Making my first documentary made me realize the full power of the medium to transform my life through the experience of making it, but also the lives of those who would see it, talk about it, and alter their behavior as a result. Today, all of us carry with us the tools needed to be record keepers of history and experience - to be video storytellers. In Part 1 of this three-part series, I discuss the experience I had in creating my first documentary and how that changed my life forever. In Part 2, I'll discuss how you can employ tools you probably already have to add your story - your stories - to the annals of our collective history. In Part 3, I'll discuss ways to use your story creatively to help create positive change. It is needed now more than ever. Your story has value and it can change someone's life.
Today, more than ever, the world needs honest, thoughtful, everyday people who are capable of articulating their human experience through video and multi-media.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
When I first started out in college with the idea that I was going to become a filmmaker, I think what I thought I meant was that I was going to work in Hollywood. My friends in film school jokingly called me "Ruckheimer" because I loved the big screen action films of Jerry Bruckheimer like The Rock and Top Gun. My producing partner, Keith, and I had a running theme in all of our films at the time: at some point in our films something needed to get blown up. Then one day during my junior year, a friend's aunt came to me about producing a documentary film for the non-profit she was directing. She asked if I would be willing to chronicle the story of the Hooker Chemical Company in Montague, Michigan through a film. She offered me around $1500 to cover my production costs. Somehow, I made that work and at that point everything changed.
Some of the news articles and a shot list from making This is Not a Chocolate Factory (2003). I fell in love with finding the pieces to crafting non-fiction films and put aside the dream of directing Hollywood dramas in my junior year of college.
A Transformative Experience Making a Film.
The story of how this chemical giant - the same one responsible for the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York - was dumping barrel upon barrel of toxic waste on the ground behind their plant held me in rapture. I spent hours in the local library reading every article I could find about its storied history. Making connections at the local newspaper, I was given access to the Muskegon Chronicle's photo archives, met the photographers who took them, and spoke with the writers who's stories they appeared with. I then sat down with my camera with people in the community who had lived through it, who fought the company in the court of law - and in the court of public opinion. This wasn't a one-sided story: Hooker Chemical meant high-paying jobs for folks that didn't have a college degree. But that wasn't enough to keep his mouth shut to the man that blew the whistle. Warren Dobson would tell-all on what they had been doing to the groundwater and - consequently - the drinking water of nearby residents.
This is Not a Chocolate Factory took me on a journey into the cinema of the real. I was in love: In love with the process of exploring, investigating, of finding clues and locating witnesses. It was somewhere in the middle of cutting the film together in my college apartment in 2002 that I kissed the dream of taking over Hollywood 'goodbye' and said 'hello' to the transcendent experience of chasing the ingredients for creating the stew that is a documentary film. I received a bunch of student film awards, won a few thousand feet of 16mm film from Kodak for the next project and set off on the next non-fiction adventure.
A documentary - big or small - can create positive social change.
Storytelling became my story. At the same time audiences at film festivals were reacting to the film, local schools began showing it to their students in their classrooms. I would get letters from people that lived near the plant and I became known in my community as a young person that was doing good. I started to realize the power documentaries have in impacting the lives of the people its story was closest to. Making sense of this, I realized I was a sort of record keeper: that the films I was making were artifacts themselves and that they could forever hold a piece of time, suspended. They wouldn't change as the years went by, but each time they were viewed they could very much sway the way a person or group behaved in the times ahead. This was a calling to me, but also a responsibility.
A "tombstone" marker at the site of the toxic waste vault in Montague, Michigan stands as a symbol of mistakes of the past.
Still today - 14 years later - This is Not a Chocolate Factory is shown by teachers in the White Lake area to their students in hopes that they consider their impacts on the environment as well as to understand the sacrifices local people made to make their voices heard to help defend the natural resources of the area and the health of their neighbors. Some gave up good paying jobs. Others worked tirelessly to get the company to clean up its act. They succeeded. The cleanup that followed was the largest in US history at the time. Those lessons remain today in the form of a toxic waste dump. We need more folks like those that fought incredible odds, today. Thankfully, today each and every one of us have the capability in the palm of our hand to start gathering the pieces of the story as it unfolds.
Sorting through the fog of information.
We find ourselves in an age when information is flying at us from all directions in a million forms through myriad mediums. And no one is truly capable of making sense of it all. Some of us know more about the daily life of a dog on Instagram than we do our own neighbor. Others are drowning in the constant buzz from the 24-hour news cycle, pulling us this way and that, unable to decide what's really true or what really matters to our day-to-day - or that of our families, friends and loved ones. It's maddening, actually: a war on authenticity. This buzz makes deciphering the line between the events on the news and the reality of our own lives nearly impossible to the wanting-to-be-informed citizen. Yet, with all of this news at our fingertips we can't help but feel that something is missing.
That something is you.
Now let's get you started on sharing your story. Be sure to subscribe to my blog receive Parts 2 and 3 when they are posted.
David J. Ruck is a documentary filmmaker, educator and explorer who currently works as in-house video producer and underwater camera operator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. His work takes him from coast-to-coast, telling the stories within America's underwater parks. He is the first filmmaker to premiere a film in space on the International Space Station. He can be reached through his website www.davidjruck.com where you can see examples of his work and find articles and resources for documentary storytellers.