, where Jackson is buried, to Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee rests with his family in the basement crypt.

The SCV was denied permission to fly the flags on that Saturday -- part of the weekend leading up to the Monday Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. However, they were allowed to put up the flags for the week previous.

This shows a second pattern Confederate flag in front of the steeple of the Presbyterian church on Main Street, the church Jackson attended when a professor at VMI.

That Saturday -- the morning after the fire -- I covered the ceremonies, eventually putting together a "nat sound" piece. (That's for "natural sound," or a story without any narration. Usually, as it was in my case, it's because a reporter doesn't even come along.)

I don't do weddings. At least, I don't normally do weddings. Or, rather, I never did weddings in the past. This, however, is the wedding of a friend, and Jennifer and I did the photography as a gift.

The bride is seen here in that moment after getting dressed, her bridesmaids having headed out to their places, her father not yet arrived to take her downstairs. It's not even a few minutes, but it's one of those moments that seem to last, hung in time.

Maybe I will do weddings. It was pretty fun...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

About Sargent Shriver...

I guess I'm old enough now that, like every Washington journalist, I feel the need to reminisce about some important figure when he dies. It proves we're important too, you see, because we actually knew him ...

Recently, it was Sargent Shriver, once "dashing and handsome," the vigorous expediter of JFK's noble goals through the Peace Corps, now 95 and suffering from Alzheimer's. I remember him from the mid 1990s.

I had just covered a ceremony marking the anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination. Every year, a delegation of Kennedys and others would visit the grave in Arlington, spend a contemplative moment looking into the eternal flame, and then move on with their day. At a discreet and respectful distance, photographers were allowed to document the little ceremony. Needless to say, Shriver was a regular, and he was there that day.

We went through our motions -- the Kennedys at the grave, the photographers silently making our pictures -- and then all climbed into our cars and drove back into the city. Of course, packing up gear and all, I left later than the participants, so I was somewhat surprised after I crossed the bridge and started down Constitution Avenue to see ... Sargent Shriver. He was standing in the road, next to his car after a minor fender bender.

There's a moment as a journalist and especially as a photographer (because we can't recover the picture by getting on the phone and collecting descriptions after the fact) when you see something like this. I guess you could call it news, or perhaps a feature -- something that the NY Daily News might put on Page Six, showing that the famous and important are just like us. I though about pulling off, jumping out and getting a picture. But then I realized what I saw there was a befuddled old man, standing there with that hopeless look that the elderly can have, that look when the speed and complication of life has overwhelmed them. And on that day of all days...

No, I just couldn't do it. I drove on to the bureau, dropped my film and didn't mention it, even after word came down later in the day that he had indeed had a minor accident. I guess after 15 years, I can't get in trouble for that now...

Saturday, January 8, 2011


And as I sort the film, I get to this:

What am I supposed to do with these?

Friday, January 7, 2011

I Dream a Perfect World...

I had the most remarkable dream the other day. It wasn't unusual in its form -- just one of those false awakening dreams. Surely you've had one, where you dream you've awakened in your bed ... only to then really awaken, surprised to find the previous was only a dream? I've had them often enough that I frequently have a moment of questioning the reality: Is this really waking up, or just a dream? How do I know? (And, no, I've not seen "Inception" yet, though I know there's something about a top involved...)

So I woke up, and rolled to a sitting position to look out the bedroom window. It was hard to see out -- the shade was pulled over sheer curtains, though the fuzzy outlines of the buildings outside could be seen. I looked down at the dark narrow plank floor, then tried to see better out the window, to get oriented in the flat, pale dawn light. My wife still slept by me. Our parents were in the small houses nearby, where we'd moved them from our old house in Lexington. There were a few other houses visible through the shade, not as silhouette, but as obscured, fuzzy impressions. It felt real. Totally real. "Well," I said to myself, "It might not be the idealized Lexington, but at least it's Lexington."

Perhaps that needs explaining. I've come to realize that, in dreams, I have idealized or compacted versions of places -- a Lexington with fewer streets, a DC with the areas I frequented all pushed together so they abut -- basically places with all the irrelevant details edited out. Sometimes they're idealized; my dream Georgetown more resembles a set for a production of "Oliver!", with texturally aged, brick townhouses with dark wood porches made of thick, craggy beams, all pushed together over quaint alleys and the canal, than it does the actual neighborhood. Anyway, the point of my thought was that I'd decided my morning felt real enough, even when I looked past the foot of the bed to the large, glass doors opening out to a balcony, a town on the hillside below resembling something in Italy more than southwest Virginia. And that's when I really woke up...

And that all pretty much serves as preface to my organizing my film -- as in the stuff I put into my still cameras -- because I've been doing that around the edges of work and family care lately. You see, as we abandoned our old house, we let the utilities go, including electricity, which in turn allowed the refrigerator in which I kept my film defrost. What ice that had caked into it then, of course, melted, soaking all the film boxes. So now, I have to go through all the film, dispose of the boxes to wrecked by water to save (as well as get rid of what film was ruined), but first get the expiration dates off the boxes and write them with a Sharpie on those little plastic film cans.

Okay, that's a lot of background to get to a moment of revelation...

I walked into my room in the midst of the extended process the other night, I looked down on the sea of film canisters ... and felt an odd pleasure. As I later told a colleague at the station, if you had come to me in college, and said that, in 30 years or so, you will be sorting through scores of film canisters on an Afghan war rug, your Leicas nearby, I would have taken that as a promise of absolute success.

A part of a documentary including Larry Burrows, one of the greatest war photographers. Note about 1:34, the scene of him pulling film canister after film canister out of the box to carry with him into the field with his Leicas. This still gives me a unique thrill, to see an idol doing something so similar...

As with so many things, this seems like the story of the genie: I get exactly what I wished for ... but not really in the way I wished. I don't know whether to be ecstatic or depressed...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Layers Upon Layers ...

I sometimes bore my friends (and generally bore my children) by seemingly being unable to answer a simple question with a simple answer. "Well, that depends ...," is as likely to be the way I start as any. Today, there was an article in The New York Times that makes me think of that.

Headlined "Scenes Cut From Film Find New Role In Court," it seems rather straightforward at first. Lawyers for Chevron, suing over a documentary about the company's actions in Ecuador, demanded outtakes from the film. Naturally, the filmmakers said no. And frankly I think they're right.

A documentary is -- or at least should be, in my opinion -- an act of journalism. It is reporting on something factually, telling the viewer information that is truthful and accurate. That information may be 100 years old, or about some ongoing issue, but an effort should be made to tell some fact-based truth.

However, to be clearer, I'm not so sure a documentary has an obligation to be objective. A filmmaker does not, I think, have to ensure he gets every side or tell every part of a story. It's still a documentary to, for example, tell the story of an activist for or against something and be sympathetic to his point of view, and not feel any need to include the opinions of the people he's an activist against.

It's fair, I think, to have an openly declared point of view -- to say, for example, that I set out to make this film because this issue bothered me. Ideally, say with this past year's Oscar winner, "The Cove," if you have a point of view, you also have an array of facts on your side.

On the other hand, I'm reluctant to call Michael Moore (despite his Oscar in the category) a documentary filmmaker. He does make films on issues of import, and he is very clever, but he is also fast and loose with the facts. He is not, I think, engaging in journalism, or even activist or "concerned" journalism. His is a work of propaganda. Fair enough -- especially if you agree with him -- but not documentary filmmaking.

So, having dispensed with that aside (see what I mean about boring the kids?), a true documentary should be treated in most ways like reporting. That means sourcing and sources are a critical -- and often closely held -- part of the process, especially in any sort of investigative work ... like, say, exposing what the filmmakers believed was wrongdoing by Chevron in Ecuador.

But here the question gets murkier. The Times reports that the judge let Chevron have the outtakes. (Again, a mistake in my opinion, undermining the capability of future filmmakers to do long-form exposés and get access; who's going to let you to unguarded moments on a "trust me" basis when that trust can be overruled by a court?) And in the outtakes we find ... the lawyers fighting against Chevron in Ecuador engaging in all sorts of questionable practices themselves.

So how did Chevron know to ask? Apparently, they saw a version of the film shown at Sundance that included a scene revealing a technically nonpartisan expert attending a planning meeting with the anti-Chevron lawyers. In the final release of the film, that shot was gone. So what does this tell us? Well, that the lawyers were skewing the "neutral" testimony to their side, and that (most importantly) the filmmakers knew this was a bad thing.

So now the Chevron guys get to work their way through the outtakes -- 500 hours of footage -- and they're finding all sorts of questionable stuff. Says The New York Times: "The clips ... 'have sent shock waves through the nation’s legal communities,' one federal judge said in an opinion. Another court last month called them 'extraordinary evidence' that suggests that lawyers 'presented false evidence and engaged in other misconduct.'" The filmmakers' lawyers say this is all a smokescreen, and we should get back to the point of all the nasty stuff Chevron did.

And now I'm wondering:
1. Why did these guys film all this in the first place? I know it's great to have access, and planning meetings with lawyers are just the sorts of things a documentary wants -- showing something important but otherwise hidden from view. But just who's malfeasance were they trying to document? And if you're on the side of the people you're filming, is it a good idea to actively film them engaging in questionable practices?
And 2. If they did it in all innocence (not realizing until the edit, say, that having the expert in the meeting would look bad), why didn't this become part of the film?

And hence, we return to Point One: Documentary filmmaking (especially about contemporary issues) is an act of journalism. These guys ceased to be any sort of journalist when they consciously concealed these significant facts. (Not being a lawyer, I won't go into the question of what kind of lawyers are involved here.) Truth and reporting are about going where the facts take you, and the facts here took them to a someplace else -- a place they weren't planning to go, but one they found themselves in.

One might argue that the film was about what Chevron did, not the legal case and its conduct, and that's a fair point, except they were busy filming the legal case, weren't they? If they were simply going into the jungle and out to sea, showing what Chevron was doing, well that would be a safe point. But now the film is also about the legal process, isn't it?

To take it somewhere I've worked, let's say I'm doing a film on Robert E. Lee, and let's say I am working on it from the point of view that he was a tragic figure, a fine fellow dragged reluctantly into defending slavery, an institution he abhorred. And finally, let's say I get exclusive access to never-seen-before, very private letters from Lee to his wife, Mary. (All of this is plausible enough -- I had been working on a Lee film, and there are recently released Lee letters, with more to come.)

But now let's say I come across one letter in which he says he finds the services of his slaves delightful, and he wouldn't eliminate such a grand institution for all the lives in either the Federal or Confederate armies. (NOTE: This is not true; it is an example for debate purposes only.) Now, I can tell myself that this is just one letter out of hundreds, and many of those other letters speak to feelings exactly the opposite. Maybe he was just in an odd mood, or I didn't understand the context -- perhaps Mary had sent him a letter lost to the collection, in which she asked what he thought other Southerners believed. Maybe he was drunk (though a noted teetotaler). But, you see, that is all rampant speculation and wishful thinking, elaborate logical constructs to allow me to cling to my initial premise and ignore an inconvenient and uncomfortable fact. I cannot deny that the (fictional, for the sake of debate) letter exists.

So I think there are a couple of ways to go. My first inclination is to simply shift the focus of the story and make the film about making the film. We set out to do Robert E. Lee the gentleman, but found this letter -- what does it mean? My second thought is to make the film planned, but integrate the new information. At no time do I seriously think: Let's just ignore this thing and do what we'd always planned because that theme is a Greater Truth that overwhelms this difficult, little detail.

So what's my point? Well, I guess I have two. One is that a documentary's outtakes are sacrosanct, part of the process, as much as a reporter's notes and a lawyers memos, and should be so protected. And the second is that, whatever "Crude" is, it has wandered into a gray morass in which telling the whole truth seems less important than making its point ... a very dangerous place.