Notes from a recent talk prepared for a session at Utah Valley University’s 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration:
Truth is, I’m a talker. Any of my friends will tell you.
We teach what we need to learn the most.
This is a process of growing into aspirations.
I started making documentaries because I wanted to talk. I Always thought of making as communication. We often frame it in terms of broadcasting.
We live in a time of self-publishing: status messages, tweets, YouTube, and so on.
What can we learn from listening?
Today I would like to talk about listening in a number of ways. Not just hearing, but the multiple meanings of listening as receiving and being shaped. The ongoing process of striving to have information and experiences enter your heart. I am going to address listening, specifically, as a tool for being present, gaining clarity, acting with clear intention, and arriving at simplicity.
I hope that what we talk about here will extend past documentary and that there will be a thought or two that you can integrate into your work or life. I’m directly addressing documentary, because that is the tool I use, but these ideas can extend into any field.
"Usually when it is so simple we say, "Oh, I know that! It is quite simple. Everyone knows that." But if we do not find its value, it means nothing. It is the same as not knowing." - Shunryu Suzuki
Listening is the foundation of my approach to each stage of documentary filmmaking.
“Deep Listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and unexpected. It calls on a special quality of attention that poet John Keats called negative capability. Keats defined this as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” - David Rome and Hope Martin, mindful.org
I’m slowly learning that the best questions I can ask, as a documentary filmmaker (or really as a listener), are ones rooted directly in the present conversation.
Sure, I prepare questions in advance for lulls and to give shape to an interview, but some of my best questions end up being ones like, “what do you mean by that?” “how does that work?” “can you explain that a bit more?” Or, in the case of the upcoming clip, the simple question “do you miss it?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VIFParr5OY)
In any communication medium, you have a built-in listening tool. The camera, for me, is an excuse to listen, but so is a pen, a recorder, or any other tool you bring to the table. The device itself is simply the concrete excuse, but it stems from the impulse to be present.
“Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully.” - David Rome and Hope Martin
Being present allows you to truly listen and ask questions from a place of empathy.
So often we hurry along in our conversations, quick to assume that we have understood. As long as we engage in conversations fighting to getting our next word in or simply focusing on our next question, it is difficult to have empathy.
Empathy, in my view, is the process of actively being shaped. You are intentional in opening yourself up to the lessons of the other person, without assuming that your soon-to-be-related story is the same thing. It’s not, but we have a hard time being mindful of that if we are not making consistent attempts to gradually and gently bring ourselves back to the present.
I’m far, far from perfect in this. The camera is the tool that helps me the most. It forces me to be quiet and listen. I’m rewarded for asking sensitive questions.
I’m learning that many of the best stories are already powerful long before you show up. The skill that is particularly and constantly difficult, is identifying those stories.
Because of that, I often see myself as a translator.
The challenge is using the medium to arrive at clarity. It’s as simple as, “what is really going on here?” “What is the essence of the story I’m attempting to tell?”
Clarity is a matter of taking away elements that obscure the real meaning. I agree with Robert Bresson who stated that, “One does not create by adding, but by taking away” or Leo Babuata who recently shared that, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identifying the essential. Eliminate the rest.”
Arriving at clarity empowers us to be intentional in our actions, regardless of the activity. If we are making a movie, it clarifies our themes, meaning, tone, and myriad other decisions. If you have clarity about what makes you feel good to eat, you are empowered to decline certain meal choices. And so on.
I am generally an indecisive person, but the filmmaking process forces me to make decisions. It is pretty simple to act, but when we move forward with a clear vision of our intentions, it spirals to all of our decisions.
When I was making my first movie as a student here at UVU, I was lucky to be mentored by Scott Carrier, a regular contributor to This American Life. Looking back, I can now see that what Scott was consistently trying to do is force us to clarify our intentions. We’d meet to discuss the film and blurt out long, philosophical tangents as he sat patiently listening. In the end, he’d ask, “so, how does it begin?” “What is the ending?”
When you are imagining the act of creating, it’s easy to fall into a trap where of comparing yourself to the great masters of the past. The only antidote to the completely understandable onslaught of narcissism, is to begin building. Intention guides your steps along the way. In the end, I’m often happy if I can simply build something that performs its function. A bookshelf that holds the weight of books.
Intention is something I struggle to define and re-define with each project. It’s far from something I’ve mastered. It is a gradual process filled with mistakes.
Simplicity & Wabi-Sabi
If I’m dedicatedly listening throughout my process, the end goal is simplicity.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” - Leonardo da Vinci
“Simplicity is not about making something without ornament, but rather about making something very complex, then slicing elements away, until you reveal the very essence.” - Christoph Niemann
By simplicity, I mean a hard-earned understanding of the essence. It does not mean easy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
I attempt, with each project, to arrive at a certain elegance or grace. By that, I mean the story feels like it was intended to be that way all along.
When I do it well, the intention is to make it look like it was easy, when in fact we spent hours upon hours listening and refining our understanding.
My thinking has been heavily influenced by ancient Japanese aesthetics.
One concept that has affected me, in particular, is wabi-sabi.
“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” - Wabi-Sabi for Artists
"The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s "interestingness," the quality that compels us to look at something over, and over, and over again." - Leonard Koren
I’m fascinated by the ongoing pursuit of trying to recognize the beauty that already exists. Listen to the world and open your eyes.
When we truly listen, we open ourselves up to be shaped by the world. We come to understand underlying meaning. When we talk, after all of this, we feel confident in our intentions.