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Pen to Paper: Illustrating History

Cultural critic Caryn James discusses narrative features depicting real-life characters with filmmakers who have taken the plunge in TFF 2010 films My Queen Karo and sex & drugs & rock & roll.

sex & drugs & rock & roll director Mat Whitecross


As part of their free Tribeca Talks: Pen to Paper series, Barnes and Noble hosted a panel on the biopic. The very un-Hollywood panel proved thoroughly refreshing as three phenomenal artists who break the mold spoke about adapting stories about real people for narrative and documentary films. Cultural critic Caryn James (Marie Claire, The Daily Beast) spoke with writer Paul Viragh, director Mat Whitecross, and director/writer Dorothée Van Den Berghe, who all shared how they gave first-person narratives story arcs, plot points and a through line where ones might not organically exist.


The congenial panelists stressed the writer and director's duty to know, most importantly, why they are telling the story. The audience, most of whom were budding writers and directors and students of film, took note as sex & drugs & rock & roll writer Viragh cheered them on, saying, "You have to be brave about it." 


His empathy extended to his subjects, as Viragh stressed how confusing it may be for those being depicted on screen "to see the most difficult part of [their] life portrayed." In writing about the often unlikable, drug-addicted, trailblazing punk rocker Ian Dury, Viragh said he "tried really hard to get to the truth, whether it was in chronological order or not." He explained that as a filmmaker, you don't have the luxury of real time to tell the story, as it could take years. In film, you have an hour or two. 


The need for compassion was even more pertinent when your subjects may still be suffering. Whitecross, who directed sex & drugs & rock & roll, also directed The Road to Guantanamo, and said that film had led him while he was filming to live with the three British citizens who had been detained. Whitecross stressed that that you have to strike a balance or risk compromising your film. "On the one hand, you have got to be respectful, and on the other hand, you have a duty to your audience." 


My Queen Caro
My Queen Karo


Toeing the line when filming the life of an outsider is one thing, but the Dutch Van Den Berghe, who wrote and directed My Queen Karo, applied this very principle to her own life. She made a film about her parents separating and her father's freewheeling romantic liaisons with other women in a wall-less commune in Amsterdam during the 70s. In her brutally honest, objective portrait of herself as a young child, Van Den Berghe found the universal elements of her own reactions at the time, and insightfully noted that all "children are a bit right wingy."


One way to create perspective, Viragh—a venerable stage actor for 18 years—suggested was to look at each characteristic involved in devising a story as a "character," be it the setting, era, or persons involved. "As an actor, I try to get inside the characters, and I think every element is a character.... The 70s is kind of a character now." Viragh also pointed out that if you are making a film, knowing your audience is crucial, which means that even if the film is about the past, the underlying question is, "What does the story say about today?"


Whitecross spoke candidly about the enormous cultural challenges a documentarian faces, some of which aren't solvable. He used an example of a film he did about Burmese refugees where they had never seen cameras, for obvious socio-economic reasons. "I could explain to them what I'm doing, but they didn't really know what it meant."


sex & drugs & rock & roll
sex & drugs & rock & roll


There were silver linings. When asked by an attendee about her parents’ reactions to the film, Van Den Berghe said her father was fiercely proud of his characterization, no matter how flawed he might have come across to audiences. After the film, her parents even spoke on the phone for the first time in decades. Van Den Berghe quipped, "Film turned out to be a very expensive way to bring my parents together."


As the audience lingered, Whitecross, Viragh and Van Den Berghe stayed afterword to answer individual questions, as did James, who is also a screenwriter. Reflecting on the panel, James said, "They really do recreate the genre, and were so articulate as speakers, which you are not always lucky to get, so the panel was truly illuminating." Onscreen and off, Whitecross, Viragh, and Van Den Berghe prove that you don't have to lose your moral compass when creating unsparing, honest depictions of people, dead or alive, thorns and all.


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