Stranger Than Fiction

On location in Nepal’s Ramechhap District for 
The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Scott Squire mans 
the camera while a boy from a nearby village looks on. Photo by Amy Benson.

The documentary filmmakers of Seattle
bend our perception of truth.

In 1929, at the dawn of modern cinema, filmmaker Dziga Vertov released Man with a Movie Camera. The silent film jumps between vignettes that capture the bustle of trollies, the grit of city streets, factory girls bent over treadle sewing machines, a grueling divorce court procedure, a live birth with splayed legs, a death. There’s nothing Vertov’s camera doesn’t see, nowhere it can’t go.

Vertov proclaimed that his film—one of the first major documentaries of any kind—created “a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theater and literature.” Its then-unheard-of cinematic techniques—jump cuts, fast motion, double exposure—communicated the rhythms and pace of urban life in Russia. His impressionistic eye changed the way we understand reality, providing a leap forward in how we perceive time and space—on-screen and off.

Documentary filmmakers have always been at the avant-garde of narrative, teasing out the best way to tell real-life stories, to record the essence of a thing. Sometimes that involves a little blurring of truth and fiction. After all, as Godard said, “Every edit is a lie.”

Comfort with constant surveillance, from Homeland Security to selfies, alters our relationship to documentation. We’ve arrived at an almost pathological insatiability to see ourselves reflected in nonstop narrative, contributing to an increase in the number of filmmakers undertaking the task of blending art and information.

In recent years, the accessibility of HD cameras and home editing software has allowed individuals to compete with the cinematic quality of major production companies. Social media, crowd-sourced fundraising tools like Kickstarter and grassroots organizations like Sprout have made Hollywood producers a luxury rather than a necessity. Distribution has changed too; filmmakers today stream their work online for free and reach millions. Some experiment with nonlinear online formats that navigate stories more like an open-ended game than a traditional film.

In Seattle, the doc scene is bursting—not surprising given Seattle’s literary bent and penchant for activism. It is surprising given that Seattle lacks a single degree program in filmmaking at any of its colleges or universities, which means many local filmmakers arrived here from other parts of the globe and have developed a guerrilla, DIY modus operandi. SeaDoc, a filmmaker-run organization that supports documentary makers in the Puget Sound region, estimates more than 40 films currently in the works, including docs about stand-up comedy, the depiction of time travel in pop culture and heavier topics such as prostitution in Seattle and suicide epidemics halfway around the world.

* * * 

Amy Benson and Scott Squire’s studio occupies a modest, chilly room in the Inscape Arts building in SoDo. A massive whiteboard covered in scrawl and Post-It notes takes up one wall. Two women—assistant editor Shraddha Rimal and associate producer Kristin Ougendal—lean into the screen of an iMac, scrubbing segments of raw footage, stopping every 10 or 15 seconds so Rimal can provide a rough translation of what’s going on. On screen, a little girl is bent over a notebook illuminated by a headlamp.

“She’s doing her homework, counting numbers, from one to 20,” Rimal says, translating from Nepali.

“We have 4,500 clips, 175 hours of footage,” Squire says. A staggering but not uncommon amount, collected over the seven years Benson and Squire have been filming in Nepal. The husband-and-wife team is finally at the homestretch, making final edits on The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

“Documentary filmmaking is a kind of narcissism,” Benson says. “It’s a fascination with ourselves and looking at ourselves. When you’re making a film about something, there’s a relationship to storytelling that’s special. You become the shepherd, a curator of the story, of the situation—”

She gropes for the right word. “A steward,” Squire interjects.

“That’s it!” Benson says. “It’s a feeling that I’m going to take care of this story. It’s a little mental because it’s a terrible way to make a living.”

“There’s an addiction to intimacy that afflicts a lot of doc filmmakers,” Squire adds.

As they unfold the story of The Girl Who Knew Too Much in the drafty brick halls of the former INS building, they note that they couldn’t be doing what they do without Cooper Artist Housing. Arts-friendly infrastructure in Seattle, like the couple’s subsidized artist housing, is partly responsible for the boom of documentary culture happening in the city.

Benson and Squire both grew up in the Northwest. They married young—she was 18, he 23—and ended up in Berkeley where Squire was studying journalism. Benson eventually landed a job teaching and Squire started a wedding photography business in the Bay Area.

In 2005 they returned to Seattle to explore artistic forms of storytelling. A nonprofit that provided educational scholarships to young girls in Nepal hired the couple to shoot a day in the life of three girls who had received those scholarships. On their first trip to Nepal, they met Shanta Darnal. She came from the lowest caste in her village and had by all appearances “hit the globalization jackpot” after being selected to receive tuition to study at a prestigious school in Kathmandu. Benson and Squire fell in love with her.

“She was precocious, enthusiastic, sweet, the only educated girl in her family,” Benson says. They imagined one day she would come to Seattle to continue her studies at the University of Washington. “The original idea was to film Shanta, follow her through her life, eventually as a doctor returning to her village,” Benson says. “She was to be the centerpiece of this film.”

Then a shock: Days after receiving news that their project received a substantial grant, they got a call that Darnal had committed suicide. She was a year away from graduating high school. Two weeks later, Benson flew to Nepal.

“I went by myself because I had to know what happened,” Benson says. “My son was one and a half. I never even pulled out my camera on that trip. It just stayed heavy in my backpack. I returned three months later and never put the camera down.”

During that visit she learned that suicide is the leading cause of death among girls and women in Nepal—a fact that changed the course of their film. “It was an abyss-y feeling,” Squire says. “We’ll never know exactly why she did it. How do we make a film about this? How do we get people to support a film about suicide?”

Over the years, The Girl Who Knew Too Much has become more complex than a profile or a straightforward issue: It wonders how NGOs might provide emotional support to developing communities, and how to mitigate the pressure put on a single person like Darnal to fix the problems in her village—a fantasy of globalization.

Benson and Squire have now visited Darnal’s village in the Ramechhap District four times. They’re planning their fifth and final trip to collect audio and take still photos. They describe the place as a “pre-globalization” village, with no road, running water or electricity. Over the years they’ve watched the place and its people change before their eyes, with greater access to technology and media. Most people have cell phones now.

The locals welcome Benson and Squire, though they don’t necessarily understand why the couple is spending so much money to film the mundane aspects of village life. During their visits, Darnal’s family takes care of the five-member crew, boiling their water, cooking food and allowing them to set up tents with solar panels in the yard outside their home.

“They’re beyond gracious,” Benson says. “The hardest part is figuring out our role in the relationship with this family. We have the resources to save them, but our doc is about the problem with that kind of intervention. Part of the problem is that we can’t save them.”

* * *

Mike Attie has spent nowhere near seven years getting to know his subjects, but he has gone back in time with them. The bonds he’s formed are tenuous, complicated.

Rain has fallen for the last two days of Attie’s shoot in the woods outside a hops farm in Oregon. He and co-director Meghan O’Hara are drenched, exhausted and disoriented. A round of gunshots volleys nearby. Attie’s camera falls to the ground. The shots are blanks, but his hands are trembling.

In Country is Attie and O’Hara’s documentary about hardcore Vietnam film re-enactors. It debuted last month to much acclaim at the Sarasota Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston and Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. It follows serious men through staged fights, interviews them at home and culls archival footage from the actual war.

“Sometimes, days in, we catch ourselves confused: Is this 2012 or 1967?” Attie says.

Attie was fascinated by this unusual subculture long before he got into documentary filmmaking. His uncle served two tours in Vietnam; his father fled the country to avoid it. When Attie discovered a niche of re-enactors devoted to simulating some of the most terrifying aspects of the war, he was baffled: War is hell. Why would anyone want to spend their weekends there?

He poses the question bluntly on the movie’s website. It’s a complicated subject, and somewhat oddball territory for a documentary, defying categories of social issues or education. Unlike Civil War and World War II reenactments that are more concerned with detailed recreations of specific battles, Vietnam reenactments are unscripted free-for-alls lasting days, and motives for participation are often unclear. Some re-enactors are veterans who fought in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Some suffer from PTSD. Some have never fought a real war.

“It’s very negatively perceived, and as a result it’s kind of a secretive culture,” Attie says. “In order to be allowed to film it we had to dress up as correspondents and stay in character the entire time.”

This film isn’t for everyone, Attie admits. “Sundance [which awarded the project a grant last year] called it ‘formally challenging,’” he says with a hint of smile. “Talking about issues through a lens of re-enactment seems silly and trite, but it becomes more serious as the film progresses. These re-enactors are looking for something—the thrill, the high of war. There’s never any real catharsis and there’s no agenda. The takeaway is the cycle of war, the paradox of fascination and fixation with war.”

Attie’s mother is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker, but he came to filmmaking the long way around, working for years in New York advertising before realizing he wanted something else. He thought it was law school, but he lasted there less than two days. He landed a job with a small filmmaking company. That’s when it clicked, and he attended the documentary filmmaking program at Stanford University soon after.

“My mother tried to talk me out of it. I think I understand why now,” he says, chuckling. “I’m pretty destroyed right now. But I don’t want to do anything else. I think it’s because I’m not a really outgoing person, but I am when I’m behind the camera. I love the interactions.”

* * *

 Silent except for occasional ambient sounds and stripped of any spoken narrative, Adam Sekuler’s films muddy the lines between art, storytelling and political diatribe. These outer limits of documentary filmmaking are descended from the observational approach of Vertov and cinéma vérité, but Sekuler shies away from the term “experimental.”

“I simply see myself as a filmmaker,” he says, as he rifles through a handful of hard drives filled with footage he’s been editing.

Sekuler recently left his longtime position as program director at Northwest Film Forum to focus on his own projects. Though he doesn’t strictly identify as a documentary filmmaker, he does identify many of his films as such.

Right now he’s in the middle of editing Work In Progress, a 100-minute documentary about commonplace labor. Without narration, a single camera focuses on the repetitive, banal actions that take place day in and out: people gathered around a conference table; a faceless mechanic changing a tire on a truck; the hands of a carpenter slowly going over and over a circular piece of wood with a power sander. After a while, the mechanical movement takes on the semblance of a slow, unlikely ballet.

Another of Sekuler’s recent films, Express Local, is a 25-minute film shot on a cell phone that shows a slice of New York skyline blurring outside a train window at dusk. A clash of graffiti, bricks, bright light and I-beams is set to the sound of metal-on-metal and a fragment of passing conversation. As the film moves forward, the footage slows, revealing itself as a seconds-long loop playing over and over—something lost in the initial rhythmic rush. As the movement slows to a soporific pulse, one percent of the original speed, each frame reveals information previously illegible. An accidental self-portrait of the cameraman flickers briefly in a windowpane.

Another passing train, apprehended in a few frozen frames, becomes a climactic crash: Time moves backwards. From this standstill moment, the film starts speeding up again. The sense of normal speed is euphoric and vertiginous. Sekuler has managed a bit of old-fashioned documentary magic—to pluck a lost moment from the workaday grind and make it momentous.

It’s the secret documentary filmmakers know so well: The world under our noses is stranger and more wonderful than anything they could ever make up.