Filmmaker Norah Shapiro on Her Upcoming Film MAGIC AND MONSTERS and the Importance of Ethics in Documentaries - Part I

Filmmaker Norah Shapiro on Her Upcoming Film MAGIC AND MONSTERS and the Importance of Ethics in Documentaries - Part I
Norah Shapiro is the Director & Producer of  TIME FOR ILHAN
Written by GOOD DOCS intern Kristina Vazquez

GOOD DOCS: Tell me a little about your background and what motivates you to make films.

Shapiro: In my previous incarnation or career, I worked as a public defender. I was an indigent criminal defense trial attorney. After a chunk of time doing that and being a young mom, I decided that I needed something different and something more, but I still was very drawn to the things that drew me to that work in the first place. And somehow or other, I ended up finding my way into the realm of documentary filmmaking. And I would say that there as a commonality between the things that drew me to that previous work and this work. While not exclusively, I have tended to be particularly committed to making films that promote social justice, or that ask questions about either social justice or miscarriages of justice, or challenge perceptions in the countervailing culture. And I think the same thing that motivated me to be a public defender has motivated me to be a documentary filmmaker as well. Which is not to say that those are the only kinds of documentary films that one can make. There can be entertaining, funny, delightful, all kinds of documentary films, but those have been the ones that I have tended
thus far to engage in.

GOOD DOCS: Okay, so what is your current film about and what drew you to this project.

Shapiro: My current film that is now in post-production is called Magic and Monsters. It's a film that uncovers the long buried story of widespread sexual abuse at America's preeminent children's theater. That's in the past. Flash forward many years, decades, there was legal reform. Minnesota was on the very front end of this. Many more states have come to do it. Many more are yet to do it. But a statute of limitations window opened up allowing the new fresh opportunity for long dormant harms to come back into the legal system. A group of former students, now many in their 50s, decided to pursue this opportunity for litigation. Through that group of people, they went through both litigating these past harms, but they also went further after the litigation was over in trying to accomplish some of the healing and some of the restorative things that the legal process alone wasn't able to provide. And I was given the opportunity to follow this, looking backward and unearthing a history that had pretty much been brushed under the carpet, but also to follow in real time this group of survivors doing something very brave and then going off book and doing something that there was no map for.

GOOD DOCS: Great, that's fantastic. So what do you plan to do with Magic and Monsters? Who do you wanna see it? And what do you hope happens for audiences?

Shapiro: First, let me back up and say one thing that I didn't say. While it is of course true that all those specifics are what this particular film is about, and I think the best films offer a nice balance, both of a very specific, particular, unique story, but also that have larger universal messages and things that relate more broadly. And I guess I would say the broader question in the film, and this relates to your follow-up question, is when institutions are confronted with wrongdoing in their past, how ought they to proceed? How can they proceed differently than perhaps they might have knowing what we know now, now that we're in the post-MeToo era, knowing all the things that we have come to learn about trauma, knowing all of the things that we've come to learn about, the damage when stories of trauma and harm are hidden, and the damage that comes from that. And then, the healing that can happen depending on how it gets handled once it comes out. So that's more broadly what this film is about. And to answer your next question, what do we want to have happen with it? We believe that this film has huge potential to inspire change and have a positive impact on its audiences. And those audiences we believe include survivors of childhood abuse. Sadly, those numbers are astronomic. The statistics are horrific about the numbers of people, men and women who've gone through childhood abuse.

But beyond just speaking to those people, we hope and believe that it can speak to parents, parents of children, to empower them. We believe it can speak to people running institutions about how these kinds of things happen, how to prevent them and how to handle them when things surface. We also think it has a huge role to play in this movement to reform statutes of limitations, to allow people who have suffered past wrongdoing to pursue justice later, decades potentially later. It used to be that statutes of limitations just simply couldn't end to that and if you didn't bring actions by a certain time long before what we now know is when most people who've gone through that are prepared and able and ready to do so. But that's changing and we think the film can have a big role in that movement as well. We also have a very ambitious social impact plan in mind for the film.

We already have on board a number of some of the preeminent organizations and folks working nationally on these issues. And the idea is to team with the people who are experts in the field already doing the work. And the film can then ideally be another tool in their toolkit. We also plan to include the survivor subjects in our film as part of that process, to the extent that they want to be involved in that. And some of those organizations operate at the national level. Some of them operate more locally, some are more focused on direct work with survivors, some are focused more with legal reform. It's a whole broad array and that we continue to add to because the idea is to get the film out to the audiences and into the hands of the folks doing the work.

GOOD DOCS: Great. Okay, so next, can you talk about the current big issues around filmmaking in regards to ethics?

Shapiro: I think one that's been out there for quite a while now, although it is a relatively newer one, but it's been out for a bit, is the question of who is telling whose stories. What filmmaker is telling whose story and what their connection to that story is. Another more specific question or discussion that we're having today about trauma-informed practice in documentary is related. And I think that is a newer one that happily is coming more to the forefront. We began this film in 2019, and there's been, while maybe explosion is going too far, there's been a lot more attention paid to this subject by some extraordinary people in the field. There's even been a film that has come out that I highly recommend to anybody interested in this topic, it's called Subject. And some of the doc industry leaders who come to my mind dealing with this specific issue of how subjects in films are treated and how early their wellbeing is centered in the process include thinkers like Natalie Bullock Brown, Sonia Childress, and Patricia Aufterheide. Also, an actual psychologist who has delved into this work - and she is featured in the film Subject – is Dr. Kamila Mumin Rashad. And then there's a group called DAWG (as the acronym), the Documentary Accountability Working Group that has done a ton of work around these issues. But again, this question about who gets to tell the story?

The true crime genre that remains very popular, there is an important question about when the subjects of films have been through trauma, at the heart of the story that you're telling, rather than just an extractive process and a hierarchical process, what do you as a filmmaker need to do? What does it look like to center the wellbeing of those subjects and not further traumatize them through the process of making your film? So I would say that's probably one of the biggest current ethical issues at hand.

I think another one, which we don't have to talk about today, it could be a whole other conversation, the ethics of who's getting even to make documentaries these days and are there resources for them? There's been a lot kind of established now about what the sort of ideal things that one should do are. But what isn't clear is how that gets funded for people who are out there, especially folks doing indie docs without major distribution or major assets or resources. How do you also follow these trauma informed processes? And I think that's something that the field still has to really contend with.

GOOD DOCS: How are you creating ethical documentaries and how could others learn from you or others who are reimagining the craft documentary filmmaking?

Shapiro: I think everybody has to approach it from their own individual situation. In our case, we recognized from the get-go, in part informed by the experience of one of my producers who had spent a year reporting an earlier version of the story for a print piece and what she herself personally went through and how difficult that was and how fraught this was and also my awareness of these larger issues in filmmaking, that we needed some help from the beginning. And what we did is we sought out a remarkable resource for people to know about called the DART Center. And the DART Center is, a project of Columbia University journalism's program. And it specifically deals with this whole question of the way media makers approach trauma in their media making. I did some research and learned that they worked with media makers ranging huge outfits, like the Wall Street Journal newsroom to tiny little podcast teams and were open to doing a customized training with us. And we did that and our entire team, our crew, everybody participated. And it was so amazing on so many levels. Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the program, is interviewed in the film itself because he has such a nuanced, empathetic, and really informed understanding of trauma and storytelling in our project that way.

We've referred to that training as our North Star. We've gone back to it again and again. Anyone new that's joined the team, we've provided the recording of it. And one of the things I want to add, one of the things it dealt with, as much as it dealt with how we approach our subjects and what trauma looks like and how they might be experiencing our process and how we had to be aware of that. It also addressed the needs of our crew and our team in dealing with such a heavy and trauma infused project. And I will say that I was not fully appreciative on the front end of how much, I guess you could call it secondary trauma could affect the wellbeing and the mental health of the filmmaking team as well as our impact on our subjects. So that was a crucial step in our process. I cannot imagine having undertaken this project without having done that. It's the best thing we ever did. Some things you can't fully be prepared for, but it sort of set us up with an approach, a value system, a resetting process to go back to whenever there was difficulty. And one of the things I would note as a huge example had to do with communication. Ongoing communication, the way communication works. And that led to a very different process on this film than I've engaged with previously. I would say that it's more complicated in some ways. It's harder, it's a little scarier, it's riskier. And what that is, is sharing more back and forth along the way. rather than maintaining these strict walls of, you're the subject, we're the filmmakers, we're completely independent, you'll get to see it when it's done, and that's your place, and this is our place. There's been a much more of a give and take along the way, which is tricky. It's not easy. It's hard. It's hard for everybody. But I do think ultimately I think it ends up in a better film. Hopefully, it'll end up in a process where we don't have people feeling the way you hear some people in the film Subject talking about their experience afterwards.

GOOD DOCS: Tell me more about your trauma informed subject center approach and how it is integrated into your process from pre-production to post.

Shapiro: As I mentioned, we did a very intentional, mindful consultation about this before we even started. And that involved taking into account everything from how you communicate about the interview, allowing people, inviting subjects to have support people with them, making it very clear that people had the opportunity to not answer things, stop an interview, et cetera, et cetera. Giving people an opportunity to talk a lot longer than perhaps one might when you're just looking to get a particular answer in a particular news bite.

Following up with people afterwards. How are you feeling? How did that go for you? Continued communication has been a huge piece of it. Also, constant debriefing with our team. Some of these shoots, especially early on, were really heavy and really hard, really painful. Different people have different thresholds. With that, we asked what do you need? Do you need to take breaks? Talked about exercise, sleep, all kinds of things on the part of the film team. And that is not something that I've done on past projects. being present and available. But I would also say trying to walk a really fine line about reminding people that you're not their therapist. This ultimately is an independent film. So that's a tricky line to walk. But I do think all of those things are part of this. One of my subjects in this project, said and has said repeatedly, it's about proceeding at the speed of trust and being comfortable with that and letting people know that if something didn't sit well with them, they have a chance to come back and talk about it again. I think she’s really right. There's limits to a certain extent with that, but as much as possible, that's been part of the process. The other thing is we have had really rigorous fact-checking and journalistic rigor in our process along the way. Also, always going back to that as part of our process and being as well read and well versed as possible. This is a really complicated story with lots and lots of players and lots of unresolved feelings and perspectives. And so it has also involved really immersing ourselves in the history and the archives and talking to many, many, many people, whether or not they end up in the film itself. And being very open about that with everybody along the way.



Considering a Trauma-Informed Process in Documentary Filmmaking | Independent Documentary Association
Ethics and Accountability: A View from the U.S.A | POV Magazaine
Documentary Accountability Resources | Documentary Accountability Working Group

Bring TIME FOR ILHAN to your campus and community.