What does it mean to make an investigative documentary on one’s family history? How could the filmmaker and her interviewees represent the joyful and eventful, as well as the painful and awkward episodes of their most intimate past? In this blog post, Berkeley Senior and L.A. native Veronica Jacques reflects on the process of making her first documentary, Nation of Assimilation, a project that grew out of Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s spring 2022 seminar on Documentary Forms (Film 125 / German 184).
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In this essay, I reflect on challenges faced while producing a short documentary, which focuses on the experiences of both myself and my family members as descendants of immigrants in East Los Angeles, relying heavily on impromptu interviews with members of my family in their daily lives.
When I was conceiving the project, I knew this topic was going to be hard because I was not entirely sure what my family was going to say while being interviewed. I also had some hesitancy because I was talking about something deeply personal. I felt unsure about sharing, but at the same time, I was interested in creating a true story to which many people like me can relate. I hope this film reaches not only the Latino community but a wider audience too, because I know there are many people with diverse backgrounds who have lost touch with their heritage due to a variety of reasons associated with immigration.
Even after having drafted an initial outline, I faced challenges organizing a clear narrative, storyboard, and script. When traveling to Los Angeles to capture footage and perform interviews, I only had a list of questions and a small group of murals and landscapes I knew I wanted to feature, but still no clear story. It was hard to fully plan because I truly did not know what my family would say. This really was an investigation into our family’s past, an attempt to hear various stories and perspectives, while trying to better understand my own lived experience.
After the trip, I thought I did not have enough footage. It was difficult to convince family members to get on camera, because they are generally quite private and closed off with their feelings. I ended up with way more audio recordings than video recordings because my family members seemed more comfortable and relaxed if they spoke to me while doing other activities, and thus many of the recordings include background noises. For the viewer this type of ambient sound can portray a lot about the interviewee and their everyday lifestyle.
As I worked to piece the story together, I found it hard to pull the perfect clips that illustrated what I was really trying to say. The very first version of the film was abstract and the story jumped around. It confused early viewers, so I was forced to start from scratch and write up an outline to get a better understanding of what I wanted to say. This outline made the second version much clearer, not just a montage but more of a story.
After screening the film again in Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s seminar, I took away some great advice on elements I could improve. I was relieved that the story was generally understood and well-received, which meant the hardest part was already done. I made the decision to add a label for the city name, citations to the images I took from the internet, and a title for the film. I decided to keep the montage in the same order to make the story focusing on one thing at a time. The story stayed the same from my initial outline, even though I thought about changing it many times. I found that when I was running my idea with friends, people with different backgrounds related to my experience.
I featured archival pictures of my mom and my grandmother to help tell the story. I experimented with sound and image, with fire accompanying the audio of my mother talking while she barbequed meat on Easter Sunday. The sounds of flames also symbolize the theme of the lost history of our ancestors. The inclusion of the flames was a nod to the documentary The Two Sights by Joshua Bonnetta, in which sound was very important to the symbology of the film. He also uses the sound of fire paired with detailed shots of a burned-down house to add depth and drama to the story, which explores lost traditions in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
During my interviewing process, I knew I had to start off with some easy questions to get the conversation flowing. I asked my family to tell me about their first jobs, along with some follow-up questions about events that occurred during their childhoods. I then moved on to the more difficult and personal questions, talking about school, language, and our family tree. This method of conducting an interview was inspired by Chronicle of a Summer (dir. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morinm, 1961), a documentary film that uses interviews to explore topics on society, happiness, and the working class. Like Rouch, I also used a handheld sound recorder while interviewing my family, and I helped interview subjects to open up by building to more difficult and personal questions.
During the process of watching and listening to all the recordings, I laughed and cried as my family described their lives as little kids. I could tell that in some of the answers my family members were not sharing everything, that they held some things inside because they knew I was recording. I don’t blame them; people want to be seen as happy, positive, and humorous, and opening up about pain and struggle is difficult.
To end, I used a voice over of my internal monologue as a way to express my own experience, specifically by presenting shots of my hands preparing tortillas from scratch in a scene lit with artificial lighting against a black background. I utilized the voice-over to tell my story – a technique seen in many of the documentary films I watched in Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s seminar. This film allowed me to tell my own story. Making a film in a short window of time was fun, challenging, and rewarding. I got a taste of how to interview subjects, create a trusting relationship and environment with them, listen to their answers, and think of follow-up questions on the spot. I gained an understanding of what it takes to make a documentary, as well as respect not just for documentarians, but for those who share their testimonies as subjects in these films.