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#Doclifer Stories – Matthew Ritenour

#1. – How and why did you first get interested in documentary filmmaking?

I grew up shooting skateboarding videos and local punk shows in the Florida Panhandle. I had this Sony DV Handicam and I would do most of my edits in camera straight onto the tape. Looking back on it now, I think I enjoyed the improvisational nature of these kind of live events as well as the process of creating things with friends. I think editing my own material also taught me a lot about coverage, and shooting real time events in a way that gives you a lot of material to tell a story. Anytime I’m feeling stressed out now, I think back on the excitement of those days of pure instinct, fun and carelessness.

I drifted away from the camera for a while but years later I was studying Anthropology in college and we were watching all of these incredible documentary films, stuff by Tim Asch, Alan Lomax, and Jean Rouche that gave us these amazing glimpses of strange new worlds. I remember one night looking up Alan Lomax’s work and realizing that he shot all those videos of blues artists in the south that I grew listening to. So that was a moment for me where I realized what an impact film can have, what a powerful educational tool it can be, and that this was a place where my different interests and skills really overlapped.

 

#2. – What was your first experience making a documentary film like?

My first experience working on a documentary project was in 2012 with the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology at Chico State. I heard about this student led project they were putting together to tell the story of Captain Jack and the Modoc resistance to a forced relocation by the Army in 1873. I guess there wasn’t a ton of people interested in camping out in the Lava Beds near the Oregon border in November so I think that’s what got me the job. Sitting around the campfire at night, the history of a place can really sink into your bones. The low was in the teens and we’d wake up in shifts every couple of hours to change our astrotimelapse batteries. We interviewed a bunch of archaeologists, the National Monument workers and local Modoc people connected to the story. We spent early mornings and evenings exploring the caves, the lava fields and reading about the history of the tribes and the government conflict.

I loved every part of the process. It really set the groundwork for how I still like to work today which is to spend a lot of time in the physical place the story is about and get to know the people there as much as you can, and let the story develop naturally from conversation. ALVA is a streamlined production house these days, but back then it was just getting started and was mostly undergrads and grad students running around unsupervised with a Red One. I feel pretty grateful to have been able to learn from the professors there and have access to that kind of equipment and freedom to tell the stories we wanted.

 

#3. – What have you learned about making a documentary film that you wished you’d known before?

“Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson. One of my favorite quotes that I think sort of sums up my approach to filmmaking these days, which is to do as much research and planning as you can on a story, with the idea that most of it will get thrown out the window once you actually land in the location and start the process of making the film. When I first started out, I sort of rejected the idea that as documentary filmmakers we should go into any situation with a sort of script or a plan of what we’re trying to do. I thought it was more honest to just show up and react spontaneously to what is going on around you. But now I think having an understanding of what you’re going into and what you’re hoping to accomplish gives you better ability to adapt to fluid situations and improvise your way towards something that will feel cohesive. If you’re doing it right, the film at the end will look vastly different from what you had imagined and planned for at the beginning.

There’s a famous argument in Visual Anthropology circles between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson about whether or not the camera should be on a tripod or handheld, and one of my favorite non-fiction DP’s of all time Zach Zamboni actually references this in a great essay he wrote. I think that’s ultimately what I’m talking about, whether the camera should be used as a more or less objective scientific recording device, or as a tool for an art form that gives the viewer a subjective experience. I think over the years I’ve shifted more to the handheld side of the argument, but I’ve also grown to recognize that there’s different approaches to documentary film and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. But some might be more appropriate to certain stories than others. Hopefully I never stop learning, and never stop honing the craft and looking for new and exciting ways to tell stories. Was it Errol Morris who said that ‘If you are the same person at the end of a documentary project that you were at the beginning you’re doing it wrong?’ I tend to agree with that.

 

#4. – What’s a big challenge or hurdle you’ve had to overcome in leading a #doclife?

I think we all struggle with perfectionism in any art form, but especially in documentary film where you might be the first or only person ever able to tell a particular story. That’s a lot of pressure to get it right. But I’ve learned over the years to let go of that a little bit and understand that no film is ever going to be perfect. Everything film we make is going to be marked with a stamp of time. A stamp that reveals where we were in our lives, what new techniques we were trying out, what we were interested in about the story, and that’s a good thing because it means we’re leaving a personal imprint in the work that makes it unique.

For me the camera is such a source of energy and inspiration. It helps push you to do things outside your comfort zone. It gives you the excitement to get up before sunrise and stay up into the dark hours, to approach people and ask for their portrait and hear their stories. I’ve always been a curious person, but the camera has given me the ability to act on that curiosity much more, and I’m grateful for that. As a freelancer, it’s easy to get bogged down by aspects of the job that aren’t the most exciting, but I always try to channel that energy from when I was first starting out. I think we all have that memory of looking through a macro lens for the first time and finding ourselves on our bellies in the grass, and I think overcoming the tendency to forget about the magic of that is a challenge.

 

#5. – Share a current or most recent project with us.

I recently finished a short documentary called “Visions of the Lost Sierra” that tells the story of the Middle Fork of the Feather River in Northern California, one of the first eight rivers designated as Wild and Scenic in 1958. Through the eyes of different characters we come to understand what it means to love a landscape and how our relationship with the outdoors can influence the people we become. Along with their appreciation for the river, they are connected by the fact that each of them look out at the world and see not just what it is, but what it could be, and what they could do to make it better.

 

Thank you to Matthew Ritenour for sharing her #doclife with our community!
You can find Matthew at:

 

 

#Doclifer Stories,

In the spirit of connectivity and togetherness of the documentary filmmaking world we are bringing you stories from #doclifers – doc filmmakers like you and I – from around the world.
If you’re interested in contributing your story to #Doclifer Stories, we’d love to hear from you.

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