In this extended interview, City of Trees and Meridian Hill Pictures artistic director Brandon Kramer speaks about the film's origins and the process of discovery the MHP team undertook to tell stories that authentically convey the experiences of their subjects. Originally posted on the Kartemquin Films Blog: "Director Brandon Kramer discusses City of Trees ahead of its Chicago Premiere at the KTQ Fall Festival Nov. 3" (October 2016).
What was the initial inspiration behind City of Trees?
We met [City of Trees participant] Steve Coleman when we first moved into the Josephine Butler Parks Center in 2010. He told us his non-profit Washington Parks & People had just received a federal grant to create a green job training program in DC. They had two years to train over 100 District residents struggling with long-term unemployment. They knew they wanted to help people who had major impediments to employability. Within that demographic they were looking for people who were trying to find work and leverage the training into something more.
Lance and I really connected with this idea that Steve was trying to use the stimulus grant to create change within people’s lives on a local level here in DC. That was the kind of storytelling we were interested in. How can we explore these bigger issues on a local level?
How did you get started?
The first thing that we did was Community Harvest. We just kind of showed up. We went out and met Steve and the first cohort of the Green Corps as they worked to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. Just hearing Steve talk about the potential transformation of the people and the land, we got absorbed into how inspirational that idea was. And you can see that in the film. [Community Harvest] is narrated by Steve and he’s sharing his poetic vision for this specific piece of land, for the people who were working on it and for the neighborhood. In the end that film is an encapsulation of us being enamored with the trainees, the neighbor’s engagement and Steve’s vision.
In many ways that film is directly in line with the vision statement of the Green Corps program. It isn’t necessarily questioning the complexities of the program or issues. It doesn't take a hard look at it. At that point we weren’t trying to dig deep. We were just trying to understand in a simple way what this program exists to do and how it intends to change people’s lives.
And what I think happens a lot of the time in stories about nonprofits — they kind of end right there. I love Community Harvest and I stand behind it. But it is an embodiment of where nonprofit storytelling often comes to an end.
What made you decide to go deeper?
After [Community Harvest] we said to ourselves — okay, we made this film, now we want to explore this story in a different way. I think what made us want to go deeper was meeting the trainees in the program and literally coming face to face with 40 people from the same city I was living in, but who came from completely different life experiences and points of view.
Because my background was in media education and teaching this form of participatory filmmaking, I became immediately aware of two things: I do not understand their life experience because it’s so different from mine; and I know the power of what happens when we help people become the authors of their own stories.
We were already interested in participatory filmmaking and changing notions of authorship. We wanted to have professional filmmakers collaborate with community members to create films. It felt like the Green Corps training program was a perfect frame for us to teach the trainees to make their own documentaries. We also saw this as an opportunity to build closer trust with the trainees so that we might have a more intimate understanding of what they’re going through. At that point we thought we would make a collaborative feature film that would interweave the ‘point of view’ footage the trainees were filming with the footage we were shooting.
What were you learning in those first months as you got the film off the ground?
Throughout that first three months in 2011, we were filming the trainees as they were making their short films and filming with them in their home lives. This was all an experiment in how to deeply show the complexities of people’s lives. Part of what we learned is that when you get into participatory filmmaking you’re building the subject’s ownership and authorship, but if you put them in the director’s chair you end up losing some of the journalistic integrity of the piece. I really struggled with those boundaries at first. Sometimes people in the film were having really bad days that — at least to me — were relevant and important to the film. But they didn’t think it was. They would come back and say, “Well, this is not my vision.”
So I learned actually over several years of working on [City of Trees] that as the director of the film, I had to be more and more clear with everyone. While we were working on their participatory projects and teaching them how to engage with video storytelling, there was also a feature film that I was directing. This was not an ego thing. It was important to me that they felt that their story was being authentically shared. But in order to have a film — a finished, watchable, focused, compelling, honest film — you need that sort of central directorial point of view. I realized that if you try to make a film with 30 people as the directors, it’s just going to be a mess.
So once you had that realization, where did you go from there?
None of this was ever charted out. We would come up with ideas for how to make the film and then we were constantly reevaluating, taking ideas off the table and building ideas on top of other ideas. So that adoption of the participatory project led to an understanding that all that Flipcam footage would serve the pieces that the trainees were making. It was also an opportunity to build trust and understanding with them — but the participatory footage was not the film. In the final film there are literally three shots of POV (point of view) footage from the trainees, but we initially thought the project would be a complete hybrid.
If you didn’t use a lot of trainee footage, how was that participatory process reflected in the film?
I think that what the residency did is give us a concentrated period to do a lot of listening. The trainees were creating their own story outlines, their own interview questions. They were deciding where and what to film, asking the questions, taking the cameras home. With that authorship and agency for storytelling in the subjects' hands for a period of time, it put us in a position where we were responding to what they’re interested in, the questions they have, the people they want to talk to, the issues that are important to them. It was a massive intake process for us in just understanding who they are, what they care about and what they’re proud of.
And that last bit is really an important thing. I’ve seen so many films where authenticity can be used to just show struggle. One of the things I learned was not just where people are struggling but also what people are proud of and excited about. So that’s one place where that participatory aspect really comes through.
Also one of the major reasons we were able to get so much observational coverage of the stories over the years is because our subjects had been behind the camera. They had tried to get observational moments themselves and struggled. After going through the process of trying to film people who don’t want to be filmed and seeing the resistance in the community, they took down some of the barriers that they would have set up with us by the time we were filming in their lives more intensively.
I really don't know if Steve, Charles or Michael would have wanted me in their homes with a camera if I had not been working with them behind the camera first, because they also got to empathize with me and my role. When you’re following people for years and trying to get a full portrait of their lives, your subjects need to understand exactly what you're trying to do. They need to understand the kind of moments you’re interested in capturing. They need to understand what that means so they can tell you, ‘this is about to happen tomorrow. I’m about to go into this interview, I’m supposed to go into this meeting.’
Most of the film takes place in the last six months of the grant. All that legwork upfront created a vast opening to be very honest in the way we were capturing the story. By that time people were so used to cameras. Rarely were people telling me to turn the cameras off. And that moment also happened to be the deepest moment of struggle for everyone — the staff and the trainees. We planted the right seeds so that when the real story and drama started to unfold those seeds really carried us. That was also why filming took so long.
How long did it take to make City of Trees?
We started Community Harvest in October 2010 and did the training with the second cohort in early 2011. Then we filmed through 2011 and into the beginning of 2012 when the final cohort of the program started. That’s when we really dialed-in. We were filming nonstop through the end of the grant and then we spent the next month following up with people, seeing things closing down and people’s lives transitioning.
We spent 2013-2015 fundraising, editing and finishing the film, with a few isolated shoots during that time. We finished the film in October 2015. Over the past year we have been touring with the film at festivals and had it aired on PBS. Altogether, it took more than six years.
What were some of the challenges you faced in the edit?
All together we shot approximately 275 hours of footage. There were six central people in the final film but we had been filming with closer to 12. So we're seeing all of their different life experiences and the ways they’re intersecting with the program and we were constantly trying to understand what was happening with all these people, how they connected to one another.
I was constantly asking, what is the story I’m following and what is that central question that I’m asking? Is this a story about how greening the community is impacting the community? About how a group of people who have been left out of the economy are given a second chance? Is it a film about how trying to do good in a community is really hard and the struggles and pitfalls?
This being my first feature film, I was interested in all of it. Here’s this guy just released from prison and now he’s up in a tree using a chainsaw or planting a tree and it’s such a beautiful thing. But at the same time I’m seeing two staff members having a very intense argument about the different expectations for what this program should be and how to communicate about it. It was all so fascinating. I was doing a lot of listening and every time something happened I followed it through. That’s why we had 275 hours.
As we got further and further along, Lance, Ellie and I were meeting all the time and mapping out all the different scenes and narrowing it down one by one. And even as narrow as you get, you don’t necessarily hit the story. If we knew the story, the edit would have taken three months. When you look at the first 3+ hour cut Eddie did, the finished film is mostly in that first cut. But it was a matter of really honing it into one film.
What happens in the edit is you wind up saying, ‘this is what the film is about.’ There was an early cut where we said this is a film about how this program has transformed these trainees' lives. That version is heavily rooted in just the trainees’ point of view. I think we went in that direction first because there is a norm in these kinds of films about a nonprofit or a program that you should only tell the story of the community members. We had all this rich and complicated footage of the staff but because of this norm in storytelling, we didn’t use it. That was a much simpler version of the film.
We took that film to Kartemquin to the KTQ Labs screening in the fall of 2014. Gordon [Quinn, Founder and Artistic Director of Kartemquin] had seen that early, early cut, a three hour version that had everything in there. Eddie and I worked for almost a year to get the next cut ready to bring to Chicago. And then we took it there and Gordon — in this beautiful and really hard moment was like, “You guys have all this footage about the complexity of how hard this program is, not just from the trainees' perspective but from the staff perspective. I’ve seen this footage about this beautiful and messy intersection. I know you’ve got the goods." He saw this thread in the film that I was very interested in when I was filming. Eddie and I didn’t had the confidence to cut that film together because it was a much more difficult, sensitive story to tell.
But Gordon said, “Look — there are a thousand different films out there about a program training unemployed African American men in different skills. You guys spent all this time digging on a deeper, more complicated and unrevealed part of this work, which is the intersection of the people trying to change lives and the people they’re trying to change. I really think you guys are doing a disservice to what this story could be." And we realized he was right. He was giving us the confidence to reconnect with a gut line of inquiry we had when we were filming but didn't have the courage to go there.
How did you find that more complicated storyline?
Over the next six months of editing we attempted to focus on the story of trying to bring change to a community. We knew we couldn’t just tell one side of the story, we had to tell the story of Steve and Karen along with Michael and Charles. In City of Trees you’re seeing multiple perspectives and you’re seeing how all four of them are fighting for what they’re trying to accomplish in very different ways. And that is a much more difficult film to make because the film is largely about communication and where communication works and where people struggle with it.
To make an authentic film about communication you have to make sure that the way you see each person communicating or not communicating is very true to what happened, because every person thinks what happened is different. So my job is to understand what does Charles think happened? What does Michael think happened?
We brought the next version of the film to a screening in New York at the Criterion Collection and the feedback we got was that we were trying to tell three different stories. People didn't know what film they were watching.
After New York, Eddie and I met with Carol Dysinger, who had just come on as an editorial consultant. We realized we needed someone to come into the project fresh and help us nail down the story. Carol doesn’t tell you what to cut or give you notes. What she does is like therapy for filmmakers. She asks you questions that ensure that you understand what film you’re making and reflect that understanding in the edit. Going through the Carol Dysinger process is the most intense emotional experience I’ve ever had. She very intensely pushes you to make a decision about that one thing your film is about. Then everything else has to go. After the New York screening we had this moment where we realized — this film is a story about people trying to do good and the struggles that ensue. From that point onwards, every single thing that did not fit that thesis needed to go.
So how do you apply the lessons you learned making City of Trees to other MHP projects?
I think what we’ve really looked to do is understand how we can take these ethics and this approach, and make sure that the scope of the project allows us to really own the creative and artistic process.
So instead of saying we’re going to make a long form narrative about what happens to someone, we say we’re going to create a portrait. And for that portrait, we’re not trying to be there at every moment but through the pre-production process, we’re learning about the subject and the complexities of their lives without the camera.
And we're coming into the project with questions: how can we get to know and understand our subject and visually illustrate some of the nuance of their life as it connects to the client and their goals but also respects the subject as a person? How do we make sure we’re there for at least a few moments where you can see their full character come out?
So again you're involving them in the telling of their own story. You’re not coming in with a predetermined script. And you’re figuring out the story in advance through a detailed process of questioning. We really do a careful job of planning these shoots so we can see even in a day or two or three how we can capture the full range of someone’s life as best as possible in that timeframe.
We’re also working with the most talented crew members in every single one of these roles. These are some of the best DC-based filmmakers. Our cinematographers are trained in this kind of verité filmmaking.
We’re trying to pursue the story that is going to be the most meaningful, true, authentic, powerful, emotional and then build a crew that is properly-trained to take on a project and connect those dots. That’s a really challenging glue to figure out. But at the end of the day we treat our client films with the same ethical responsibility that guides our independent films.
There are a lot of easier ways to do it. But we’re not really interested in cutting corners or abiding by a convention we thing is not helping people. This is the whole reason we started a production company. So we could do things the way we know is right.