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A Conversation With Steve James - Part One

Compassion and Style in Filmmaking

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A Conversation With Steve James - Part One

Steve James

Steve James
JENNIFER MERIN: While watching The Interrupters or any of your other films, for that matter, one senses your great compassion for your subjects. Would you say that this underlying empathy is one essential characteristic of the Steve James style of documentary filmmaking?

STEVE JAMES: Well, thank you, and it is certainly one of the qualities I hope to bring to my films. Look, there are all kinds of ways to make good and effective documentaries. Some documentaries are polemical and I see lots of polemical documentaries that I like. Some documentaries are informational -- like Inside Job. I love that film. But, but I couldn't have made that film.

I think you're right about my films and empathy. When I make a film, my aim is to understand people, if not feel something for them. But my idea is also to be clear-eyed and see people as complex individuals, true to who they are. I mean I don't want to stack the deck for the audience, but rather to help you feel some compassion towards people and have a deeper understanding of them. And, well, I think maybe I'm a better person when I'm a filmmaker -- because that's what's called for, you know, that's part of the job description if you're that kind of filmmaker.

MERIN: Not all filmmakers are like that, however. So, how do you, as a filmmaker, categorize other filmmakers and their films?

JAMES: There are all kinds of different films and all kinds of hybrids. I like all kinds of films and all kinds of documentaries, but I see a lot of films and thing, gee, I could never make that -- not from a judgmental standpoint, but just because I don't think that way. I'm just not that kind of storyteller. So, you know, I'm old fashioned. I like cinema verite.

The films that had the biggest impact on me when I was getting interested in film were the verite classics, on the one hand, like Barbara Kopple's work or the Maysles.

The other films that interested me, and I think my films are a kind of hybrid with these, are Michael Apted's UP Series and especially The Times of Harvey Milk, which I saw at a particular moment of time when I was starting to love documentaries and I was just struck by how powerful, and insightful and emotional that film was without being sappy or anything like that. And those are both films that are interview driven films. They're not verite films. So I think my style is a kind of a hybrid. It's trying to get to know people by following them around in their world and then also spending time getting to know them by talking to them and interviewing them repeatedly. And in this film, with my partner Alex Kotlowitz, well, that's the kind of books he writes, so we were perfectly matched to work on The Interrupters.

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