The process of creating a documentary often follows its own narrative arc: a filmmaker sets out to create a film, faces a set of successes and failures, and eventually triumphs. For Mayeta Clark, her journey began with a walk on a December day.
CV: Can you talk about how you found your story?
It was just before Christmas in 2011. All of my friends had left town and I was lonely, so I walked the streets to kill time. I wandered into a piano shop on 58th Street on a whim, and met the owner, Carl Demler. He said he had a warehouse in the South Bronx that was a very interesting place to take photographs. I think I went to the warehouse for the first time in January and it was like walking back in time.
CV: How did your project develop from a J school project to screening at Doc NYC?
By the time the deadline for my masters thesis came around, I had shot around 80 hours of footage and the film had been through roughly 28 edits. I had a lot of great mentors on this project, people who helped me look at multiple edits and make changes. My thesis advisors, Melanie Burford and June Cross, helped me find my voice creatively. Having good mentors when you start out is invaluable.
I was happy with my thesis film, but it felt long at 21 minutes, so I put it down for a couple of months, knowing that I’d pick it up again in early 2012.
The film needed a good sound edit. So when I went back to Australia last Christmas, I enlisted the help of Louis Mitchell, who is a senior sound engineer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I wanted to learn everything I could about sound mixing, so I sat next to him for several nights in a studio, watching him work and sleeping on the couches when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
I decided to start editing in earnest again for a screening at the Bronx Documentary Center when I got back to the US. I worked on the structure, to make the piece more compelling upfront, and that really gave the film a lift.
The edit for the BDC screening went down well, and that’s the edit that’s now showing at Doc NYC.
CV: How was it shooting this doc by yourself?
I wanted to be able to do everything by myself, so that I would be confident enough to tackle solo projects when I left J-School. Before I began, I even thought that working with a partner was kind of lame. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I spent a lot of time going around in circles in my head, and became envious of my classmates who had partnered up when I saw how rewarding it is to make a film with other people. You bounce ideas off one another, and there is so much potential.
That said, it’s easier for me to melt into the background when I’m just one person with a camera. It’s somehow easier to build relationships and trust. In the end, I could walk into the warehouse at any time and people ignored me. It was perfect.
CV: What were some of your struggles while shooting and editing?
Before I began this documentary I had almost no experience shooting, editing or producing video. I’d done a semester of news, but I had no idea how to shoot a scene, how to structure a narrative in a compelling way, or much experience problem solving in the field. And, editing was like a foreign language. Frankly, I didn’t know what kind of film I wanted to make, and struggled to describe it to other people.
The other thing I wrestled with was the story itself: I didn’t think I had one. Marcus Yam came to the warehouse one day to take photos for The New York Times. I took him on a tour and for some reason that act of showing somebody else made me see stuff I hadn’t noticed before. But it wasn’t until the story appeared on the front page of the Times and I saw Marcus’ beautiful photo essay that I really started to believe I was onto something.
CV: What lessons have you learned from completing this project?
It gave me the confidence to pursue a project on my own this summer.
I began to really appreciate the creativity involved in the editing process, and that, in turn, has helped my shooting. I don’t know why editors aren’t more famous – they are very much like composers. I also learnt about the importance of intimacy, and how to create a visual narrative.
It’s helpful to know how to deconstruct narratives, so that you can analyze how other filmmakers, writers and musicians piece their work together. This was one of the invaluable lessons I took away from the multimedia storytelling and narrative writing classes at Columbia, and it helped when I went to restructure my film. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but if I see a film I like, I’ll watch it over and over again, and write down every scene in a notebook. I put myself in the director of photography’s shoes and try to imagine how they anticipated certain moments, or the shot choices they made in a particular scene. And then I look at different editing decisions. I’ve started to do the same thing with films I don’t like too.
Last, but not least, I fell in love with shooting. Sometimes there’s no place I’d rather be than behind my camera. I’m inspired most by other shooters, especially ones with a photography background. I’m looking for a director of photography to apprentice myself to at the moment.
CV: What was your process in selecting doc festivals to send your work to? How many did you apply to?
I selected the festivals that showed the kinds of films I wanted to watch and make. I must have applied to five or six, and have been accepted into two. And lately, I’ve been getting invitations to apply to others, which is nice. To be honest, I would have applied to a lot more, but sometimes the deadlines came and went, and I literally could not afford the submission fees, so I restricted myself to a few really good ones.
CV: What advice would you give to journalists in school, thinking about creating a short doc?
Give yourself the time to sift through dozens of ideas to find the story and people that really hold you.
If you want to catch Mayeta’s film, you can purchase tickets here.