May 26, 2012

Mountainfilm Lesson #1: There’s a fine line between caring & caring too much…

…and we have no choice but to walk it.

“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” ~Ed Abbey (quoted by Tim DeChristopher in the film, Bidder 70)

This morning at 8 a.m. I sat bleary-eyed at a morning “Coffeetalk,” one of the many free public panels at Mountainfilm, which bring together big-name filmmakers, writers, producers and activists for intimate conversations.

The four featured filmmakers were talking about inspiration, about how they each found their stories. It’s a process they described as “falling in love.” “A honeymoon phase” followed by “a 5-year commitment” to produce an in-depth and quality film.

Fifteen minutes before, I’d been chatting with the gentleman in the seat next to me, a producer from National Geographic TV who’s here at the festival scouting new talent and story ideas. He told me about a film he’d seen the night before, which was “20 minutes too long” and I mentioned that the hardest pat of being a filmmaker must be knowing when to cut and shorten a story that you’ve become so invested in. “The best advice I can give,” he said, “is not to fall in love with your own story.”

So how do we strike this balance? Between the passion that gets us inspired in an issue or a story to begin with, and the perspective to know when enough is effective?

This question of caring was also on my mind last night, as I watched the world premier of the film, Bidder 70, a documentary about activist Tim DeChristopher, who was sentenced to federal prison for two years after disrupting an oil and gas auction with fake bids.

There were many moments in the film when other characters, and the audience, questions whether DeChristopher’s beliefs warrant sacrificing two years of his life. “Are you sure you don’t want a plea bargain?” or “Do you feel remorse or regret for what you’ve done?” and the emphatic answer is always, “No.”

Call is stubbornness or strength, this conviction is exactly what makes DeChristopher such a compelling and galvanizing character. Watching the film, I remembered again, for the first time in two years, how urgent the issue of climate change is. “If this guy is willing to take such a tangible risk,” I thought, “the least I can do is care.”

I wasn’t the only one wiping away tears at the end of Bidder 70, when DeChristopher is taken away in handcuffs and his supporters take to the streets outside the courthouse, handcuffed to each other and disrupting traffic in protest. For me, the tears came when I saw on older woman get arrested. Maybe in her late 50s, she’d said earlier in the movie that she had never let herself care this deeply about an issue. As she was cuffed, she had this proud, tearful but smiling expression, knowing that she was making an effort to put her ideals into action.

I sniffled and thought, This is what it looks like to care for something more deeply than the immediate consequences. And then: How many of us might never let ourselves feel that, for fear of going over the top?

So in conclusion, I’m still curious about this line between caring and caring too much, between having passion and falling in love with our own story. So far, I’m quite certain that the only way to puzzle this out is to walk that line ourselves.

In that same Coffetalk this morning, a filmmaker said, “You can’t be afraid to fail, because then you’ll never take risks.” And your film will be mediocre.

It’s a line of risk, this line between caring and caring too much. Today I’m reminded that the best each of us can do is to try to keep our balance along it. To care as much as we can, unafraid to fail, and look back to our communities, our mentors, our friends and collaborators for feedback and perspective, and when needed, a net for the occasional big fall.

* Photo of filmmaker panel courtesy the Mountainfilm facebook page.


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