Sometimes, Making a Documentary Can Take Years (and Years and Years…)

Three films showing at the Tribeca Festival tell stories over several years, a challenge for the filmmakers and the subjects.

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By Nicolas Rapold

One of the magic tricks of documentaries is the ability to film somebody changing over a period of time. When it’s a span of several years, audiences can get a unique psychological portrait. But these long-haul projects come with particular challenges and obstacles for the filmmakers who see them through.

These documentaries might take anywhere from a few years to more than a decade to shoot and complete, and the reasons vary. Sometimes, the goal is to track a crucial segment of a person’s life in full. Or the filmmaker’s approach might instead be open-ended, taking cues from the person’s emotional experiences as to how much ground to cover, and when to say “the end.” No matter the circumstances, every production requires the filmmaker’s careful management of the relationship with the subject.

Three recent movies that follow their subjects over the course of more than a year are showing at the Tribeca Festival, which runs Wednesday to June 18 in New York City: “Apolonia, Apolonia,” “Between the Rains” and “Q.”

Lea Glob’s “Apolonia, Apolonia” films a young Paris painter, Apolonia Sokol, over the longest span of time — 13 years. Ms. Sokol grew up in the building that housed a theater run by her parents, which became a boisterous haven for actors and other artists. Over the course of the film, she forges a career in the tough, often sexist arenas of the art world and the academy.

Ms. Glob first made a short movie about Ms. Sokol while studying at the National Film School of Denmark in 2009, after other potential subjects turned her down. At the time, the director didn’t know she would go on to make a feature about Ms. Sokol, but in the course of making that film, she recognized something special about the young painter.

“She really wants to give something in front of a camera. And I wasn’t able to let her go after that,” Ms. Glob said in a phone interview from Denmark, where she lives.

The decision to film over the course of 13 years was not made from the outset. Ms. Glob and Ms. Sokol agreed on an essentially open-ended arrangement that turned into the decade-plus production, with Ms. Sokol not viewing footage while Ms. Glob was shooting, but offering input during editing. As Ms. Sokol pursued her career, Ms. Glob began to think a possible conclusion would come when Ms. Sokol had reached some milestone of success, but the (amicable) ending had more to do with Ms. Sokol wanting time to herself.

Ms. Glob benefited from the free artistic environment of the community around the theater belonging to Ms. Sokol’s parents. The young artist would call Ms. Glob when something interesting was happening — like when it looked like she would be evicted from the theater.

The method could be hit-or-miss.

“I’d drop everything and go, and I’d find her there just cooking pasta and reading,” Ms. Glob said.

Ms. Glob recalibrated to track Ms. Sokol’s development as an artist, instead of chasing events. Watching Ms. Sokol navigate art school, have her first gallery show, and travel to Los Angeles under the auspices of the art dealer Stefan Simchowitz — this was now a movie.

“I built a relationship with her camera and then with her,” said Ms. Sokol, who now teaches, in addition to painting.

“It’s not family, it’s not friendship. It’s something else. Something stronger, I think,” she added.

Ms. Glob said she tried to check in with Ms. Sokol about once a month, but she didn’t live in Paris. There were other logistical challenges, too: Ms. Glob was working on other projects, and there was variable funding for this one. At first, Ms. Glob edited footage along the way, but when that proved counterproductive, she waited till later to undertake an edit.

Ms. Glob also had to stop for at least a year when she nearly died after giving birth, a trauma she reflects upon in the film. And Ms. Sokol weathered an intense relationship with the Ukrainian activist Oksana Shachko, who took her own life in 2018. But in 2022 Ms. Glob completed the portrait of her fellow artist, calling the process “liberating”; the film won the top prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam after its world premiere.

For “Between the Rains,” the filmmakers Andrew H. Brown and Moses Thuranira track Kole James, a young member of the Turkana community in Ngaremara village, Kenya, over four years during a pivotal period in his life.

Working as a shepherd, Mr. James prepares for rites of passage and copes with drought-related clashes with neighboring communities.

Making the movie involved at least a year of securing permission and trust before shooting.

“It’s not a community you can just go and film. There is a lot of protocol you have to follow. You have to get blessings from the elders,” said Mr. Thuranira, who is from a town about a 40-minute drive away, and used his house as a kind of home base for the production. (There’s also a family link in the production team: a producer, Samuel Ekomol, is Mr. James’s cousin and is a teacher in Ngaremara village.)

The team maintained a bond with the community that involved pitching in at cookouts and bringing groceries — sometimes goats, sometimes bags of rice. But just as important was the bond of trust they built with Mr. James, who, during the course of the film, pushes back against some of his community’s more arduous traditions, including a harrowing tooth removal rite.

Through a translator, Mr. James said in a call that he stuck with the documentary because of the opportunity to connect with the outside world and share the challenges faced by his community. He especially liked one dramatic sequence when he traps and kills a hyena — a moment that gives the filmmakers a suitable climax to the coming-of-age arc.

The director of “Q,” Jude Chehab, chose a subject even closer to home: her mother, Hiba Khodr. Ms. Chehab portrays Ms. Khodr’s evolving relationship with a secretive religious sect that was a part of both of their lives. After watching her mother spend decades focusing intensively on the group and its leader (who is known as the Anisa), Ms. Chehab planned to interview her mother and explore her feelings relating to the group and their family. Ms. Khodr agreed, knowing that her daughter would question her freely about things she hadn’t talked much about.

Ms. Chehab filmed her first interview with her mother in February 2018, and when the pandemic hit, she found herself cooped up with her parents in Lebanon.

“I think that’s how we achieved that level of intimacy, because they couldn’t escape the camera,” Ms. Chehab said with a chuckle, in a video call.

Filming continued for about four and a half years, but in a targeted fashion (not a whole day at a time). The movie stretches even further back, to the 1990s, through home movies made by Ms. Chehab’s reserved father (whom she also questions in the film).

Throughout, Ms. Chehab showed footage to her mother, against advice she had received that it might make Ms. Khodr self-conscious about the camera. She said that this early exposure to the movie helped ease her mother into the process more smoothly.

“She knows me, she knows when I’m sad, and when she’s putting pressure,” Ms. Khodr wrote in an email. “I can tell her more things than a stranger and there’s no transaction, because we are mother-daughter.”

Camerawork was another decision from day to day. Knowing her mother’s routines, Ms. Chehab could film her naturally on the fly, but she could also adjust for unexpected moments, like when Ms. Khodr went to a poetry reading or got a dramatic visit.

The domestic intimacy required special considerations. When Ms. Khodr was not wearing her hijab, Ms. Chehab framed the shot to avoid showing her hair. She also incorporated feedback from a friend to show her mother outside of the home at her job as a professor.

Ms. Khodr said that, at first, she participated in support of her daughter. But then the film changed her, as we see her express in the finished documentary.

“It was a way for me to uncover some layers in myself that were hidden,” she said in her email. “It really helped me become real.”

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