The subject of Jan Krawitz’s upcoming documentary is as normal as you please, with one small exception. “She just wants to give away a kidney,” Krawitz says. “Not to a family member or anyone she knows. This is how she wants to do good in her life.” Perhaps that altruistic impulse give you pause, and makes you question your effort to improve the world. That was Krawitz’s response—and it’s the reaction she aims to provoke in audiences.
The veteran filmmaker left her initial four-hour meeting in 2007 with the prospective San Luis Obispo donor in a rare and reassuring frame of mind. “I walked away thinking, ‘I really want to make a film about this woman,’” Krawitz recalls. “And that doesn’t happen too often to me.”
At the same time, she wanted her subject to perfectly clear about what kind of project they were considering embarking on. “I always try to meet people before I even broach the idea of a film,” Krawitz says. “I force them to see my other films. They need to understand I’m not a journalist. I’m not making news here. I’m telling people’s stories. I want them to know how I work with people, and how I distill their stories into film.”
In the summer of 2008, Krawitz filmed her subject with a potential recipient. But the match didn’t work out, and the project stalled for two years while the donor pursued various paths and possibilities. Krawitz chose not to apply for any funding during that stretch, for fear that she’d obtain a grant only to be unable to finish the film if her subject decided for any reason to give up her cause.
Some filmmakers, no doubt, would have simply moved on and sought another individual with similarly generous motives. But Krawitz, a longtime professor in Stanford’s vaunted M.F.A. program in Documentary Film and Video, bided her time.
“I felt really committed to her and her story,” Krawitz says. “It was never a possibility for me to say, Oh, I’ll just find someone else who’s doing it.” As a result, the filmmaker relates, “I was held hostage by the narrative, which I never was before.”
Her patience paid off, and she did her last shoot—recording sound as part of a two-person crew—this past weekend with the donor. Now it’s on to postproduction, which promises a fresh set of challenges. Krawitz shot her last film, Big Enough (2004), on 16mm and cut it on a flatbed. This piece was shot on HD and will be edited on Final Cut.
“The change in technology has definitely changed my approach to editing,” Krawitz confides. “I’m just going to cut these scenes ’til they work and then I’ll consider the uberstructure, which is a backwards way of working for me.”
Thanks, in part, to shooting on digital, Krawitz has more footage than for any of her previous films. The amount of material, as well as the many twists and turns in the donor’s do-gooder path, will influence the film’s ultimate length.
“When I first started it, in all honesty, I thought it would be a half hour,” Krawitz says. “[Now] I sort of hope it’s an hour. Part of me feels like it could be feature-length but I’m concerned about how difficult it is to launch feature documentaries.”
The doc’s working title is Perfect Strangers, but Krawitz has pretty much decided against it. “I think it might be a little too cute. I think there’s another title hovering in there somewhere. I’ve never stuck with a working title for any film I’ve made. It’s not a bad title—it is an interesting double entendre. But there are probably lots of films with that title.”
What hasn’t changed in four years is Krawitz’s clarity about the theme of the film.
“It’s not about organ donation—of course it is, and people will learn a lot about it—but it’s also about where we all reside on this continuum of altruism. And that’s what attracted me to the film. ‘How come she’s doing this and I’m not? How come she is on such an extreme end of the continuum?’ I want people to walk away a little uncomfortable: ‘She’s doing it and I’m not. What am I doing in my life to leave the world a better place, to make the world a better place?’”
Notes from the Underground
Rob Nilsson is being honored with a five-film retrospective at the Moscow International Film Festival, June 23 through July 2. “To be recognized in the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Mayakovsky, Isaac Babel and my favorite director, Elem Klimov (Come and See), is humbling to say the least,” Nilsson said in a statement....If you missed it, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) revised its rules for the Best Picture nominations. A film is now required to receive five percent of the first-place votes. The upshot is that instead of the 10 guaranteed nominations of the last two years, the number will range each year from five to 10. Also, the qualifying period for the Documentary Feature and Documentary Short categories has been adjusted to the calendar year (as is the case with almost all other categories). To bridge the adjustment, the next Oscars will cover 15 months of eligible docs.
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