The Making of a Documentary, Part 2 / Art and Empathy

In this two-part series, I’m sharing our strange and unexpected experience of being filmed for a documentary. In the fall of 2021, Director Dillon Hayes of All I Have, LLC, explained to us his desire to film the creative work of my husband and peer into the life of our family, our journey and our home. 

To read about Day 1, click here.

Day 2 focused primarily on my husband and his work, while I tried to hold my children back. The little ones were already smitten with Co-director Julia Grimm.

Out of the spotlight, I took the opportunity to make more conversation with the team. 

The desire to share a story

Grimm owns SLAQR Studios, a production/post-production company and lives in East Hollywood. She comes from New Jersey, where her family still operates a Christmas tree farm. Inspired by a documentary on child soldiers in Uganda she saw while at Amnesty International, Grimm went on to study film and television at Boston University. It was there she met Rill Causey who managed sound production during filming. Causey works as a freelance video/audio editor and sound designer.

When Grimm saw that documentary she said it caused her to ask, “What can I do? Can I help tell stories that might be able to help people or reach people? So that’s why I initially decided to go to film school.” She focused on documentaries. 

Causey started in sound through music, violin to be specific. After receiving recording software and attending an after-school program through Wide Angle Youth Media, he went to film school where he met Grimm.

Ultimately the two connected with Director Dillon Hayes. The three have discussed the ideas behind this documentary for years and decided last year it was time to get it off the ground. Hayes’ studied journalism in college, but after a class in documentary film, turned towards the medium that marries audio and visual to tell a story.

Growing in empathy

I was struck by the wisdom they shared. Though telling stories in documentaries, Hayes said, “You get more of a sense of how complex everybody on earth is. It makes you have way more empathy for people.” It’s easy to create a narrative around a person by the one aspect you see, “but it’s just always so much more than that,” Hayes said.

Grimm said she has always felt a curiosity about others around her.

“I feel like you get to a certain point in your life and you start to realize, oh my existence and my experience are not the same for everybody and my point of view and my parents’ point of view is not the same as everybody else out there.”

A project like this is a “passion project” for Hayes, Grimm and Causey. Documentaries make it possible for these filmmakers to not only hear others’ stories but share them by bringing “viewpoints of how other people live, people they might not ever really get to meet and experience themselves,” into others’ lives and homes, Grimm said.

Lending an listening ear

To do this well, they each spoke to the power of empathy in storytelling. Learning someone’s story begins by listening and that act itself can open up others to share. “A lot of people don’t have many people around them, that will really listen,” Hayes said.

After five years of more overtly political work, Hayes felt “burnt out.” His shifted his work, focusing more on what people had in common, rather than their differences. Grimm agreed with how energizing the shift can be. “I don’t think that most people are as far apart as we’ve been made to think we are.”

Then sharing without judgment

So instead of bringing personal bias, Hayes and Grimm try to approach with an open mind, asking where these beliefs came from, what factors contributed to them, and asking those questions without judgment. Then by documenting these ideas, they turn around and seek to help others see the bigger picture from another’s perspective. 

This documentary is still in its early stages. While some documentaries are contracted and funded from the beginning, Hayes explained,

“Most documentaries are started off by people like us who just have an idea.”

Those with a creative vision have more options than ever to bring them to fruition. Because of the changing media landscape, making documentaries has become “a viable career field,” Hayes said. Causey agreed,

“We are lucky to be in a time where there’s more of an appetite for it than there ever has been before.”

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The Making of a Documentary Film

Let’s film you

In the fall of 2021, Dillon Hayes of All I Have, LLC, emailed my husband to see if he would be open to participating in a documentary. The prospect sounded exciting. I joined the conversation when Hayes expressed a desire to not only film my husband at work but the entire family, our journey to this point and something of our life at home.

Years have passed since I spilled the ink on our interior lives, even though the book was only published last year, so the idea of butterflying our hearts for the public nudged me out of my comfort zone. To support my husband I said “yes,” but with some reservations.

We declined the first suggested weekend and Hayes postponed the second. Finally, the time came for the last weekend in January when Hayes, his co-director Julia Grimm and sound technician Rill Causey would descend upon our little nest with their cameras and microphones.

First a quick edit

As the weekend approached, we cleaned and “edited” the home clearing this and that while maintaining my vintage maximalist design aesthetic. My daughter asked, “but if we do the hard cleaning now, they won’t really see our real lives.”

“Our lives aren’t just cleaning, no more than my mothering is just yelling or your childhood is just rule-breaking. By doing some of the hardworking now, we make space to show a fuller picture of who we are,” I explained.

The film crew arrives

At 7:30 a.m. the crew of three arrived. They set up and got down to business as we finished our breakfast. Day 1 focused on the family, homeschooling, playtime, and formal interviews with me in the afternoon. It felt so strange to be on display, acutely aware of the camera watching, creeping closer and closer. My mind reached to perceive what we look like through that camera lens.

“We look very strange.”

That was the only impression I felt within myself as the children recited antique catechism questions, poetry, and I read scripture and took the answers to endless math problems, and one flower order.

They ate when we ate. My husband and I spoke to each other in quiet tones, even as we were alone in the house.

The children behaved remarkably well, with little to no resistance at school. They and I were on the same page after the lunch break, both eager for the weekend to begin, unable to focus.

The formal interviews spotlights an insight to myself

That afternoon, during the formal interviews in my bedroom surrounded by antiques handed on to me by my grandmother. There, I answered questions about our history, our children, our losses, emotions and the will. I continue to be struck by the tenor of the conversation.

We have lived with a sense of adventure in our lives that comes from knowing that so little is guaranteed. We must dig deep into the present moment while we have it. It’s the feeling of throwing everything into a holiday when I had no idea if we would be in a home or a hospital. While we’re here, we’re going for it. That was my feeling, going for it to the fullest. I realized through these interviews how foundational this sense has become in our lives and how exciting life feels because of it.

Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism make up the old five-factor theory of personality.

My husband and I differ exceedingly on the last four factors. But the first, openness to experience, is a strong point of agreement for us. To a fault, perhaps, but also to a great deal of joy. The degree to which we practice this comes from the grief, despair, and fear we faced. Our days are not guaranteed, so we make the most of them as they come to us.

In those interviews, we also spoke about fear: the fear of commitment or responsibility, the fear of taking a chance, and the fear of those terrifyingly dark emotions.

And about those dark emotions

I finished reading Healing Through Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan. The last chapters resonated less with me than the first. Most of the book was revelatory in a way I’ve never experienced before. Greenspan explained the emotional alchemy possible when we allow ourselves to pay attention to the emotions that move within us, consider what they are telling us, and express them in a healthy way. It is only through numbing them or avoiding them that they change into something toxic, she argues.

When addressed and expressed, what do the emotions change into?

  • From grief to gratitude.
  • From despair to faith.
  • From fear to joy.

Check. Check. Check.

At the end of the evening, the cameras went down and I relaxed. The crew and I sat around the living room with the children, untangling marionette puppets and exchanging ideas.

And what was just Day 1.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.