Documentary filmmaker Rachel Grady opens our eyes to the complexities of overlooked places and people
If one's notion of a documentary filmmaker conjures up a studiously remote observer, Rachel Grady breaks the mold. Grady is unabashedly passionate about her work—despite her claim that "the only thing motivating me is my curiosity. I can be lazy, I'm not competitive, so I'm lucky I had that or I'd be on skid row."
Grady, 35, and her filmmaking partner, Heidi Ewing, 36, founded their New York-based production company, Loki Films, in 2001. Loki, Grady explains, is the Norse god of mischief, but is also "a play on the words ‘low key,' because Heidi and I are such high-energy, intense people." It's an intensity that has paid dividends. Their first documentary, The Boys of Baraka (2005), earned an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Independent Film. Last year's Jesus Camp was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary.
In the midst of a resurgence in nonfiction filmmaking, Loki's work stands out for its empathetic and evenhanded treatment of its subjects; the films strike a delicate balance in handling material that is both socially conscious and potentially incendiary.
The Boys of Baraka follows nearly four years in the lives of a group of boys from the meanest of Baltimore's dead-end streets: the youngsters attempt to turn their lives around by joining a program that sends the students to a boarding school in Kenya. Jesus Camp chronicles the experiences of some exceptionally devout Christian children who attend the annual "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devils Lake, North Dakota. From this vantage point, the film examines the growing evangelical movement in America. "I didn't want it to be seen as partisan," Grady says of Jesus Camp. "Audiences are tough. If they think they've been used or manipulated, told what to think or feel, they will turn on you."
Grady says it takes a certain kind of masochist to make documentaries—the kind who, when assigned to memorize some poetry in the seventh grade, chose "a four-page poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, while everyone else tried the shortest one they could find. Am I just a total glutton for punishment, not to be paid any money and work more hours than any job I ever heard of?"
The effort usually begins by trying to persuade subjects to be filmed, even if they are reluctant about it. "You have to be dogged. There are certain people I bug on a weekly basis; it's on my calendar," she says. "You don't want to be a turnoff, but if you don't do it, it doesn't happen. And you need a thick skin about rejection. You have to think it isn't actually rejection, just ‘no for now.'" The work only intensifies once shooting begins. "You're often on location 24 hours a day," Grady says. "For every hour you shoot, five hours went into getting it to happen. And once it's shot, you look at that hour 20 times."
Grady chooses to invest the time because, she says, "documentaries can make a difference, can change the people who are in them and, if we're lucky, can change the people who watch them. I believe in people; I'm rooting for us." Her hope, she says, is to convey the filmmakers' own "intense and emotional journey...to the audience, to cause something in their heart and head to change a little bit."
Grady, who grew up in Washington, D.C., believes she had an ideal upbringing for her work. "My mother was a private investigator and my father wrote spy thrillers, including Six Days of the Condor," she says. "I definitely was raised to question authority, which was problematic when I was a kid."
The first documentary Grady saw, at age 12, was Martin Bell's Streetwise, a look at homeless kids in Seattle. "It was like a lightning bolt, I became completely obsessed with that film, I made my mother take me back," she recalls. "It totally made me love documentaries; I was always looking for a film that good."
As a college student at New York University in the early 1990s, Grady considered a career in journalism, but "something was missing, it didn't do it for me," she says. In 1996, she managed to get a job as an associate producer with documentary filmmaker Jonathan Stack, co-director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner The Farm: Angola, USA. "He took a huge risk with me," she says. "I had instincts, I had enthusiasm, but I didn't know anything."
Stack also hired Ewing. Five years later, Grady and Ewing went off to start Loki. "Honestly, in documentaries, you are creating something out of the ether that didn't exist before," Grady says. "There was no project, no film, before you, no one was going to create it or give it to you. It's a mysterious thing you molded out of the air."
Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times. His most recent book is Now in Theaters Everywhere: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Blockbuster.