Visual storytelling – that essential ingredient of documentaries – shows you what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. That’s why visual storytelling is so powerful, it incorporates the filmmaker’s golden rule – show, don’t tell.
Documentaries that focus on people make more of an impact when they rely on visual storytelling. As they open a window into someone’s life, as we learn about the people and their challenges, we learn something about ourselves, too.
Visual storytelling invites us into the frame and gives us the space to add something of ourselves to the story – we observe and draw our own conclusions.
Good storytelling makes us want to find out what’s going to happen next. If we see people grapple with their challenges and the filmmaker shows them in a sympathetic light, their humanity shines through. We root for them as they try to overcome their difficulties.
Recently, I’ve been viewing some of the documentaries featured on the New York Times website. I’d like to share one – it’s beautifully crafted and infused with grace, a quiet dignity and some very touching moments. The 11-minute video finds Mary Singleton and her son George at one of life’s critical junctures.
The video also shows how capturing moments and creating scenes are fundamental to visual storytelling. You can read my previous post about capturing moments here.
Award-winning filmmaker Stephen Maing made this video almost singlehandedly, serving as producer, director, cinematographer and editor. From his website:
His filmmaking merges an interest in underrepresented individuals and communities, and the evolving considerations of identity, visual language and narrative structure.
His video, The Cancer Divide: Mary’s Story, grew out of a NYT article about race and access to medical care and treatment. Stephen Maing uses visual storytelling to create an intimate portrait of a mother and her son. In it, we see the strong bonds of their relationship, her courage, acceptance and effort to make the most of the time she has left.
I like what Stephen Maing calls his “intimate observational style.” As a filmmaker, he pursues it with a quiet confidence and steely resolve that enables him to capture moments that reveal character and drive the story.
I’ve never met Stephen but there are a few things I can see from this piece. He’s very good at the technical stuff, with an excellent eye for composition. As the piece opens and we see Mary getting her hair cut, the visual framing and editing draw us in by raising questions: where are we, who is this woman, why is she having her hair cut so short? As the scene progresses, in a very economical way it tells us so much about who she is, what she’s facing, her internal resources and economic circumstances. We learn a little about her son George, too.
Visually, we first see things close up. As Mary has her hair trimmed the camera holds on each shot. There’s a light moment when the razor tickles her and she laughs.
Then we hear her thoughts as she describes what she’s facing:
“The initial fear is that this is it… this is what’s going to take me out. You’re trying to process this whole idea that you’re going to die.”
We hear these words over a slow, gentle pan from her face up to her son’s hands as he gives her a buzz cut. The scene ends as it holds on a wide shot.
This wider view reveals she’s in her kitchen and then we have a few moments to absorb what we’ve seen and heard as the shot fades into the title. It’s a warm, intimate scene as Mary laughs and her son responds. The visuals with that playful exchange serve to counterpoint her seemingly grim words. The two juxtaposed together show us that we’re hearing from a strong woman, someone who understands her plight and seems ready to face it head on.
Steven Maing likes to frame his lens on a face and hold it there. It’s very effective, especially in a video that is so interior – meaning more about Mary and George’s thoughts than actions. The result is you get to hang out with each person and be there as their feelings float to the surface. So much is revealed in that quiet, steady frame and the gentle pacing lets you absorb their thoughts.
There’s a shot early in the piece after George comes into the kitchen and we see his mom sitting at the table with family. We hear Mary relating how she learned of her diagnosis. When the filmmaker wants to show us George’s reaction the camera stays on his face, even as he almost moves out of frame. The camera holds steady, then gently drifts to catch George’s sad profile. The quiet little pauses enhance the visual stillness. Together, they evolve into a meditation of quiet grace that helps us feel at one with George and Mary.
Watching the documentary, though, we’re not that aware of the camera work or editing. Everything is unobtrusive and moves the story along without calling attention to itself. Stephen Maing helps us become comfortable with silences, those almost motionless moments where time seems to hold its breath.
About eight minutes into the piece, we hear Mary’s voice from the Sunday school class trail over a scene of George in the car. George continues his thoughts, starting with “I don’t know how I can survive without her…” Again, the camera holds on his face and stays there even as Mary continues the dialogue.
In my years editing documentaries I’ve known very few cinematographers who would stay on a face as long. But they miss an opportunity, because the stillness gives us time to see feelings drift to the surface… things develop and evolve… offering a more sensual path to visual storytelling.
Something else I noticed – Stephen Maing succeeds in making himself invisible. He seems to fade into the woodwork, letting George and Mary forget about the camera and go on with their lives. Maing’s ability to blend in and his sensitive touch make his work all the more powerful.
In just eleven minutes it feels like we’ve traveled a great distance with George and Mary. We’ve been a witness to what they’re facing and how they’re responding to illness and loss. This video is really an emotional portrait of the two of them. You may have noticed that there are very few facts mentioned in the piece, still we spend enough time to feel at one with them. We’ve also gained some wisdom – Mary’s wisdom really – and a new perspective on something so fundamental to the human condition.
“Life is like a vapor and it don’t last long, so I really don’t have a whole lot of time… in between now and that moment, what is most important for me to be doing? In a way, knowing is a blessing… because you get to say all your good-byes.”
Kudos to Stephen Maing for giving us such a lyrical reflection on Mary’s strength and resolve as she comes to term with her dwindling days. Kudos also to the New York Times for reminding us about the power of thoughtful journalism and for trusting a visual storyteller to bring us their story.
So what are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know.
It’s comforting to be sharing this vapor with you Dan. Hope we can get together soon.