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A Conversation With Steve James - Part Three

Respect For Subjects and Keeping Their Trust

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MERIN: How do handle the issue of the subject's trust? Do you sometimes feel that you've seen that a filmmaker has betrayed a subject's trust? Would that ever be acceptable?

JAMES: I know that in certain documentaries you really get the sense that the people in them have really no idea about how they're going to be portrayed. You think that they perhaps believe that the person who's making the film is very sympathetic towards them, and to what they have to say. And when the film gets made, that's not the way it comes out. Is that what your asking about?

MERIN: Yes.

JAMES: I think that's tricky. I don't generally have that problem with the people in my films because, first of all, I show the film to them before it's done. I sort of think of that as my 'you have to face the music' moment, especially when I'm showing the results to people who were not portrayed in a particularly flattering way in the films. I've had to kind of wrestle with their reactions, and that's a very interesting process. Sometimes I give them a few things because we have a discussion -- and some things I say, "you know what, I can't change that." But even though that can be painful, I feel it's honest. It's really an honest process. I never set them up in any way.

But the process is tricky in part because of my approach to filmmaking. Because the process is hardest when you've built relationships with people the way I've talked about and then they see what you've done and they don't like it -- that's a tougher moment than if you hadn't built that relationship. But you've got to be willing to do that.

I was so thankful on The Interrupters about the relationships we built with the subjects. We admired them so much and loved being around them, so there was never any issue.

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