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Outsiders In: Four Veteran Documentarians on Covering Communities Not of One’s Own

When it comes to social issues filmmaking, are there any advantages to being an “outsider” to the community one is documenting? I recently put that question to a diverse group of award-winning filmmakers – Pamela Yates (The Resistance Saga Trilogy), Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), S. Leo Chiang (Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, Out Run) and Andrés Cediel (longtime producer for PBS’s Frontline) – and got a wide range of thought-provoking responses.

“I first went to Guatemala in 1982 to investigate the role that the United States, my country, played in destroying democracy and imposing a legacy of brutal military dictatorships,” Pamela Yates explained, highlighting how she first encountered the indigenous community she would subsequently spend the next three decades documenting. “But when I got there I realized that the most important player in opposing the dictatorship were the Mayans, and so began a 35-year journey making a trilogy of films with Mayans in resistance.”

For Yates, staying connected is crucial to her process, “not necessarily to make another film, but to make sure that the relationships are ongoing,” she emphasized. “When I started working in Guatemala, filmmakers and journalists were being killed. They were being disappeared for trying to cover what was happening in their own country. As an American, the Guatemalan military saw me as a megaphone to amplify their message to the US Congress and President Reagan to increase military aid so that they could widen their scorched earth policies.”

As a nonindigenous, foreign filmmaker, Yates “knew I was in a unique position. Even when I felt impotent to stop human rights violations, I knew it was still important to document them for use at a later time, to use them as evidence and as part of the historical memory of a country. I was an outsider in Guatemala, and knowing my role in a particular historical moment allowed me to become an insider.”

Yates also stressed the importance of giving back to any community a filmmaker is shooting in. “As an outsider, I’m committed to working with, learning from, and sharing our model with the next generation of Guatemalan indigenous filmmakers who are coming on strong,” she enthused. “I want our documentary films to help the protagonists strengthen their leadership, and allow people all over the world to get to know them and their ideas. We need to create more spaces like this to foster solidarity. And as an American, I believe it’s important to have a critique of my own country, make films here, and create long term relationships.” 

Unsurprisingly, relationships are likewise the building blocks of Steve James’s documentaries, whether shooting in inner city Chicago or Chinatown NYC. While admitting that “being a white male filmmaker can sometimes cause communities of color to give you access because they view you as the ‘real deal,’” he was quick to add that “the more meaningful advantages to being an outsider mostly have to do with bringing ‘fresh eyes’ to communities different from your own. You are unbound by the ties, hierarchy, and perceived immutable realities that people of that community live with every day.”

Yet James also warned against falling into one’s own trap of biases. “The danger is that you bring your baggage of stereotypes and assumptions with you, and that then shapes unfairly how you capture that community.” He then brought up the flip downside of being too close to one’s subject. “The virtues of being an insider are apparent – but that too can have its limitations, if the filmmaker is too captive to their own life experience to examine their community candidly.”

“One of my hopes,” he added, “is that someday filmmakers of color will be truly empowered to step outside their communities and tell the stories of white America, bringing their own fresh-eyed examination of the dominant culture.”

For the Taiwan-born, San Francisco-based Leo Chiang, who has covered Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans and LGBTQ activists in the Philippines, “’Outsider’ & ‘insider’ storytellers each have advantages. If you are ‘part of the community,’ you may enjoy a deeper understanding of the community and have greater access – but you may also be constrained by expectations of the community, and challenged in telling a universal story because of your familiarity with all the nitty-gritties.”

“However, I do believe that outsiders often can tell the story in a way that a general audience can understand better,” he continued. “That they are freer to tell a more complex story because of their distance from the community. It really depends on who each storyteller is.”

As for Andrés Cediel, a public television storyteller who has documented human rights struggles both in South America and right here in the US, he concurred that “outsider” status certainly has its advantages. “On a basic level, sometimes it takes an outsider to get a story told to a wider audience, bringing more attention to the issue, and possibly change,” he pointed out. “In other cases, outsiders can actually help further an entrenched discussion. Outsiders are able to talk to all sides, often talking to groups who won’t talk to each other. Providing a platform for multiple viewpoints can promote understanding and resolution.” A laudable goal from every POV.