The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Nara Garber
Nara Garber is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on social issues who often wears multiple hats on the same project. Nara’s feature documentary debut, Flat Daddy, examined the impact of deployment on military families and was acquired for international broadcast by PBS America. Her cinematography credits include Making the Crooked Straight (HBO), Peabody Award winner Best Kept Secret (POV), Keep Talking (PBS Plus), and additional camerawork on the recently completed End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock. Nara is currently directing a feature documentary about the Anguillian musician Bankie Banx, who in his five-decade career has survived personal tragedy, persecution, and natural disaster. Between long form projects, Garber directs and produces educational and advocacy videos for non-profits and arts organizations in New York City. She remains committed to the belief that a story well told can open hearts and change minds.
As a documentary filmmaker, how do you find stories?
There’s been a host of different ways in which I become involved in stories. Sometimes somebody will mention a person to me, or I’ll find an interesting newspaper article. Sometimes it’s an important issue and I try to think how can we find a person with a compelling narrative to then make a story around this issue? In the instance of the film I’m directing right now, it’s completely unprecedented for me. The executive producer is a classmate of mine from college. He loved the music of Bankie Banx – this prolific Anguillian artist – and he approached me to see if I’d be interested in directing a film about him. Because I hadn’t initiated the idea, I was very ambivalent. The first shoot in February of 2020 was an exploratory one to see if I could create a relationship with Bankie that would make sense for the film and if there was enough depth to the story to justify a film being made.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities of documentary storytelling?
The unique opportunity of documentary is just the incredible privilege of so often being an audience to people you don’t know in a way that would be wholly inappropriate without a camera. I’m just going to walk into your house and watch you and listen to you. Without a camera it’s sort of stalker-ish.
My friends who don’t work in film always ask me about how I get access and how I get people to open up. The truth is, if somebody has agreed to be in a film, it’s because they’ve reached a point where they need to talk. Once they’ve made that commitment to participating, they will very often allow you in and talk about things that they have not discussed with immediate family members.
That experience has done so much to shape my understanding of the world and the complexities of our species and cultural differences and common ground. My presumptions are constantly challenged by my opportunity to slip into people’s lives and experience things that I personally would never experience otherwise. That’s what I love most about the work.
As for the challenges, I sometimes lose the ability to compartmentalize between all of these experiences. I joke that when I get old I’m going to be sitting on a rocking chair recounting stories that are not my own life stories. Other people’s narratives embed themselves in your psyche. You’re so deeply affected by somebody who’s that generous with their own narrative, you don’t really shed them as you go.
Then there are difficulties with boundaries and having a relationship as a human being with somebody you’re filming and having a relationship as a director, and towing that line. I sometimes err too much on the human side. Sometimes you encounter a situation where it just seems like a moral imperative to put the camera down because somebody is clearly in need of assistance and it feels like exploitation to continue filming. I’m not very good at putting up barriers, but I have to try to maintain some sort of separation as a director. That, for me, is often challenging.
How do you balance narrative and character in documentary storytelling?
I’m so drawn to characters that I think of all films as being character films to some extent. The character really informs the narrative. I’ve done a fair amount of filming, for example, in indigenous communities and even just the cadence of speech, the use of language, the role of culture is going to infuse the narrative in a way that a more urban or Western narrative will just have a different feel.
One of the challenges with my current project is that there’s not a clear three act structure. So I thought it would be a profile film about Bankie, but then COVID happened in the middle of our second shoot. So I realized there’s this narrative disruption I wasn’t anticipating that needs to be acknowledged. What I was thinking would be an easygoing character portrait now has to acknowledge these global events.
Originally when COVID happened, I thought maybe we have to book-end the film with this COVID disrupted music festival. But then I thought that’s so unfair to tell this man’s story within the framework of a global pandemic. Bankie Banx has been playing music for 50 years. That would actually shortchange his narrative. I’m now really drawn to the idea of having chapters of the film that use his songs to move us through the narrative. His songs are very autobiographical in their content. I can use the character that shines through in his songs to structure the narrative.
It’s often said that in documentary, the story is made in the edit. How do you navigate finding your narrative in documentary production?
So many grants expect you basically to deliver a script for a documentary. I don’t think it’s lazy to say that you’re going to find the film in post-production. If you leave all the finding for post-production, then you’re being lazy. But it’s true that you have to figure out sometimes in real time who your main characters are and what the storylines are while you’re making an observational film. You hear things as you’re filming and you have to shift your priorities. You realize, okay, that thing that I was chasing before that seemed so relevant two days ago is a sidebar, and it’s really not worth exploring further. It’s about being open and listening so that when your preconceived notions are shown to be shallower than what is presenting itself, you can adjust and follow the important stuff. I’ve shot for directors who, clearly their preconceived notions are challenged fully, and they still won’t deviate from them. Those are very uncomfortable collaborations.
I co-directed this film called Flat Daddy about military families and the impact of deployment. Originally, my directing partner Betsy Nagler and I had started out to make a short film just about these cardboard cutouts of deployed service members that a lot of families had. We thought that it was such a powerful symbol of loss and absence, and that you could invoke so much just by having a short film about these cutouts. We both agreed we’re going to be in and out. The whole film was going to be done in three months.
We went up to Maine for four days, and we thought half the film would be shot in those four days since we were just making a short. Our very first shoot was with a military spouse who had two children and was finishing up her college degree while her husband was deployed. She had to move the kids into a new house and was teaching dance classes at night. We were like, wow. You know what? It’s not about the cutouts, it’s about the families. We’re actually making a feature instead of a short film. Three years later, we were finishing up a feature. It was a moment of realizing that our priorities were wrong once we dipped beneath the surface.
That happens a lot with documentary filmmaking. You think you have a tidy narrative and real life is always messier than your preconceived notion. So the question you’re faced with is, do you keep it contained or do you end up spending ten times as much time on it? There’s never been a film that I’ve worked on where what I went in thinking was just plain wrong. It’s more like little mistakes and little misjudgments that result in making a completely different movie from what I had originally expected.
How much do you think about your audience, versus just making something for yourself?
Your audience very much informs how you go about shooting and structuring a film. For example, with indigenous films or subject matter, if you’re making something purely for an indigenous audience, you can take for granted certain knowledge. If you’re making it for a broader audience, or if you want an indigenous and a non-indigenous audience, there’s going to have to be a certain amount of education built in. You can’t presume any knowledge base at the outset.
With my film Flat Daddy, it was very important to us that this be a film that could speak to both military and civilian audiences, because part of our motivation for making that film was to try to engage audiences in dialogue that would bridge that very significant divide in our society. What a military audience and what a civilian audience might take away from the film might be entirely different, but the conversations were super interesting.
With the film that I’m working on right now, Bankie Banx is a household name in much of the Caribbean. But the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers have no idea who he is. So the question is, how can we introduce this music and make people who’ve never heard of him interested in the man and the music, without boring an island audience to tears? That’s a challenge that comes up a lot when you realize you have a mixed audience that you’re trying to speak to.
Sometimes a good solution is finding somebody who can be a vehicle for the audience. Someone who is less steeped in the essential information can be a proxy for the audience. Then it doesn’t feel that didactic. If you follow that person, you might pick up the code of language that you need to understand things fully along the way.
How do you measure the impact of a story?
That’s the question I loath the most. I don’t think impact should be quantified. So many grants want quantification these days. They ask stuff like what is the reach of this film? How many lives did you change? How many people did you mobilize? I think it’s a load of hooey. It’s something that is not unique to filmmaking. A lot of NGOs have to put out these numbers and they’re very often just making things up. If you’re going to make it up, you’re going to inflate it.
I personally measure impact by those conversations you have with people who’ve seen the film, where you can tell their life has been touched. For example, at a screening of Flat Daddy there was a Vietnam veteran who when he deployed, had left his wife at home with four children. He was watching our film with all these contemporary service members struggling to re-integrate with their families and grappling with the marital fallout they sometimes experience during these long or repeated deployments. After the film, he and his wife came up to me, and his wife was just beaming. Her husband had just apologized to her, for the first time, for everything that she had gone through during his deployment that he had never given her any credit for. That conversation could take me through a couple more festival rejections. It’s on that human scale when you realize that the story has really resonated with somebody. That person is happier for having seen this film than they were before.
Have you always been a storyteller?
When you talk to documentary filmmakers, very often you realize that a lot of us have been on the outside looking in. I was a full scholarship student at a fancy private school. Then I went to a college with an overwhelmingly affluent student body. I had so many privileges, so many opportunities. I didn’t feel disadvantaged in any significant way. I just didn’t have the money to socialize with a lot of the kids I went to school with. Then I would go home to this working class neighborhood where all my friends were the sons and daughters of electricians and plumbers (who by the way are actually making a killing now).
So when you say, were you always a storyteller? I was always very much an observer. At some point you observe enough and you realize that the stories you’re putting together from all your observations are sometimes more nuanced than the stories that are presenting themselves. Then you begin to think, well maybe what I have to say is actually worthwhile. I really love being an observer and letting people see things in as uncrafted a way as possible. Obviously, you have to structure a film, and you have so many amazing tools available when you’re editing. But to take that step back and let people speak for themselves is something that’s important to me as a filmmaker.
My father used to get frustrated with some of my films. He said, ‘I think you subordinate yourself too much as a filmmaker.’ He felt I was too invisible a presence. The thing is, I could insert myself or insert filmmaking techniques more into certain scenes. But the scenes that he was referencing are scenes that spoke to him, that wouldn’t have spoken to him if they were more crafted. Sometimes it’s just about getting to the point where somebody will reveal themselves.
How do you make a story better?
That’s where post-production comes in. Editing is so diabolical. I sometimes question my longevity as a filmmaker when I think about editing and the ethical ramifications of editing. You are deciding what’s more important in the story of somebody’s life to make a better, more compelling film. Is a more compelling film more important than the whole truth? This is something that I actually struggle with quite a bit. Obviously, if you didn’t edit, then people would be watching your raw footage in real time and nobody but a masochist would do that. The raw footage tells the story, it just tells the story in real time and in a way that nobody would watch.
You have to give the story structure. I love good writing. I love a well-written, well-structured narrative. Film is taking the beauty of a well-written narrative into three dimensions because there’s so much more to play with. One of the things that I love about film is you have cinematography and you have sound design and music, and you have the ability to overlap all of these things. There’s the beauty and artistry of editing. There’s the selectivity of editing. You bring two things that did not collide with one another and you put them up against each other as consecutive scenes in a film and it changes the whole context.
Bringing in test audiences is also really important because you get so attached to the footage. You can’t see the story isn’t being told as effectively as it might be, or you’re drawing a connection that the audience is not going to draw along with you. Bringing in fresh eyes and ears and seeing how people respond is very important to make a decent film better.