Why we tell stories; insights from Docutah filmmakers

ST. GEORGE – What do a convicted murderer – an accomplice to one of America’s most grizzly killing sprees – a Russian expatriate and a crazy mountain man have in common? What about two women in an Algerian refugee camp and a bunch of rural farmers engaging in an extreme and quirky competition? On the surface the link is tenuous at best but delve a little deeper and you find at the root, the thing that connects them all … a story.

On Friday, filmmakers from Docutah – Southern Utah’s International Documentary Film Festival – boarded a bus bound for Zion National Park where the towering ancient sandstone cliffs provided the perfect backdrop for a discussion about stories; how we find them, why we tell them and ultimately what we learn from them.

Now in its fifth year, Docutah 2014 brought together a diverse field of filmmakers whose films spanned the globe and stretched across time telling tales at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, comical and thought provoking, and calling on participants and spectators alike to “envision the world through documentary film.”

A seed is planted

Every film has a beginning; a person, a place, a cause, a plea, an idea – the seed that is planted, the voice crying out for its story to be told and for this year’s crop of documentary directors and producers their stories’ beginnings were as diverse and varied as they were unlikely and powerful.

Rebecca Roberts-Wolfe was a student in West Africa traveling by train when she met two people from Western Sahara, refugees, she said, who were on their way to a freedom festival/protest/celebration in the small part of Western Sahara that is not occupied by Morocco.

Roberts-Wolfe ended up traveling with them to the festival and while she was there, she said, she was genuinely treated as family and everyone she met asked her to tell their story.

“Everybody asked me to ‘please tell our story in your country,’” Roberts-Wolfe said, “’please tell the story of our struggles, please tell the world what is going on here.’”

It took Roberts-Wolfe – who was not a filmmaker until this project – several years to figure out how to tell the story, she said.

“I didn’t know I was going to make a film,” Roberts-Wolfe said, “I just thought I would go back to the refugee camp and see my friends and figure out what kind of project I could do.”

The project is now a documentary film entitled “Cast in Sand: A Tale of Two Women,” and is the story of “two women of different generations struggling for survival, happiness and freedom in an Algerian refugee camp where the displaced people of Western Sahara have fled to escape Morocco’s brutal occupation of their homeland.”

It took “Dryland” directors Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm 10 years to shoot their film that follows the struggles and triumphs of a young man from Lind, Washington, whose dream is to remain on his family farm and preserve their way of life amidst a background of rural decline in the west.

But for Arbuthnot and Wilhelm, their film had much smaller, more rambunctious beginnings.

“When we first heard about Lind, Washington, we decided to go there to follow an extreme sport that we thought would be a quirky little short film about an unusual use of farm implements,” Arbuthnot said, “… the Lind Combine Demolition Derby.”

What began as an idea to film an activity that was a bit of a spectacle turned into a decade-long project that captures the heart and determination of a small farming community and those who live to preserve it.

Why we tell stories

Good stories, like the ones told in this year’s festival, can be used to advocate and to educate, they can give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless, they can entertain and inspire.

The story of Boris Molchanov gained international attention in the 1980s when, after marrying an American woman named Ann, Boris Molchanov was denied an exit visa by the former Soviet Union in direct violation of international compacts.

It took four years, 26 visits to Russia, jail time and one dramatic demonstration in Moscow before Boris Molchanov was allowed to join his wife in America.

It was a story that Andrei Molchanov, director of “Freeing Boris” knew well, after all it had been a part of his family history his entire life, he said; so when he got into film, he decided to do his senior thesis on his father’s story and though it had received fairly widespread media attention at the time, it wasn’t until Andrei Molchanov made the documentary that his father finally felt comfortable with the idea of sharing his story, Boris Molchanov said.

“This is the first time I felt really good about my story because it’s so private,” Boris Molchanov said, “I was not comfortable that my story had attention brought by media but the whole idea was to get out of country.”

Boris Molchanov said that his son’s film is more close to the truth than the media outlets who used his story and twisted it to make it more juicy.

Films such as “Roaming Wild,” a film chronicling the controversy surrounding wild horse populations that live on public lands, and “Poverty Inc.,” an analysis of the ways we go about giving charity in different parts of the world, ask the viewer to take a deeper look into these issues and see, as “Roaming Wild” director Sylvia Johnson said, that things are not just black and white, there are shades of grey and many sides.

What can we learn from a story?

Olivia Klaus was a volunteer at the California Institution for Women where she met a woman whom she would later discover to be Patricia Krenwinkel, devout follower of Charles Manson and an accomplice in the infamous California killing spree that happened 45 years ago.

Klaus’s film “Life After Manson” tells, through an exclusive interview, the story of Krenwinkel’s involvement with the notorious murderer and the choices she made that led her down such a dark path.

“Forty-five years later and she will probably never get out of prison but she has a lot to share with people,” Klaus said, “and we have a lot to learn from her to hopefully prevent it from happening again.”

For Mark Weber, co-producer of “Poverty Inc.,” he hopes his film can draw back the curtain on the hidden side of global charity and how we view the poor around the world.

“We sometimes treat the poor as objects of our charity,” Weber said. “Instead of treating them as persons with creative capacity, we treat them in terms of their lack and how we can come in and fill those needs.”

But no matter the lesson, the documentary films presented at Docutah are a brilliant collection of stories from around world that teach, inspire, call to action and entertain.

“The best thing about these films is that they are almost all a small story with a bigger issue,” Wilhelm said, “we want to tell stories that leave the viewer with more questions than the film can answer.”


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