Who’s Really Watching?


I started my filmmaking journey on the “purely” creative side, co-making a feature documentary that played in festivals, had a theatrical run, etc. Ostensibly, when we’re making art, we’re reaching deep inside somewhere, mixing a bit of ourselves into a stew of the outside world, and making something that is both simultaneously aware and unaware of being watched. There are supposed to be concessions to the presence of an audience, but also an indifference to whether they will “like” it or “enjoy” it, but rather an intention to bring something wholly new to the world and let the world make of it as it will. This is never really how it works, of course, most of the great artists were alternately obsessed with and furious at popular acceptance. But rare is the artist who views this vanity as a noble impulse. 

While making “Girls Rock!”, however, we made some conscious decisions about how we wanted to reach an audience and what we wanted them to feel, decisions that shaped the movie that eventually emerged.  One of the biggest forks in the road occurred when we stumbled upon large tensions behind the scenes of the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls. W did a little more investigating, even interviewing a key staff member about what was going on, but ultimately, decided to stay laser-focused on the experience of the girls at the camp. The other story, of a nonprofit with schisms and adults treating each other badly, wasn’t where our interests lay. The girls were still having the same experience at the camp, and were completely unaware of what the adults were up to. So their unique story was still laying there to be picked up. I often think back to that moment...how did we know we were still creating a work of art and not a promotional film for the camp? What is a story, anyway, is it always everything?

And now, as filmmakers who often do this work for hire, and for  very specific purposes (fundraising, call to action, education, promotion, etc) we think a lot about intention, audience, outcome, conversation. Every video we make is meant to elicit a specific emotional state, and/or educate. When a client comes to us, they don’t usually say, “Look, our organization might be great or it might be terrible, but please find the truth and make a video for us, wherever it leads you.” And when clients have asked for work like that in the past, primarily through the nonprofit evaluation firm See Change (brainchild of Melanie Moore, who’s now running much of the Golden State Warriors’ philanthropic work), inevitably they realized that what they really wanted was a promotional film, not an evaluational one. While they would receive written reports from See Change that were fully textured and even critical, video felt somehow too dangerous for this intention.

Is there a happy place between these two poles? A place where there’s a powerful truth at the heart of a story, but it’s also a story that’s shaped by context, subjectivity, utility. We ask these questions all the time at Mission Pictures. Can truth have a guiding hand? Are we just eyes in the middle of an endless landscape, or are we endlessly shaping that landscape to suit our sense of reality? When VR hit the scene, many friends asked “Are you making VR movies now? Is this the end of your business?” As if we were in a perilous industry that was going to be swamped by vast choice and autonomy. But isn’t the whole reason we watch movies to be guided, to see through someone else’s eyes, to skip the boring parts to get to a deeper truth? Certainly the book has been threatened with death by the internet many times, but in the end it was technology (E-ink, etc) that bent itself to try and mimic the book: The selective, curated, lyrical pursuit of stories in a container that has its own elegant limitations.


Arne Johnson