Chain Camera

In 2001, a former professor of mine, Kirby Dick, directed a documentary called Chain Camera. In the film he and his producers provided a number of high school students at John Marshall High School (in Los Angeles) cameras and told them to film whatever they wanted. The footage they got back was truly remarkable. The students were not afraid to film their most intimate and vulnerable moments, including discussions about sexuality, fears about their neglectful parents or dreams for the future, often unusual or even shocking (one girl confidently tells the camera that she wants to grow up to become a stripper, for example). One gets the sense that these kids were using the camera as a therapeutic device, telling it things that they would not tell adults, their friends or their parents. What led them to feel free to reveal these often embarrassing or potentially shameful things to complete strangers? Why didn’t they fear the judgment of the group? Being teenagers, they may not have completely thought through what they were participating in. They may not have imagined a large group of strangers sitting in a darkened theater or in front of their screens, listening and watching these most intimate confessions. But over and over again, it seems that this phenomenon persists, in which the camera is viewed as a friend, a confidant; the space in front of the lens is treated as a safe space, with only the best of humanity on the other side.

I have seen this effect many times in my yearly trek to the Sundance Film Festival, watching documentary premiers, often about incredibly difficult subjects, and seeing audiences respond to the emotion, the pain, the joy and the honesty as subjects open up and reveal their most intimate thoughts and feelings.


– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Summer of 2018 by Wipf & Stock