Why does someone choose to be a filmmaker? For that matter, if you were going to be a filmmaker, why would anyone choose to be a documentarian? Next to foreign-language films in the United States, documentaries are the least profitable of the movie genres, unless you're Michael Moore, and, according to an article posted on Moore's own website on Oct. 2 from MacLean's, Moore himself is giving up documentaries.
Yet, director Michael Ivan Schwartz, who recently made the 69-minute documentary Happy SAHD, says he loves documentaries. When I asked him if he'd like to direct other kinds of movies, he said no. His favorite genre is documentaries and that's what he prefers to do. Because I'm just as interested in the process as much as the product, I was curious about Schwartz's passion for documentaries because I knew he couldn't be doing it for the money.
There are many filmmakers who restrict themselves to one genre. Woody Allen mainly does comedies. George Romero only does zombie movies. Michael Ivan Schwartz is a documentary kind of guy. It could just be that he's in love with nonfiction, like really, really in love with it. Maybe he's one of those people who likes reading history tomes. Maybe he takes to heart that Mark Twain quote, "Truth is stranger than fiction," or perhaps he has a Ken Burns complex.
It doesn't explain why Ken Burns does what he does; beyond an obsessive-compulsive need to video document every major event, place and person in American history to fill time for PBS. Who could possibly explain that? I may be wrong, but I do have a theory as to why non-Ken Burns people become documentarians. A little of it is evidenced in the answers to the questions I asked Schwartz about his road to documentary filmmaking.
Schwartz said his favorite program is This American Life. He told me that on a regular occasion he would host what he calls "Triple D." He has about 5 to 20 of his friends at his home to watch a documentary, or a documentary-like program, which This American Life was, eat dinner, and then have a discussion about it.
The 39-year-old said at first his attention was to advertising, especially those in print, such as magazines. He studied at the University of Delaware where he got his degree in Business Marketing. After graduating in 1992, he went to work at a nonprofit in Colorado for five years.
In Colorado, Schwartz said he mostly got experience fundraising, an important skill, if not vital, for all up-and-coming indie documentarians. He moved to Nashville where he worked for a publishing company for a year and a half.
He returned to Lewes, DE, desiring a sabbatical where he could mostly relax at the beach. He took up with a college roommate who ran a summer camp in the Lewes area. Schwartz used to produce videos for that camp during summer breaks in college. The videos were basically short documentaries, highlighting what the campers did in a week.
It had been something he did nearly a decade prior, as perhaps a fun source of income, but now doing it again post-grad and post some life experience, a fire had been sparked in Schwartz.
While still in Lewes, he met Bill Sammons Jr., the man who runs Watermark productions, a Delaware-based video company. Sammons became a mentor to Schwartz, hiring him for jobs and giving him valuable, hands-on experience with video equipment. With some training and a fire sparked, Schwartz decided to pursue documentaries.
And, when I say pursue, I mean it. A documentarian or even a WBOC news photographer typically will get a subject to stand or sit still for an interview, but a lot of the time making documentaries or doing reality or TV journalism is chasing after people, going wherever they go. Question is who to chase or who to pursue.
In an indirect way, Schwartz answered that when I was questioning him about his background. He knew who he wanted to pursue. Despite his degree, the people he would pursue wouldn't be for corporate reasons but more Christian ones. His Nashville publishing company did Christian-based youth magazines. The camp in Lewes was all to help young people. After Sammons had been the impetus for him to start his own video production company, it clicked in Schwartz that he wanted to do something to benefit young people.
In 2003, Schwartz went to Baltimore to help urban youth, those he thought he needed the most. In fact, he was a volunteer and now leader for Acts 4 Youth, a Baltimore-based organization that helps at-risk boys. On the Acts 4 Youth website, every page has that organization's mission statement attached, reading "motivate at risk boys toward character, competence and career development."
Motivating people, not just at-risk boys, seems to have translated to Schwartz's business. Loud Communications, LLC is the freelance, video production company that Schwartz started, which does projects for non-profits. His company has done videos for places as far away as Sri Lanka to places as close as Dover Air Force Base. First off, they're all non-profits like the Faith Consortium and Habitat for Humanity, organizations obviously that help others.
If ever there were an answer as to why people "choose" to be a documentarian, that would have to be it. Documentarians have a need, or perhaps a compulsion to help others. From a storyteller's perspective, helping others translates to informing people about problems or situations, raising awareness, so that the community, any community that sees it, will be motivated to do something about it.
As I look at the nominees for the 2010 Best Documentary Oscar, the documentarians in that category are ones trying to help others. Whether it's Buddhist monks in Burma, Latin migrants on a train or even Japanese dolphins in a cove, all the Oscar nominees want to help something or someone, or, at least enlighten viewers about controversial subjects that learning could either promote understanding and compassion or merely enrich lives.
A friend of Schwartz enlightened him about four years ago to a somewhat, controversial subject, that of Maryland stay-at-home dads. Simply called "Baltimore Dads," the group met once a week at someone's house or at a public place like the park or zoo. The group consisted of three or as many as a dozen men.
Being his first feature film, Schwartz thought it would be easy to join the Baltimore Dads for their weekly meet-ups. He began following these men, profiling and talking to them about their feelings and experiences as the primary caregivers of their children. Out of that, the documentary Happy SAHD evolved.
After shooting it himself, typically by himself, with a digital video camera, Schwartz edited the movie on his own Final Cut Pro system with the help of Dana Clark, a student at Goucher College. Clark was his intern but was also really instrumental in what ended up being a two-person production. When I asked Schwartz about the structure of this movie, he told me that he basically assembled it by way of answering questions, normal questions that might arise from the casual, outside observer.
The questions that arose in me were how and why. How are these Baltimore Dads, as SAHDs, and why did they ultimately decide to become SAHDs in the first place?
The increase of women in the workforce may be the largest and most obvious factor as to why. Schwartz said that for the couples in his documentary it was a very logical and rational decision. The couples merely saw that the dynamic between the two favored the women remaining employed. Therefore, papa didn't preach. He instead just changed pampers.
For the Baltimore Dads, I didn't get the impression that the men had been fired from their jobs. These men chose to stay at home. The couples wanted a parent there but found the women's incomes were the better of the two. Therefore, hello daddy daycare!
Schwartz also told me that Washington, D.C.has a large SAHD population. He mentioned similar groups in Philadelphia, San Francisco and even Delaware. He said there's even a national SAHD organization that meets annually in Omaha or other midwestern cities for conventions.
The U.S. Census says a stay-at-home dad is a married father with children younger than 15 who has remained out of the labor force for at least one year. According to the Census data though, there are currently 140,000 stay-at-home dads in this country. There are 304 million people in the United States. Therefore, the number of SAHDS is less than half of one percent. A SAHD does so primarily to care for the children while his wife works outside the household, making her the breadwinner.
Schwartz, of course, addresses the prejudice that SAHDs aren't as good with childcare as women. Men in general are discriminated in this area. The myth that men can't be good caregivers is put to the test.
Imagining how a SAHD would be, one might conjure up images of what Arnold Schwarzenegger called a "girly man," a guy who is slightly if not totally in touch with his feminine side. However, Schwartz told me that while the Baltimore Dads are in touch with their feminine side, they aren't or don't experience a complete role reversal when it comes to what we have traditionally expected from the genders.
Schwartz said some of the men thought being a SAHD would merely be hanging out with their kids, as glorified babysitters, but not. If anything, the Baltimore Dads learned that being a stay-at-home parent is a tough, full-time job. By the end, the guys developed an appreciation for what traditional moms go through.
It's something Schwartz hopes that anyone who sees his movie develops, an appreciation so that one day there might be true gender equality, or just an appreciation for what other people who aren't like you go through. I got that sense from talking to Schwartz that he's genuinely interested and cares about other people and what they go through, what they "really" go through. I don't think it's possible to be a documentarian and not be interested in such.
Also on the Web: www.loudvideo.com/about/index.html