At first glance, Prodigal Sons (2008) might appear to be a film about the awkwardness of returning to a small town high school reunion after making a drastic inward and outward transition in one;s life. Although this premise is intriguing, filmmaker Kimberly Reed told her DCTV audience on Thursday night that stories should be much more than what they appear to be on the surface, and it seems Prodigal Sons (pictured right) delivers on this theory. This practice may sound obvious, I know, but weaving all that into one 90 minute story can be tricky. During DCTV's Personal Storytelling with Kimberly Reed master class, the filmmaker talked about how to consider these important storytelling elements. She suggested beginning with a simple story, providing a couple of twists and then going deeper and deeper. Don't make it just one thing. Layers are important and Reed has looked to other storytellers for inspiration, from author Harper Lee to autobiographical filmmaker Ross McElwee. Reed sited Ross McElwee's Bright Leaves (2003) as an example of a documentarian who used a personal journey of exploring family history and legacy into the deeper and larger story of the tobacco industry.
Reed gracefully packed in a lot of information throughout the 1.5 hour evening, starting off with the grant writing process, a necessary evil which I'm experiencing now. She said this was an important exercise and not just because you're hoping against hope that you might be that 25 in 2,000 submitters that's awarded, but that the act of writing clarifies story. It has its own creative and problem solving benefits. I've found this to be true, as I'm sure anyone who's had to write any sort of paper on a subject has. Although grant writing feels daunting, it's so valuable because it forces one to really think and discover what the story is and due to character or word limits, it pushes you to do so concisely. One hopefully comes out of it a little more well informed.
One of the most important aspects of personal storytelling, which Reed, addressed is whether a story is relatable to a broader audience. If it isn't, what is the point really? The filmmaker suggested, "Leave room for the audience to take these stories and relate... leave space to access and let them make their own story about it." She said that if a story is working, people can find universal issues and apply it to their own lives.
One thing about personal storytelling when it's done right is that if you care about the characters, if you can relate to them, you will also care about the bigger story. Whether it's about racism told through the eyes of a little girl in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or tobacco giants and their impact on Americans told through a filmmaker's exploration of his family's connection to its origins, stories like these work because they connect on an emotional level.
Impacting audiences emotionally is obviously a prime objective with most kinds of storytelling. Reed believes that depicting a story in present tense is key in that it's easier for viewers to feel as though they just walked in to this scene and are experiencing it now. She talked about narration too and the importance of using it sparingly, only when absolutely necessary. Another tip for the edit room is to consider the POV. Approach the story in third person POV for as long as possible before switching to first person. I imagine this helps a filmmaker maintain a level of objectivity and creates a construction atmosphere that is more about the story itself than about them. It could also help keep the story in third person for the main assembly.
Reed was gracious and approachable and asked for questions and encouraged her audience to join the discussion. Great evening and DCTV is a terrific venue.