One of the biggest challenges of storytelling — particularly when dealing with stories of emotion — is determining what to leave out.
As a reporter for a local news station, I will regularly shoot several hours of video for a story that lasts several minutes. I realized early in my career I would never be able to tell someone’s full story — only as much of that story as I could fit into the allotted space. A news director of mine once crystallized the appropriate mentality: it’s all about eliminating the “good” in one’s story and keeping the “great”.
Of course, sometimes you don’t even get to keep all of the “great”.
And sometimes, as in the case of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, you shoot 800 hours of video for a two-hour documentary — a documentary in which you are two of the main characters.
Brewster and Stephenson are the husband-and-wife duo behind American Promise, currently playing in select cities and premiering on PBS in February 2014. The documentary follows two young boys from Brooklyn, both black, whose parents enroll them in a prestigious, mostly white collegiate prep school in Manhattan. Brewster and Stephenson began filming in 1999, when both boys — Idris and Seun — were starting kindergarten.
They stopped filming after the boys’ graduation from high school — 13 years later.
To make matters trickier, one of the boys, Idris, is Brewster and Stephenson’s son.
But the hard work paid off. American Promise is a truly powerful film, a nuanced discussion of race, parenting, child psychology, and the meaning of success. The filmmakers and editors selected strong moments to keep throughout the film, showing the growth of both the boys and their parents without requiring any narration or overt messaging. I saw American Promise this past Saturday and was so moved by its storytelling that I immediately reached out to Brewster and Stephenson for an interview.
They agreed, and five days later, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson are my guests on Episode #12 of the Telling The Story podcast.
We spoke for a long time and touched on a wide array of issues, from the challenges of long-form storytelling to the aforementioned topics addressed in American Promise. Among the matters discussed:
- The importance of showing the truth instead of sending a message: “We push ourselves to create pieces that provoke thought,” Stephenson said. “We really want to be able to provoke thought through the use of storytelling so that people can be self-reflective about their own communities and families.”
- The power of the simple presence of race on-screen: “Just the fact that you have a middle-class black family on TV is racial,” said Brewster. “We almost never exist as an entity on TV. People often recall the Cosbys or Will Smith, so just the act of being there is a significant statement about race and class.”
- The recipe for success in documentary filmmaking: Says Stephenson, “It’s really about patience, resilience, flexibility, and passion … and understanding it as a long journey.”
RELATED STORY: Podcast Preview: Filmmakers of American Promise
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.