How Good Documentaries Transcend Borders, and Why We Need Them Now More Than Ever

A good documentary doesn’t just tell a story; it makes you question what you think you know, and helps you to understand lives that are different from your own.

Rory Kennedy ‘91 is a celebrated documentary filmmaker; Randall Poster ‘83 is a film music supervisor, who has worked with filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. Last year, they helped launch the John F. Kennedy Jr. Film Initiative, which is housed at Watson. Like John, they’re both Brown alums; John was Rory’s cousin, and Randy’s classmate. Through screenings, discussions, and workshops, this Initiative connects world-class documentarians with the Brown community, at a time when more and more students are looking to use narrative storytelling in their research and activism.

On this episode, Watson’s Director Ed Steinfeld talks with Rory and Randall about their careers in film, the motivation behind the Initiative, and the power documentaries have to affect social change.

You can sign up to for updates about the initiative here.

You can learn more about the full slate of programming here (Fall Event announcements will be added in the coming days).

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

A quick channel surf or scroll through Netflix makes one thing clear-- we are in a golden age of documentaries. But, as documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy reminds us, it wasn't so long ago that the world of documentary film was very, very different.

RORY KENNEDY: I mean, when I started in Nineteen-Ninety-One, there were maybe a handful of documentaries that got theatrical distribution.

SARAH BALDWIN: Now, that didn't stop Rory from making some of the most talked-about documentaries of the last few decades, including Last Days of Vietnam and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. On this episode, Watson's director, Ed Steinfeld, talks with Rory, as well as with Randall Poster. Randy is a film music supervisor, and he's worked for filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese.

Last year, Rory and Randy started, with a few others, the John F. Kennedy Jr. Film Initiative, which is housed at Watson. Like John, they're both Brown alums. John was Rory's cousin and Randy's classmate. Through screenings, discussions, and workshops, this initiative connects world-class documentarians with the Brown community at a time when more and more students are looking to use narrative storytelling in their research and activism.

Ed, Rory, and Randy talk about the initiative and the power documentaries have to effect social change. They started, though, by discussing Rory's first film, which actually came directly out of her undergraduate experience at Brown. Here's Ed.

ED STEINFELD: Rory, you've been politically active, as far as I understand, really, since a very young age-- first, with issues surrounding South African apartheid and issues surrounding injustices for rural, migrant laborers in the US. And also, as I understand, your first film, Women of Substance, grew out of a paper you wrote as an undergraduate. But how did you decide to move into film as your form of expression?

RORY KENNEDY: I graduated from Brown in Nineteen-Ninety-One and, as you say, I was a Women's Studies major at Brown, and had done my final paper about women and substance abuse and the difficulties they were having trying to get drug and alcohol treatment, particularly pregnant women and women with children.

This was a time when the reaction-- it was during the crack epidemic, and the response to pregnant women being addicted to drugs created a lot of outrage in the community. And there was a response to imprisoned pregnant women who were drug addicts.

And I, for this paper, ended up interviewing a number of women in this situation and found out that, counter to what I was reading in the press-- which was this sense that these women didn't care about their children, that they hadn't tried to get treatment, that they should just be thrown in jail to protect these unborn children-- that, in fact, many of them had tried to get treatment, but there were no programs-- very limited programs that accepted pregnant women at the time. In fact, nine out of 10 of them had tried to get treatment.

And so, in writing this paper, I thought this is so outrageous, and I wish policymakers could meet these women because their story and their plight is so touching, and they're trying so hard, and yet we're making it so difficult for them. And so I thought, well, I could bring a film crew and a camera into their homes and their lives and film them-- make a film about it and then bring that film to Congress and help members of Congress understand their stories. So that is, in fact, what I did.

And I used the paper to turn it into a proposal, a treatment for a film. And I went and raised money, and I partnered with a production company in Washington called Video/Action Fund, and I set off to go make this film, which was ultimately called Women of Substance. And it showed on PBS stations and then I was able to show it to members of Congress, and I really felt that it made a difference.

ED STEINFELD: I know that, for Women of Substance-- really, for all your films-- for American Hollow, for Street Fight-- you're able to dignify the people you're speaking with. You don't condescend. How does one do that? How did you learn to do that? How did you learn to both interview and get people to express themselves so beautifully?

RORY KENNEDY: I don't know if that's a filmmaking technique or just how one goes through life. I mean, I think that I genuinely care about what people have to say. I'm curious about different people and how they live, what motivates them, what their personal stories are. And I think a lot of the process, in making these films and doing the interviews, is listening. It's genuinely listening and hearing what they're saying.

And I think, sometimes, you go into an interview and you have your own anxiety to get the story right, but I always try to prepare with questions, to know the story, to know where I want to go, and then to be very open to be led in different directions, and to allow the person who I'm interviewing to take me on a journey, as well.

And I think that, with many of the films I've made over the course of my career, I had one vision and intention going into it, and it completely changed by the time I had finished them.

ED STEINFELD: Could you give an example?

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, you mentioned Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. That, initially, was really looking at incidences around the world where populations had been targeted and killed. And I was looking at that phenomenon through the perspective of the people who had taken the action to kill this group of people.

And while I was developing that, and I had gotten support from HBO to make that film, the photos came out from Abu Ghraib. And a lot of the questions I found that I was asking for this other project, I was also asking of the personnel who had taken the photographs at Abu Ghraib, who had put these prisoners in piles, naked, taken their pictures, humiliated them, treated them so horribly.

Why would somebody do this to another human being? What would motivate them to do this? How would they get to this point, that they would be willing to do this? And so, HBO had given me development money to develop this other film, and I came back to them with a whole presentation about why I should make a completely different film about Abu Ghraib, but that asked the same questions.

And to Sheila Nevins' credit, she got it, and she had full buy-in. I went to develop this other film, and I didn't tell them that I was coming back to them with a completely different project.

ED STEINFELD: It's incredible to me that, over your career, you've been able, consistently, to identify social issues that are really important, but you identify them before other people acknowledge they're important, generally. So whether it's the plight of rural Americans, who seem voiceless in the system; whether it's the plight of women who, again, disempowered and voiceless in some cases; or whether it's the perils of American interventionism; you always seem a few years ahead of the curve.

How do you persuade people to support the making of these films before the topics really get hot?

RORY KENNEDY: Right. Well, thank you, again, for saying that. That's nice. I think-- early on, and for many years, I did a lot of documentaries with HBO. And I do think that HBO, during those years, was very forward-thinking.

And the documentary department was led by Sheila Nevins, and they had a wonderful group of executives. And I think that they were genuinely interested in telling great stories, and they were genuinely interested in doing something that nobody had ever done before. And I think that I was genuinely interested in those things, as well.

So, it wasn't necessarily about trying to be ahead of what's going to be the hot topic when this film comes out. It was really about-- and I think, for me, continues to be about-- telling a great story that has a beginning, middle, and an end, is dramatic, and hopefully, rises to something bigger than just its elements.

And helps us understand, in my experience, a group of people, maybe an issue, maybe a perspective on a bit of a deeper level, and maybe helps us be a bit more compassionate about people that seem different or foreign to us.

ED STEINFELD: There's so many problems today, whether regarding the pandemic or race relations or inequality-- of course, those topics are all interrelated-- so many topics that seem to call for this mixing of narrative and really persuasive storytelling and social change, social progress.

What's different for, say, a recent college graduate today who wants to grasp those issues through film, different from when you were first starting in the nineteen-nineties? How has the industry changed in terms of just getting into it?

RORY KENNEDY: Well, I think it's changed enormously. I mean, when I started in Nineteen-Ninety-One, there were very few outlets. There was very limited financial support. You had PBS, HBO; you really had maybe a handful of documentaries that got theatrical distribution in any given year. Usually, they were self-financed.

And then, to make a film back then, to have a broadcast-quality camera, was $100,000. To have a broadcast-quality editing system was $350,000. When I made my first film, we had to lay it down linearly. The digital capacity wasn't there, so I had to start with the first frame and then the second and then the third, and there was no changing.

So those were different days and different challenges than you have today, where you have Netflix, you have Hulu, you have Apple TV. You have an explosion of demand and you also have financing at a level that you didn't have before. You have all of those outlets, as well as the HBOs and the PBSs and National Geographics and all the rest. And then you have, also, independent financiers.

And then, I think, you also have sources through foundations and groups like Impact Partners, who are investing in a documentary because they can be moneymakers for the first time. So, the landscape has changed, and then the technology-- you can pick up your iPhone and make what is considered a broadcast-quality film. I think those changes are hugely significant.

And then, I think you also have a population that is much more comfortable making films. They may be short films, but these 12-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 13-year-olds, are using their cameras all the time, and they're in their back pockets and they're available to them, and they're editing and putting sequences together, which is awesome. And so I think it creates a population that is much more comfortable and well-trained, and thinking in film, naturally.

So I think it's a really exciting time for documentary, and then I think that we're also at a time where there's a real question about truth, and what truth occupies, and what role that occupies in our society right now, and fake news, and all the rest.

And I think documentaries, when you're going into people's lives and telling their personal stories, that you can get to truths that people from very different ends of the political spectrum can connect with and identify with and agree on. And so I think it also, at this particular juncture, is imperative-- I mean, it's more important than ever.

ED STEINFELD: I'm really glad you mentioned the issue of truth today, because as you were describing the landscape where everybody has a phone, everybody is a potential filmmaker, part of me-- I realize that that's reality, but it's also, in some ways, a bit horrifying that you have all of this video content out there, some of which seems very distorted or distorting, very manipulated.

And I don't know whether it resolves the question of truth or makes it even more complicated, that there's so much content being generated right now.

RORY KENNEDY: Well, I think to the question of the amount of content being created, I think does complicate things. And then, how it's being generated, and then how much you can manipulate it. And we've seen that countless times, even with campaign ads and videos that go viral that actually aren't substantiated or factually correct. And that they can influence an election, for example. So that's scary and concerning.

And I think that's a broader analysis of what happens when so many people can create content, and content is so readily available. But I do think within that, the documentaries themselves do have a certain stature and are able to cut through that to a degree and stay above that kind of chatter.

Which isn't to say you can't manipulate a documentary, but I think for most documentaries, if they have certain outlets and certain connections to them, you can certainly trust, and that they can play a particular role in society right now.

ED STEINFELD: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Can you talk a little bit about some of those hurdles or some of the hoops that one has to jump through to gain that legitimacy? So, if we're thinking about a young person who's just entering the industry, and she has access to a camera and editing software, that's great. What does she have to do to legitimize her work, and how?

RORY KENNEDY: Well, I think that if somebody is a young student, is graduating or thinking about a career in documentary, I think there are different ways to go. So, I think you can look at the landscape of documentary filmmakers and the documentaries that you love, and reach out to the filmmaking teams who created those. And documentary filmmakers are always looking for young people to come in as assistants and interns and PAs.

And I think there's also a desire among my peers to help give younger people tools to make it in this industry. So I think there is a path forward through working with organizations, institutions, and individuals who one admires. And then, I think if you have a great idea, and if you have access, and if you have some talent and can go out and go make a film, that's great.

I think it is a crowded landscape, and so to get above the chatter you have to be really good at what you're doing. And you have to have that incredible access, or such an original story idea. So it's certainly not easy to do, but I think that for a handful of people, you can make it work.

RANDALL POSTER: I was going to make the point just that, as much as there is a greater facility than ever before in terms of access-- we all go around with cameras in our pockets, and I think that young people have a facility with filming things and putting things together. But one of the things that I know from working with Rory, or working on documentary films, or working on features, just how much hard work and focus really does go into it.

So as much as if you have a good story or you have access, you really do have to be willing to show a commitment or be committed, I think beyond anything that probably you ever have had to in your life. Because where you're saying, where the story leads you, both checking your sources, checking yourself in terms of certain amounts of introspection that go into making sure that you're on the same righteous path and started on, or you're following the right road.

I mean, I think those are the things that really enable people to find work. It's just understanding how hard, and being willing to work as hard as you have to to give a story its full breadth and allow it to bloom. One of things I think that you have to have is patience, because sometimes the story doesn't unfold as quickly as you hoped it would, or the person that you're talking about takes you down-- you can't necessarily pull them to the point where you want them to go. You have to let things unfold, and sometimes you're not in control of the timing of all of that.

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah, and I think Randy makes a really good point, which is, I always feel, when I'm considering watch what film I'm going to work on, there's something that happens where something grips me and pulls me.

Because I know how much it's going to take to make the film. And it's going to take sacrifice and I'm going to have to leave my kids and my husband. I'm going to have to work late and I'm going to have to try to figure it out, and it's always impossible. And I always get to a point where I think, why am I doing this? This is horrible. This is a terrible film and I never should have done this, and filled with self-doubt. And it's just such a roller coaster, and you really have to want it and to be willing to sacrifice quite a bit to go after it.

So I think that's a big deal, and then I think if it is a film that one is making on their own, that you really have to think of a story, and I keep coming back to that idea. But I've had so many people come up to me and say, I've got this great idea. I have such a good idea for a film. And I say, OK, let's do a call, you know. I talk to them, and they say, I think we should do a film about homelessness, or like, the war in Iraq.

And it's like, great. It's a worthy topic, but what's the story? Like, how are you entering it in a way that nobody else has? Do you have footage that nobody else has? Do you have some character who you know, who has some incredible story that needs to be told? It needs to be something that rises above it all, so what is that?

ED STEINFELD: And I know, as a consumer of documentary film, it's amazing to me how powerful the medium can be. For a topic, say, as a viewer, that I may not be that interested going in, but the film will then grip me. And for both of you, your work so frequently does that. It's one of the reasons why I've become so excited about the initiative we're doing here at Brown University, the John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative for Documentary Film and Social Progress.

You've both been really instrumental in the progress of that initiative, and I was wondering whether you both could say maybe a word about John F. Kennedy, Jr.-- your cousin, Rory, and your close friend, Randall.

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, you know, this was Randy's idea. He approached me on this, and I jumped at the chance, because I know how much the years that John went to Brown meant to him. I remember when I got into Brown, and I was here in Hyannisport over that summer. And John and I went through the catalog together, and he was telling me which courses I should take and giving me all sorts of advice.

And he had so many long-lasting friends that came out of Brown. And I think he also really pursued his own path in life, and he had so many options available to him, but I think his Brown years and his education there really empowered him to go his own route in life and to forge his own path.

And I think he had such a commitment to the arts; he had such a commitment to the spoken word and the written word; and he had such a commitment to the idea of getting to the truth. It's just my great privilege and honor to be part of this effort to bring it to Brown.

I think we're going to have a wonderful series of both old-school documentary filmmakers who have been around for decades and doing this work from the beginning, and we have so much to learn from them. And then, I think, it will combine that with the newest films that are out there, that are really cutting-edge and taking on the most pressing social issues of our lives in new and innovative ways. And I think it's going to be a really fresh, exciting series, and I'm just thrilled to be a part of it.

RANDALL POSTER: What I'll just say, really, is to thank you, Rory, for participating, for your kind words. And it was important to me, and important to us, to have a proper memorial for John, and to keep his great energy alive. And one of the things that I think is important, too, is that we're trying to provide a cinematic literacy for Brown students, where they are both anchored in the great documentaries, the great filmmakers who preceded us, and so they have a foundation.

But also, John was forward-looking and was always interested in inspiring people. And I think that was very important to him, and he felt a great responsibility to try to be an inspiration and to bring issues and topics that may be in the shadows, to bring them in the forefront, certainly through his work with George.

And so this combination of, as Rory was saying, not only giving students the foundation, but also the inspiration and the practicalities, and putting them on the forefront of this storytelling that I think is so vital.

ED STEINFELD: I'm excited, because it really isn't just students who are in the audience. I feel like the luckiest person in the room, because I'm thrilled with the programming that's already been done and the programming that will come. And as you said, Randy, one goal is, of course, to make people more sophisticated viewers of the content they're seeing. But the other is to inspire people, young, old, to go out and express themselves through film and tell the truths that really need to be told.

RANDALL POSTER: Well, I think we all agree, in this in this moment in time, on dedication to the truth and the process that makes the presentation of the truth formidable and less vulnerable to pitiful attack.

I think it's important, and why, I think, I always talk about how hard you have to work to do these projects. Because I think we all get-- people look and think, oh, that's the greatest thing. I want to do that. I want to tell stories. I want to put music in movies. And you just really have to remind people that it takes everything that you have to do these things well.

ED STEINFELD: One of the challenges, I think, today, and maybe of challenges historically, has been to expand the number of voices who are making film and telling truths. And maybe you could both comment a little bit on changes you've seen over the years and access of, say, women to filmmaking, access of members of underrepresented groups. What are the challenges that are there now, and what are, maybe, some of the solutions as we move forward?

RORY KENNEDY: I think that Hollywood still has a lot of work to do. But I think, in the last couple of years, that both with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, that there's been some significant changes made.

I'm on the board of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and I know we've worked very, very hard to be much more inclusive in our membership. When I got there, on the board, I was, I think one of three or four women, and I think there was maybe one or two people of color with a board of 53. Now, it's over 50% women and way more diverse, and so is the executive committee for the documentary branch, and the membership itself is way more diverse than it was because of actions we've taken.

And I think that makes a big difference to broaden the variety of people and the differing perspectives. I think television is much better than feature films. But we've got to keep the pressure on, and I think we all recognize that having people coming at a story from different perspectives really only makes the story so much better, and it really changes the way that we perceive and understand our own stories.

And to broaden that field, so that we are ensuring that, as we tell these stories moving forward, that we're telling a diversity of stories in terms of both content, and that the people who are telling them are coming from a variety of backgrounds, so that we really are seeing the landscape for what it is, which is broad and complex and tricky and difficult and interesting and fascinating and awesome.

ED STEINFELD: I love the way you just said that, Rory. You know, a central goal of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Documentary Film Initiative is, of course, to inspire people, but to inspire the broadest array of individuals possible to enter the industry and tell truths as they've experienced them, as they see them. And if we're able to do that-- I mean, for me personally, that would be the greatest mark of success.

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, I think we will. And I think that we're really mindful of the content, of ensuring that we're really looking at both a variety of people and filmmakers who come from diverse backgrounds, but also that the content is diverse.

I think that it really helps, in watching these films, my own experience, I'm just inspired over and over again by being exposed to the content. And I have many memories of going to Brown and watching documentaries, seeing speakers like Spike Lee come to Brown. And those were moments that I really remember in my education there, and they impacted me and the person I am today and the choices that I made. So those moments can impact a life.

ED STEINFELD: I think we all feel an urgency today-- whether we're on the left side of the political spectrum, the right side of the political spectrum-- we feel an urgency. And we know that society in the United States, globally, is just facing what feels like an unprecedented array of challenges, and we need people who can relate the truth and people who can relate the truth in a way that leads to positive action.

RANDALL POSTER: It's also, I think, it's interesting that we're talking about the students and the community. And to your point about the impact of the program beyond the community is that in this moment in time, I think, we all feel it imperative that we, each of us, expands our own point of view. And that we continue to learn and be open, and question some of the-- not only accepted values, but accepted notions of history and stories as they were rendered, and try to expand our own points of view.

And I think that's really revitalizing, and I think that if John was anything, he was a source of vitality. And I think if we can bring that to the community, it will be a very valuable and worthwhile enterprise.

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah and I think to that point, it's the whole spectrum. Because you want to expose people, not only to new, progressive ideas about climate change and environmentalism, but what is the white, working-class guy from Appalachia-- what is his plight? Why is he supporting Trump? What's happening there?

We need to-- when Randy says, get out of our comfort zone, that may be how I get out of my comfort zone and how Brown students get out of their comfort zone. So, it's the whole spectrum that we need to both showcase, celebrate, and expose ourselves to.

ED STEINFELD: Yeah, when I had mentioned earlier, Rory, about the way you dignify voices, that's exactly what I was talking about.

Again, to reference American Hollow, I feel like in the film, you're not judging people, but you're providing them a chance to provide their accounts and truth as they see it. And it's an account that a lot of us aren't exposed to. And we may not agree with it-- we may not even be sympathetic to it-- but at least we can listen and learn and perhaps, at least, empathize. It's a very powerful statement that you both make in your work.

RANDALL POSTER: We both look forward to spending time with you at the university and pushing this program forward. In the meantime, we're going to do what we can in this next period of time to bring films and filmmakers to Brown in this digital way. And hopefully, we can push this forward and really create a very singular and important and impactful program in John's memory.

ED STEINFELD: We will do it. And the one, maybe, silver lining in this cloudy moment of pandemic is the fact that so much, if not all, of the programming will be available online, will allow a broader audience to access it. And I think that's inherently a good thing.

Thank you both so much. Rory Kennedy, Randall Poster, thank you.


RORY KENNEDY: Good to see you both. Thank you. To be continued.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Jackson Cantrell. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

This fall, we'll be having screenings and discussions with renowned filmmakers as part of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Film Initiative. You can learn about these events and register for them by signing up for our weekly newsletter, "This Week at Watson." You can also learn about them by visiting the Initiative's website. We'll have links to both of these in the show notes. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

For more information about this and other shows, go to top watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening, and tune in in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.


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