A Matter of Listening: A conversation with Magnetic North filmmaker Marla Williams
The Alaska Humanities Forum has partnered with Rasmuson Foundation to produce Magnetic North, a documentary film series exploring the unique stories of living Alaskans who shaped the history of a young state steeped in “Last Frontier” folklore, where truth often eclipses legend.
The film series is being written and directed by Marla Williams, a veteran writer and filmmaker with more than 30 years of experience working in urban and rural Alaska.
Williams is the writer/director/producer of broadcast, corporate and government documentaries, including the critically acclaimed Aleut Story, an Alaska-based feature length program airing on PBS stations nationwide.
Her commercial and documentary work has aired on major television networks and been syndicated for international distribution. She also writes for print and online publications.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
DH: What do you see as being the greatest similarities and differences between filmmaking and writing? For you, where do the two forms converge, and where do they differ, in terms of pure storytelling?
MW: That’s an important question because a big part of how a story is received comes down to how it’s being told. It’s the first question I ask myself whenever considering a project.
The medium – along with a myriad of other considerations such as budget, deadlines, and access – does influence the narrative. Using the attributes to the advantage of a story is key. Sometimes print offers the ability to go into greater depth, provide more nuanced context important to understanding a story. Other times, a documentary film’s visuals, sound and music do a better job capturing essential qualities of the story.
The logistics, the physical footprints, the personal dynamics are very different and so must be differently managed. For example, as a print reporter I show up with a pen and maybe a micro-recorder. At some point, a photojournalist joins me on the project. As a filmmaker, I arrive with a crew and all kinds of gear. Documentary filmmaking simply requires more patience and tolerance by everyone involved.
Regardless of medium, my goal is the same: to amplify or give voice to others so the rest of us, that’s me, you, all the viewers and readers, might learn something, be challenged, be inspired, be entertained – and, above all, develop and maintain empathy crucial to a shared sense of humanity and a civil society.
DH: Every film, or documentary series, or magazine feature, has a “story behind the story.” What is the story behind Aleut Story?
MW: Aleut Story began with a question. I was originally hired to produce a short film documenting the restoration of six Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska. During preparing for filming, I learned a federally-funded trust was paying for the extensive repair work. So, I asked, “How is that federal monies are being used to repair these particular churches?”
I expected an answer crammed with information about important and historical architectural details. Instead, I was told the little-known story of Aleut American citizens being rounded up during World War II and confined in camps in Southeast Alaska. When I heard the story, it instantly resonated with me as nationally significant. Five years later, again with support from the Rasmuson Foundation and other generous donors, Aleut Story premiered on PBS. The film remains in distribution on public television and can also be rented or purchased on Amazon.
DH: How important is it for you as a storyteller to give the story room to evolve beyond your (or your editor or funder’s) initial conception?
MW: All stories evolve – if only in the way we understand them. As a journalist and a documentary filmmaker, I try to stay out of the way of the story and focus on keeping up. Events unfold, character reveals itself, intentions and consequences are exposed, facts get checked. I plot storylines by scribbling what I think I know on one color of Sticky Notes, and then plastering those with bright squares of questions written in bold Sharpie. If I had a penny for every Sticky Note…
Also, I don’t try to be the most interesting person in the room. I’m not the story. I tag along with the person I’m interviewing, and try to respond to what they’re saying or doing. I do a lot of research but don’t come with a lot of prepared questions. I often start interviews with, “So, what do you know?” or “Tell me about yourself.” That’s it. Then I wait. Then I listen.
It’s really a matter of listening.
DH: In that process of waiting, and listening, in the making of the films of Magnetic North, what are a couple of things you’ve learned about your subjects that might not be highlighted in the final films?
MW: Well, Clem Tillion makes a mean martini, Nathan Jackson makes an equally fine venison stew, and there’s a fabulous, 1942 photo of Roy Madsen, stark naked showering topside on a Navy ship, that I really wanted to include in the film about him but didn’t.
Bottom line is, I don’t really try to make films about people as much as I try to make films with people. Establishing trust is essential. I’m asking them to let me into their lives. I eat at their table, I may even sleep in their home if location demands. I attend church services with them, visit the graves of loved ones, poke around in their memories, question whether they have regrets. All this with at least one camera rolling.
Three of the Magnetic North films have been completed, and the others are currently in different stages of production. Once the full series is complete, it will be available on Alaska Public Media and online; DVD sets will be provided for schools, museums, and other cultural organizations statewide. Learn more about Magnetic North.