Recording Truth: Filmmaker Deborah Scranton
Photo by John Hession
Nine generations - that's how long Deborah Scranton's family has lived in New Hampshire, all in the tiny town of Goshen. She left after college, as young people do, to pursue her life work in distant places. With a degree in semiotics (the study of how meaning is constructed and understood) in hand, she began a career in journalism, freelancing for ESPN, CBS Sports and other top media outlets. She covered world-class events like the Tour de France and the Winter Olympics.
In 2006 Scranton made her feature film directorial debut with the award-winning documentary, "The War Tapes." As a director, she pioneered a new approach to filmmaking, a "virtual embed" process where she gave video cameras to combat soldiers in Iraq and worked with them over the Internet so they could film their experiences themselves. It was remarkable enough to be short-listed for an Academy Award. Her latest work is "Earth Made of Glass," a political thriller set in post-genocide Rwanda and France. It premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and this spring won a prestigious Peabody Award. Today she's once again living in Goshen.
As my parents, John and Lillian Scranton, tell it, since I was five years old I've always gone up to people and said, "Hi, my name is Deborah. Who are you?" Besides, the line for investment banking or law school was too long.
What is the role of story in societies?
A society expresses itself through its stories. Stories provide a structural framework through which to view ourselves and by extension our place in the world. Hopefully our self-identity then folds back into what we choose to do as part of our society.
Has technology made it easier to tell a story?
Not necessarily. Sitting around a campfire is still a pretty good way to do it.
Your work, so far, has focused on war. Why?
To record the truth, to document the struggles of humanity in the same intimate space that the film's subjects inhabit, and with this, to wake people up and stir them to action. And, as one New Hampshire soldier said before being deployed, "Please, don't let us die anonymous."
You majored in semiotics in college. Does it (and is there a way to explain what it is in a simple way) inform your work?
Semiotics is defined as the study of the theory of meaning, how meaning is constructed and interpreted. Semiotics certainly helped justify why I deeply dislike narration.
True you pioneered the "virtual embed" used in "War Tapes"?
Yes, my inspiration was from having worked in television covering major sporting events with a multi-camera filming platform. A football game isn't covered with one camera, why should a war be?
Why is it better to tell the story, as you say, "from the inside out"?
Bearing witness to truth ripples outwards from the origin of the story, instead of having an agenda and finding interviewees to support an already decided didactic point of view. Which would you rather watch?
Why do you dislike narration?
I don't like someone telling me what to think. I prefer to come to my own conclusions. I assume others feel the same way.
What do you want people to take away from it?
"The truth will pass through the fire, but will not burn." - Rwandan proverb.
And, we should all pay more attention to the Rwandan re-trial happening in New Hampshire sometime this September.
Why did you stay away from using footage of the horrible violence we've all seen there?
That footage, shot by Nick Hughes, is just too horrific to comprehend. During the Rwandan genocide, one million people were killed in one hundred days - that's more than 10,000 per day. Imagine if 9/11 happened every single day for one hundred days in a country the size of New Hampshire. The only way to begin to tell the story is to put a human face on it.
Did you find you had misconceptions about Africa?
There is this general portrayal of Africa by the media that we often swallow every day. Africa as this primitive place, with warring tribes that endlessly needs our help. What we found while making "Earth Made of Glass" is very different.
What was the most amazing thing that happened in your travels?
To go to Africa and feel at home.
What was the biggest challenge?
Let's just say that my crew and I got to know the President of Rwanda's security team pretty well.
Were you ever afraid?
No, not really.
Why did you leave the big city for Goshen?
No local northern New Englander ever plans to stay away for good. We all come back. There's something in the well water that is like a homing device after you hit 40.
Your family has been in Goshen for a while...
Miss the city lights? Think you'll go back someday?
No, I prefer a dark sky and starlight. I go back regularly for meetings or to visit friends, but not to live there.
Your next project?
Looks like it's going to involve the illicit trade of rhino horn and ivory.
Why are you so passionate about what you do?
What is the right path a person should choose? I aim to have very faint fingerprints and let the story present a complex truth in a way that is engaging to viewers.
"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? When I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?"