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Terry Sanders - Interview

Talking about Fighting For Life and Documentary Filmmaking

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Terry Sanders - Interview

Filmmaker Terry Sanders

American Film Foundation
Oscar-winning doc director Terry Sanders' latest film, Fighting For Life (2008) is about the medical corp--doctors and nurses--during war time. In this interview, Sanders chats about the film and other documentary filmmaking matters.

MERIN: Documentary films have always had a loyal niche audience, but as the genre becomes more mainstream and attracts broader audience interest, documentary filmmakers seem to be blurring the boarders of genre, and the cinema verite approach is being blended with elements more familiar in narrative filmmaking. The use of puppetry, for example…

SANDERS: Yes, Jessica Yu uses it in Protagonist

MERIN: Yes, that’s a great example. And Alex Gibney, who's won the 2007 doc Oscar for Taxi To The Dark Side, in my recent interview with him speaks about the importance of good storytelling in documentaries…

SANDERS: I love Alex Gibney’s films…

MERIN: So do I.

SANDERS: But, not all documentaries are that good. Not all do what you’re talking about--that is, have dramatic structure, storytelling structure and visual artistry. I was very happy to see Alex’s film win the Academy Award. It’s about an important subject, but it’s also a very well-made film. Too many documentaries have an important subject--there are so many important subjects--but that’s not enough. They need artistic crafting of the story to make it powerful. And Alex really did it.

MERIN: So, then, as you say, the documentary filmmaker must combine artistry and journalism. But, what about objectivity? How does it fit in? Is there such a thing as objectivity?

SANDERS: I think there’s a notion of truth as one feels and sees it, which is not going to be objective. It’s going to be subjective. I think pure objectivity would be kind of boring. I mean, it would mean setting up the camera and just letting it run…recording a street scene or something. But even that isn’t purely objective because you decide where that camera goes, whether it goes on this corner or that corner, so it’s never totally objective, and that’s not what the point is anyway. I think if it’s art, it has to be filtered through a human sensibility. It has to be observed by an intelligent, sensitive person to make it interesting to other intelligent, sensitive people. So, I don’t think that the objectivity issue is really that important. What is important, however, is that there not be an agenda behind a documentary--you know, propaganda or whatever--but that the documentarian or filmmaker be totally open to things that are surprising, and may be upsetting. I don’t believe in going in with a preconceived idea of how the film should be, because then you’re not allowing the reality to shape itself, or to emerge.

This whole thing about objectivity--about showing this side and that side--is very limiting, because filmmaking isn’t about sides so much as it is about showing what’s behind the side, so you get to the essence. For me, it’s getting to the essence of something. If it’s a portrait of somebody--a portrait film--you try to capture the essence of that person. It’s not about whether they’re good or bad, or if they’re good artists or bad artists, if it’s an art film. I think we want to make films about subjects that need to be made known, and we want to bring them to peoples’ attention. Or, in my case, about people I greatly admire--for example, I wanted to do a film on Louis Armstrong because I love him. But I never made that film. You usually make films about people because you find them admirable, so in that sense, the project starts off by not being that objective--since you already have feelings that draw you to the subject.

MERIN: So, when you're beginning a project, is it inevitable for you to have an opinion--or expectation--about how the project will evolve?

SANDERS: With some films I’ve made, I’ve never even thought about the subject before making them. For example, the library world came to me and said there’s a big problem with the libraries of the world because the acid in the paper is reducing books to dust, and we need a film (Slow Fires: On The Preservation of the Human Record, 1987) to alert people to this, to get them to use acid-free paper and all that. This was something I’d never even considered. I understood the importance of it when they told me about it, but when I told people what I was doing, their eyes would glaze over. That’s when I knew it would be a real challenge to make this a compelling film. You always have to make it compelling--by finding the right structure that never lets go of the idea and the audience. Often it’s better if you don’t know much about a subject. When you approach the film, you don’t become an expert, but you become very involved in the subject.

I’ve made a lot of music films. I’m not a musician, and not having--well, I think it can work anyway. If you have strong feelings, you just have to put them aside and react to the reality you encounter. Just don’t get in the way of the film.

MERIN: That’s good advice: don’t get in the way of the film. When you first heard about USU in Bethesda, MD--one of the world’s best medical universities that’s so under the radar, and is the subject of Fighting For Life--were you immediately intrigued?

SANDERS: It felt like there’s need for a film about it--which is always good. Because why make a film if there’s no need to see it.

When I visited the school, I really was struck by it--because I’ve had some experience with--well, I’ve been to schools, obviously, and I was also associate dean of the film school at Cal Arts and visiting professor at UCLA Film School, so I’m familiar with school culture. I was really struck by the quality of this school--and by quality I mean the maturity and idealism of the students. It was a medical school, but they didn’t all want to get rich and have a Mercedes in Beverly Hills. I was struck by the faculty that devoted a lot of time to the success of their students, which didn’t happen in some other schools. So, my heart was totally in it.

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