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Wrestling Heavy Issues Without Getting Weighed Down

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We are now in the midst of POV’s twenty-first season, which means four months of daring, moving, illuminating and, in some cases, harrowing films. This year, for example, the PBS series, which features fourteen to sixteen independent documentary films every summer to fall, will include Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North by Katrina Browne. The film is an account of Browne and her relatives tracing their family history back to the slave trade, and finding that they were the biggest slave trading family in the North.

In making the film, Browne underwent a complete change of perspective. “I was shocked, but realized immediately that I already knew about my family’s role in the slave trade, but had somehow buried it,” she said in a statement for POV. “So the bigger shock was what I was now discovering: my amnesia [italics hers].”

Browne’s is a situation where a change in perspective is crucial not only to the film but to the cause. “ … [W]hile in seminary, I wrote a master’s thesis on Aristotle’s theories on the power of Greek tragedies to create empathy and emotional catharses that can lead citizens to better judgment on civic and political affairs,” she said. “Having worked in Washington, this resonated with my growing sense that internal transformation is as important as external transformation.” Such is the case for most political and human rights related films—making them is a learning process—but in the meantime it’s important not to let the subject matter overwhelm you and take over your life. Reverend Ginny Dempsey of Briarcliff Baptist Church in Atlanta says that in any career, forgetting to nurture a personal life is common. “Many times people make the mistake of allowing their career to become their personal life,” she says. “It is easy to blur the boundaries between the two and to work more and allow time for friends, family, fun, etc. less.”

Browne found solace by simply including her family in the film. “I told my family members that we should all be prepared to make mistakes, to embarrass ourselves as we felt, and perhaps fumbled our way through the treacherous landscape of slavery, race, and class,” she said. “We’re human, and I wanted to humanize our attempts to get things right.”

As another way of coping, Reverend Dempsey recommends making time for yourself. “Make sure you have a day off every week where you can set aside work things and issues and concentrate on your life and issues and what makes you happy,” she says. “Try as best as possible to create a ritual that helps you leave work behind for that day of the week—whether it is leaving a briefcase at the door, turning off a pager or cell phone, or symbolically lighting a candle or touching a tree or some other signal to your mind and body that this day and time is for you.”

Dr. Kaslow calls this self-care. “There’s no one right thing to do,” she says. “Different people find different activities to be helpful. You have to find out what works for you.”

Randy Vasquez, whose film Something’s Moving was featured in the Media That Matters Film Festival, copes with the emotional affects that making his film has had on him through physical exertion, such as long walks and other exercise. “It’s also called on me to be really honest with myself and with other people,” he said. He says that his next step is to find a good therapist.

Kaslow differentiates between adaptive ways of coping, and those that are “not so adaptive.” The former include meditation, yoga, and other activities to take your mind off of work. “Exercise is super-adaptive,” she says. “So are spending time with people that you’re connected to; activities like going to the movies and sports; distracting, personally meaningful conversations, and pampering yourself.” Some of the maladaptive behaviors to look out for include drinking excessively, overeating, and violent behavior towards your partner or children.

Although Kaslow says that talking it out is helpful for some people but not necessarily everyone, Reverend Dempsey still recommends talking to someone, whether it’s a close friend or a counselor outside of your work environment. “Be open and honest with him/her and subsequently with yourself,” she says. “If there is a problem you cannot handle, discuss it together … [M]ake sure the other individual keeps everything confidential, but knowing you have someone outside of your particular situation who can help you gain perspective or just allow you to vent your frustrations is a wonderful gift and benefit.”

But perhaps the most important thing for filmmakers to do to keep their wits about them is to keep their cause in mind. According to an article by Christopher Michaelson in the Journal of Business Ethics, “ … avoiding the deathbed regret for a more meaningful life could be at least partially be addressed through more meaningful work—that is, a belief about one’s work that it is integral to a life well lived.”

Filmmaker James Moll, who made the POV film Inheritance, agrees. “It’s an occupational hazard,” he said. “But I keep going back for more. These are the subjects that I find most interesting and compelling and most valuable. It’s personally rewarding to do things that have meaning and significance.” Moll has worked on various human rights related films from the one he is currently working on, which is about the Iraq War to The Last Days, which is about the Holocaust.

On the other hand, the intensity of Vasquez’s film’s subject matter has at times made him question whether he can continue with the project. “Sometimes it gives me a lot of doubt about whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” he said. “But hopefully I’ll make a film that makes people pause about Native American history in this country.”

Although it’s important for filmmakers to engage with their subject matter, allowing that emotional response to seep into the rest of their lives can be draining. Some ways of coping with that are through hobbies, taking time to nurture relationships with family and friends, and especially talking it out with people. For those who don’t have anyone that they feel comfortable talking with about how they feel, there are also numerous anonymous support groups online, such as DailyStrength, MDJunction, and PsychCentral’s Neurotalk section.

By Kathryn Robertson


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