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Steve James found in documentaries a way of expressing himself, a whole new universe that combined his love for films and his will to tell stories. “I want to make films because I think there are important things to look at, but I also just wanna have this wonderful experience of being in someone's life and understanding them, and having a relationship with them”, he says. Three decades of work, two Oscar nominations and several projects later, he has come to Barcelona as Americana Film Fest is celebrating him with a retrospective of his career.

James’ films portray the injustices and the inequalities in American society. But what stands out in each of them is the empathic, honest and humble way he films the lives of his characters. And this is exactly his secret, the key that he bravely revealed to us. He compares making a film to having dates: “In a sense, we are asking you out, we are making a film about you. So people really go out of their way to try to present their best selves”, he says. With humour and trust, he tries to make people enjoy the filming process, “we try to get to this place as quickly as possible, where people can feel like they can be themselves”; “We all wanna be ourselves”, he adds.

The Interrupters, America to Me or Hoop Dreams are some of his most celebrated titles to date. In them, he explores the difficulties that Afro-Americans and other marginalized communities have to face in the United States. “I think that if you go to communities that are not your own, you need to be humble and open to learn and understand, and spend the time there”, he says. We interview him to learn more about himself, his work and why documentaries are so important for the progress of culture and society.

Your films address society’s problems such as racism. Did you start shooting because you wanted to show these problems? Or the passion for filming came first and then it met the will of changing things?
Definitely a love for films. I was someone that always liked to go to films, but I wasn’t a cinephile. When I started college, I started liking them even more, and then I took a class of film appreciation; that’s what hooked me. But at first, I wanted to make narrative films, actual movies. It wasn’t until I got to study film – this school I was at didn’t have that at all – that I got exposed to documentary. I made a few documentaries for assignments and that’s what lit the fire in me for documentaries. Some of this came out of the fact that I thought that I might want to study journalism at some point before I fell in love with films. So I think that documentary combines both worlds.
You’ve said that you want to record the characters as if you’d been in their houses multiples times so they don’t care about the clothes that they’re wearing – it’s not a matter of clothes, but their attitude and trusting relationship. How do you build this relationship?
I think that the key to it is your subjects understanding fully what you are doing and why you want to do it. Being really candid about what do you want to explore, but also communicating to them that you don’t think you know anything at all. In fact, you don’t know anything, so you’re here to understand.
It helps to build relationships with your subjects, even in the same way that you would have any relationship. You want them to enjoy your company, to enjoy being around you. I often use humour as a way to connect with people. I want the experience of making a film to be something enjoyable for them, not just something they think would be a good thing to do. And that’s also how I feel about filmmaking myself. I want to make films because I think there are important things to look at, but I also just wanna have this wonderful experience of being in someone’s life and understanding them, and having a relationship with them.

“I’m just constantly reminded we all have prejudices and misconceptions. That’s a big part of why I love doing documentaries.”
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is part of Americana Film Fest’s programme. During the presentation of this film, you said that “No matter how much I’m into a subject, I’m always wrong. That’s the point in making a film”. How can you address these kind of subjects without having too many prejudices? Because, if you have too many, the film would be affected, right?
Well, I’m always guilty of making the wrong assumptions. In every film, even though I have some sense that I want to learn and be open, I discover my prejudices. I discover the ways in which I’m misinformed. So I just try to be aware and open to that, even admit it. I often tell people the I’m filming that something they said to me made me think, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe what I was thinking’. And I believe they appreciate that – the fact that I’m honest and human. I’m just constantly reminded we all have prejudices and misconceptions. That’s a big part of why I love doing documentaries.
You’ve also said that you are grateful for meeting people that have changed your point of view throughout your career. If you had to say a few films that totally changed you as a person, which ones would they be and why?
For example, when I started Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I knew nearly nothing about Chinese families, so I didn’t go in with many expectations. But one of the stereotypes I had was that the father is the lord and king and that women – daughters and wife – are subservient to the father. And I’m sure that’s true in a lot of situations, but that’s just the stereotype of the strong father and the compliant women. And nothing couldn’t be further from the truth with that family.
Both his wife and daughters are so strong; they are constantly disagreeing with each other and with him, but underlying all of that is this profound love and respect for him. Even although they can disagree with him and speak up and have different views, you never, ever question their love and admiration for him. So that’s a much complicated understanding of a family dynamic than what I went in thinking.
In The Interrupters, you show the story of former members of a gang band of Chicago who decided to fight against violence. In Hoop Dreams, you follow two Afro-American boys that are trying to make it as basketball players. How do you choose the subjects of your films?
Yeah, they are all very different. I think there’s a perception that a good film subject is someone who is always really charismatic. And that’s true, a charismatic person generally is a good subject for a film, but that’s not always the best. I certainly make films about charismatic people. If you watch The Interrupters, the three interrupters are quite charismatic, and especially one of them, Amina. She is one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met in my life.
I think more than anything, it’s when I sense that people are at significant moments in their lives and how that affects them. When I have the sense that there’s more of someone that I can possibly know by just meeting them. I’m curious about them, there’s something – I may not even know what it is, it’s just a feeling that there’s more. I believe that if I have curiosity about them and for what they’re going through, I can hopefully translate that, so you as a viewer will have that same curiosity and interest.
For instance, in America to Me, one of the kids that I followed was Terrance, the really quiet kid, whose mom is trying to get him the best education. No one else wanted to follow Terrance because he’s so quiet. They were like, ‘Why do you want to follow Terrance?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, but there’s something about him that is very meaningful to me because he is the kind of kid that can easily disappear in school’. We need stories about people like that. There was this sweetness in him that really touched me.

Talking about America to Me, your last work, where you follow twelve teenagers with different backgrounds in their life as students in the Oak Park High School. What challenges did you face to record this?
Well, we were there a lot. We had different teams, there were four of us that were shooters and directors – myself, Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parrish and Bing Liu. And yes, there were times when kids would play with the camera or when teachers were upset that we were there. But we were always very courteous, and I think the fact that we were there so much, it eventually became routine. So we were no longer that interesting, and that’s good.
I often use the analogy that when you start a film, people look at it like it’s a first date. In a sense, we are asking you out, we are making a film about you. So people really go out of their way to try to present their best selves – and it’s so hard to do that, just like any first date. But after you get to know someone and if you have a great relationship with them, it gets so much easier because you get to be yourself. And we all wanna be ourselves. We try to get to this place as quickly as possible, where people can feel like they can be themselves, and the film isn’t a big deal. I may have a big camera, but it’s a little film.
I’ve always been aware of the injustices that some communities have to face because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. As a white European girl, I’ve been personally struggling with how could I help to change this condition while staying respectful and empathic to the communities. You’ve touched these subjects in your work, so how do you address them as a white man?
Well, the issue of who gets to tell what stories these days has become big. It has always been around but now has become a really significant issue. I totally believe that people who are from communities need more opportunities to tell their stories. I don’t believe that those are the only stories that they should tell or that anyone should tell. Because trying to be an artist shouldn’t be that confining. But I think that if you go to communities that are not your own, you need to be humble and open to learn and understand, and spend the time there. You can’t just do something really quickly and think you know, that you get it – because you don’t. Knowing this makes a big difference.
Increasingly, in recent years, I’ve been making an effort to bring in and work with filmmakers of colour or women filmmakers; filmmakers who have historically not had the same opportunities. I make an effort to use, in a sense, my white privilege, to try and help the careers of filmmakers who need that help. So that’s another way
Let’s talk about the future of documentaries. You’re quite optimistic, right? Do you think that documentaries have enough support from the film industry and social institutions? Why are documentaries so important to society?
Well, there are now more opportunities than ever to make documentaries, more funding sources for documentaries or places where documentaries can play. If you’re young, it’s still hard starting out. People don’t get into them because they think they’re going to get rich, and people who invest in them, generally speaking, don’t invest in them because they think that they’re going to make a lot of money; they invest in them because they believe in what the film is about.
I think that this is a good thing because it means that people know that the films are about something bigger than themselves, while fiction filmmakers can be very selfish because it’s about their career. We have ego in documentary too, but it tends to be a better place for people to work. I like the people that work in documentary best, and I like the people who support documentaries best. But it helps tremendously that they are now perceived as commercially available because it means more opportunities open up and more stories can get told.

Emma Vilagran Leal

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