Manfred Becker is a documentary filmmaker and editor based in Toronto. In addition to directing films for Here At Home, he serves as a consultant on the documentary project as a whole. He has provided a necessary critical perspective. What follows is excerpted from a longer interview I conducted with him earlier this month.
Have you had any difficulties finding people to participate in these films?
Because it’s a client-based study, it’s a client-based film project. Since the whole project is centred on the needs of the individual, nothing is done without the participants being completely on board. And things happen. People change their minds. I’ve had a couple of experiences where people were willing to participate and then one went to jail because he attacked his friend with a knife, the second one was diagnosed with blood cancer, and the third fell into a hole, mentally – so filming with that participant was out of the question. So you adjust and I’ve learned in this project to disconnect myself from the expectations I usually have on other productions – this is not the usual process. You’re dealing with situations that aren’t “normal.”
What are some of the other challenges you’ve faced with this project?
We’re trying to document a cross-section of this study, so we’ve made films about caseworkers and members of the Study Group (housed participants). But when we went out looking for people in the Control Group (un-housed participants) to film, we couldn’t find them. In a way that confirmed what the project is about, because when you house people, you know where to find them. It’s very pragmatic. It’s good for everyone, the participant and society at large because it means we can all communicate.
How does the length of the films affect your process?
It’s hard enough to tell somebody’s story in an hour but if you condense a life to three minutes, you have to make some very harsh choices and you don’t necessarily go for the most dramatic material, you go for the material that best represents that individual.
What’s it like turning the camera on people who have been, in a sense, “invisible?”
What blew my mind was our experience with (case-manager) Bouchra Ahrbach. We arranged with her to film six people and thought that, realistically, we might get one three-minute film out of the process. What ended up happening was that all six of the participants were present and all opened up and gave us incredible insights into what it meant to be homeless. Bouchra deserves the credit for that because those participants trust her and she told them they could trust us. Instead of one film, we ended up with five stories.
What were some of the insights the participants gave you that didn’t make it online?
One participant said, “I woke up this morning in tears because there was sadness but then I went to the store and bought a can of instant coffee and I gave the cashier money and she gave me the can and then I left the store and I was happy because nobody said anything about me or looked at my strangely. I just went shopping.” I was choking up just listening to that – how such a little everyday thing could be considered a victory and mean so much to a person living with the stigma of mental illness.
Becker began exploring mental health issues with his 2003 film, Life of Me. Born and raised in Germany, he moved to Canada in 1983 and went on to become a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker and editor. In 2006 he won the Donald Brittain Gemini Award for Fatherland. He teaches film and video at York University.