Truth and Fiction When Shooting a Documentary / by Chris Weigl

Documentary filmmaking is never as easy as it seems.  It seems like you’d have greater freedom of movement than on a traditional set.  Your subject feels larger than life because that’s why you’re making a documentary on it.  Even realist painters created scenes that were on the surface ordinary, but deep down those artists found something deeply moving about what they saw or they wouldn’t have profiled it. 

A photographer friend of mine is putting together a book on abandoned houses.  At first she insisted on doing all her photos in black and white, but when her publisher informed her of the reality of the situation; mainly that it is hard enough to sell a book of photography and nearly impossible to sell a book of black and white pictures, she relented.  Now she’s experimenting with composition and light.   She wants to tell the stories of these places that have been ruined by so many forces yet still retain great beauty to her.  The objects in her photos are representative of something larger.  Some pictures are of an empty room with only a chair obstructing the otherwise natural light.  She’s not expecting you to fall in love with the space, she’s expecting you to imagine what once fit in that space.  It is, in other words, the not knowing that is key to the story that she is telling and that is what documentary filmmaking is also about.

When we set out to do this documentary we had a loose idea in mind of what the final product would look like.  We had an outline that followed a traditional act structure.  There was conflict, the characters had goals, there were things standing in the way of those goals, and there were things that no one could have predicted that loomed large on the horizon.  When you make a documentary you don’t so much commit to a story as you do in traditional feature filmmaking as much as you commit to a set of ideas and reasonable assumptions regarding events that the characters exercise some control over. 

Everyone has control over their fate.  We would not watch a film where the character could not possibly alter the outcome because the character would be largely unable to change in any discernable way.  It is change thus that sparks our interest.  There isn’t a great deal of fun to be had from following a routine, but it was routine that kept us safe when we were mere hunter/gatherers and it’s what has stabilized our diet today allowing us to live longer, safer, more productive lives.  When one seeks to document something they look to a point in time when things shifted for the subject.  Change cannot happen without us modifying our routine or doing something drastically different in our lives.

In our film This is Flyball we follow a group of flyball enthusiasts as they travel around the country competing in events.  Some have remarked that this does not sound terribly exciting and in the abstract perhaps it’s not.  Without knowing any of the people involved or their stories or more importantly what drives them to compete in this sport it may seem like a routine without any major change occurring or any noticeable differences appearing throughout time.  When one looks closer at the flyball world it is easier to discern the differences.  When one looks at the subjects and their environment we can see that even this simple world is one that is constantly in a state of flux.  Whenever you have people you have conflict. 

Our film follows flyball teams from around southeastern Wisconsin, but flyball is a sport that is practiced across the country indeed around the world.  The film culminates in the largest flyball event in the world held in Indianapolis, Indiana.  We see the journeys that the characters have embarked upon and we see how they’ve changed over the course of a year.  We see the ordinary and we can recognize that what is extraordinary about their stories is that they can sustain the momentum to keep going in spite of the conflict.  Everyone has to put up with something or someone they don’t like.  That’s just the nature of life.  The question is whether what you’re doing is worth sacrificing a little bit of happiness for something greater and we look forward to showing audiences here and around the world the extraordinary journeys that ordinary people embark upon as they change themselves and others across the world of flyball.