“Wear them down with good will”
Eugene Jarecki on Getting Access

This is part two of our interview with Eugene Jarecki. You can read the first half  here.

For documentary film director Eugene Jarecki, it was important that he talk to people from “all levels of the food chain.” In the case of his project, “The House I Live In,” that meant interviewing and filming people in over twenty states, from federal judges to prison inmates, drug dealers to grieving family members. We were curious about how he was able to get into places where usually cameras aren’t allowed.

CV: This film wouldn’t have been possible without your great access to law enforcement, judges and prisons across numerous states – and prisons are notoriously difficult to get into. How did you get this level of access?

EJ: I’ve been working on films that have required very sensitive access for a long time, and you just get more and more practice with reaching out to people, and letting them know your intentions in a very earnest way. We have no tricks that we play; we’re really very blunt and honest about why we’re interested in the subject and how we want to go about telling it. I think over time, in many cases, even if people don’t immediately let us in, we wear them down with good will, and effort and persistence.

Two Police Officers in New Mexico from the documentary "The House I Live In." Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.

Two Police Officers in New Mexico from the documentary “The House I Live In.” Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.

A lot of people do want to talk about the work that they do, even the challenges in the work they do, as long as they think that the person listening is responsible and is not there to cheaply ambush them and exploit their openness. I think we win people’s confidence in that way, and I’ve never had anyone, after we’ve made the movie, regret that they were in it. So I think our track record in this has helped us; with each passing film, we’re able to get access to a new area that we haven’t had access before, and we’re always very blessed by the people we talk to and we find great heroes among everyone we talk to, among all sides of the questions.

A prisoner in the film, "The House I Live In." Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.

A prisoner in the film, “The House I Live In.” Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.

CV: Did you approach the prisons first, or did you find an inmate or a family first, and then approach the prison?

EJ: There wasn’t one order to it. We shot in about 25 states and in some places the family would be first, or the accused; in another state it might be the corrections officers, in another state the cops; a lot of different ways to getting to a lot of different people. I wanted to talk to cops, judges, wardens, prison guards, drug dealers, prosecutors, anyone who’s in this widespread American family in the drug war, so we just reached out in all directions at the same time.

CV: There are several inmates in your film but I’m sure there are many more that didn’t make it. How many did you talk to, and how did you find them?

EJ: In general, we would start with the case of one person that we would hear about, and that would lead us to meet members of their family, so all of a sudden we’d be doing a family story. In another case we’d be at a prison we’d heard about, and we’d hear about a case that was going on there and then we’d start to meet people associated with it, whether it’s the family, or the lawyers involved, or the investigators.

So there wasn’t one rule of thumb to it; if you’re interested in the subject you really have to try everything you can think of. I’m often trying to take a definitive look at something so my main rule is to make sure that in a balanced and measurable way I’m firing in all the relevant directions that I would want to hear from, to know that no stone was left unturned. So we’d have outreaches in several directions to judges, to prosecutors, to prisons, to drug users. I’d go into housing projects and meet people who were on the street and gently figure out who was a drug dealer and who would talk to me from that group, and who wasn’t going to get freaked out by my curiosity and earn their trust.

Shanequa Benitez in the film "The House I Live In." Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.

Shanequa Benitez in the film “The House I Live In.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.

CV: Speaking of earning trust, how much time, on average, would you spend with any individual character?

EJ: We would take several trips. Every character, we saw several times. Very often, some of the most colorful things they do, they do in a very short setting, in the one first interview you get, or you do a two-hour interview and a lot of material in the film may come out of that. Then you go cover the person a lot; you may film them doing different things in their lives, or seeing their family, or being involved in new and unexpected developments in their lives, either about their legal status or their job or the prison or whatever. So I’ve gotten to know all these people very well; I’ve become involved with the defense of some of them, I’ve been involved with employees in corrections and with the cops, we’ve had ongoing contact with everybody, so… It’s something you don’t just do in a burst; in happens over time with many steps.

CV: What type of camera and audio setup did you use? Because of the sensitive access you needed, did you scale down your operation?

EJ: In this particular film, we largely used Panasonic hi-def cameras and the P2 format. Audio is inherent to the camera; we don’t use external audio, but we mic very carefully in conjunction with the cameras, both lavalier and boom mics. You’re careful not to overwhelm anybody and come in there like a massive movie crew. So you keep it bare bones, a small crew of well-meaning people who know how to relate to people and do their job quickly and cleanly.

We don’t use an excess of equipment; we try to rely on natural light as much as possible and we bring limited lighting in, limited sound setup, so that the earnestness of the activity is primary, but also so we don’t upset anybody’s comfort with our presence. All of that matters to what we’re doing, so the smaller camera formats like the P2 are helpful to that because you can make yourself less of a spectacle.

To learn more about the film, visit www.thehouseilivein.org

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