Last night I saw Steve James’ documentary Stevie which is built around James’ idea of going back to find out how the boy he had been a Big Brother for 10 years earlier had turned out. The idea was to do a small, short film about it, but things didn’t turn out that way. During the course of filming Stevie Fielding is charged with a serious crime and everything gets much more complicated. James becomes part of the story as we watch the tensions in the family grow and see the difficult decisions that need to be made. It could have been a very exploitative film (such as Capturing the Friedmans), but James questions his own motives and implicates the audience in watching the difficult situations with no clear way forward. It’s a challenging film that isn’t judgemental about the subjects, but doesn’t avoid resposibility which is really what documentary filmmaking is all about.
The film was screening as part of the Atlantic Film Festival‘s Inspired series for emerging Atlantic Canadian Filmmakers, which meant that the directors were present for an interview with journalist Laurie Brown after the screening. It was a great interview and James’ provided more context and insight into the role of the documentarian and the relationship with the audience. The key thing that he talked about was how a documentarian has to “fight the tendency to sit back in easy judgement” of the people that you see on the screen. Steve James thinks that if filmmakers don’t wrestle with the issue of whether they are leeches on the subjects of their film then maybe they shouldn’t be making films. James has made a bold and powerful film that doesn’t give easy answers, but provides a compelling and difficult look into the lives of the people who surround Stevie Fielding.