In the 2001 documentary film “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” Laura Lee, a 62-year-old woman in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, struggles to take care of her 10 children, 38 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. We catch a glimpse of how the education system and the criminal justice system have both failed the family, a century and a half after slavery was abolished. Yet the movie stays grounded in one woman’s experience, providing a human view of large institutions. NationSwell Council member Xan Parker, who was an associate producer on the Academy Award–nominated film and has also helped spotlight the problem of hunger in America as a consulting producer on 2012’s “A Place at the Table,” spoke with us about unearthing the stories that resonate with viewers long after the credits roll.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I grew up without a television, but my parents took my sisters and me out to see a lot of independent films and documentaries. If there was something good playing in New York, my mother would sometimes drive us up from our home in Baltimore for the day. In college, I was introduced to cinema verité by an experimental filmmaker who taught contemporary art history. The films that really piqued my interest were the Maysles’s films: “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens,” the films about [environmental artists] Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. I quickly realized that, although I was an English major, storytelling in film was a more natural fit for me than writing.
What attracted you to documentaries specifically?
All cinema is like magic to me. You’re transported and taken on a journey. You feel really close to characters that you never would have met in normal life. I remember seeing “Brother’s Keeper” in a movie theater in Baltimore right after I graduated from college and thinking, “How did they do that?” It seemed impossible what the directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were doing — this idea that you could take real life and present it as a feature narrative film, that it would function in scenes, cut back and forth for reaction shots, and pass over so much time. But the world does not function like it does in a film. That amazed me and intrigued me. Driven by my curiosity and my empathy, I let those guide me.
Where did you learn your approach to filmmaking?
When I came to New York City after college, I headed for the Maysles Films studio on West 54th Street, like so many aspiring documentary filmmakers before me had done. That was my film school, really. The filmmakers who were there in the 1990s taught me most of what I know. That’s when the richness and immediacy of film really captivated me, with its ability to deliver the most authentic, immediate experience of the human condition.
The Maysles were famous for their fly-on-the-wall method. I’ve heard their approach described as getting to know one’s neighbors. How would you define it?
I love getting to know people and getting to experience a bit of their lives. Albert Maysles told me that he and his brother David just wanted to show the dignity of the working man when they made “Salesman,” a seminal film in direct cinema. They really looked up to their father, who had been a postman, and they wanted to show how his life and his work had dignity. Even the vocation that some people might cast aspersions on — that ironic career of selling the Bible —included people whose lives deserve consideration. And that has always stayed in my mind when I am filming people: “This person has dignity. This person is entrusting me and my crew with that. And we are going to do right by them.”
What has your production work taught you about what defines leadership?
I believe strongly that filmmaking is a team sport. I learned from my mentor, the director Susan Froemke, to listen to everyone around you, to hear what they have to say about the story. The more you do that — and the more everyone on the team feels responsible for the final film — the stronger it’s going to be.
Journalists are sometimes accused of fitting stories into a preconceived notion. How do you avoid that as a documentarian?
You want to tell the truth, of course. You don’t want people to lie to you. But documentary is different from journalism. In a documentary film, the truth you are telling can be the fact of someone’s emotional state, or the truth of someone’s character. You are chronicling both what happened and what it felt like. I’m less interested in making documentaries that feel like lectures, that try to teach you too much. I want to follow a journey that’s happening or get to know the characters in front of me.
How do you choose what stories to tell? In other words, what narrative qualities do you like to see before you sign on to a project?
A compelling, inviting, magnetic character is the heart of every good documentary. If you have someone who speaks with a bit of poetry, you’re in good hands. And I learned a long time ago from the Maysles brothers’ filmmaking team that you are indeed in someone else’s hands when you are making a verité documentary.
As for subjects, I do have a certain attraction to stories about work — what people do, why they do it, what its greater meaning is. Producing Ivy Meeropol’s nonfiction series “The Hill” was a chance to give audiences a peek into the under-the-radar, but very high stakes, work of the passionate young legislative aides on Capitol Hill.
Tough one: What are your favorite movies?
The documentaries I love are the ones that got into my soul: “Chronicle of a Summer,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Salesman,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Grizzly Man,” “Manda Bala,” “Harlan County, USA,” “Brother’s Keeper,” “Two Towns of Jasper,” “Fog of War,” “Bowling for Columbine.” Every single one of them has some indelible moment that will never leave me. If I can pick one I worked on: “LaLee’s Kin.” And right now two films that I am thinking about a lot are Kirsten Johnson’s touching and personal “Cameraperson,” as well as the incredibly timely “13th” by Ava DuVernay.
How do you create those indelible moments?
Trust in providence. It’s something that comes and goes, but when making a film, life provides. David Maysles said frequently, “Don’t worry if you didn’t catch that key moment on camera. Just wait and it will happen again. Or something like it will.” It’s the incredible thing about documentary film: You never get writer’s block.
What are you most proud of having accomplished?
There are so many points of manipulation in film. You choose the story you want to tell, then you “cast” by choosing who’s going to be at the heart of that story. You choose when you’re going to film them and what questions you’re going to ask, then you choose what footage you’re going to use and evoke a mood through editing, music or graphics. Hands down, the greatest moment in making a film is when you show it to the subject and they say, “That’s it. You got it. You got everything right.”
Let’s fix this country together.