Controlling the Narrative

Controlling the Narrative

Last week a good friend, and academy nominated doc director, gave us some great notes on our rough cut. He had seen a somewhat earlier version of the film so it was great to hear his notes because we had already addressed about 80% of them.

At the same time, he asked a series of sharp questions about what we were trying to get across in certain scenes, especially near the end. In truth, we wanted to get across a lot of different things. However, as we have continued to tighten the narrative, we have increasingly realized that in order for the film to work we have to limit our narrative goals. Just a few minutes ago we took out a card that read, “The Atlantic Yards project would be the densest residential development in US history”. We want to get that information across but it doesn’t work with the emotional content of watching our main character as he tells us that he doesn’t really know what’s going on with the project. As we are making a movie that is less information based than character based we realized it works much better to just experience it that sense of unsteadiness with him.

A couple of hours ago, my 9 year old daughter was sitting with me as I looked as some of the changes Suki made today. We’ve been working on this film for almost her entire life, and for the past two years it’s up on our computers every day. She’s watched a lot of it, and she understands a lot of it. Even still, as she watches it she is constantly asking me, “is he on our side?” I try to explain that we try not to have a side, but clearly we do. Our main character is against the project, so if people watching it aren’t against the project, they aren’t going to be with our character.

We were looking at a press conference about the fact that project supporters were paid by the developer. We had also just seen a contentious hearing where supporters were chanting “Jobs jobs jobs.” My daughter asked me to pause the film because she had realized something. “It seems like it’s mostly.. um, like it’s mostly not white people who support the project. I mean it’s mostly African American people who want to get jobs and stuff.”

Her level of discomfort with this was clearly heightened by the fact that she goes to a school that is predominantly African American. She’s smart, so I was able to explain a lot of the complex issues at play in the scene, but on an emotional level it was upsetting to her. After I explained the basic idea that some people take money to support something, I began to explain the relationship between money, power, and public relations. Looking back we covered a lot of ground in five minutes (including the difference between communism and capitalism and how Prokhorov got his billions during a shift between the two forms of government).

I drew her a diagram about how information follows the path of least resistance and how overworked and underfunded reporters are going to take their information the simplest way they can get it. I said, “This is how the developer and the government control the narrative.” I then explained, that with this movie, we are going to control the narrative. This is the same reason we have elected not to put the dollar figure that Dan and Shabnam received as part of their settlement. We’ll tell the story in terms of how the situation affected our characters, and ultimately when all the money has washed away, their story will be the defining one. It’s true that history is written by the victors. In this case, Ratner and the government may have won the battle for control of the land. However, as the fiscal and blighting reality of this project start to come into sharper focus, the voice of the naysayers is being heard more clearly all the time.

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