An Interview with Steve James
I’m Doing a Film About Stevie, Not the Victim
Q: What initially prompted you to make this film?
SJ: At first it was going to be a much smaller project. It was going to be this little portrait. My idea was it will be interesting to see Stevie now, see what he’s doing, see what he looks like, what his life is like, and fill in some of the gap of the ten years of what happened to when I was there and now. But it was mostly going to be about looking back, about who he was, about who I was then, and this experience. I imagined it could be as short as half an hour long. That all changed when the crime was committed that he was arrested for. Then it suddenly became an issue of if I’m going to continue to make this film, it’s now really going to be a film about what is to become of Stevie and how did he arrive at this place, which still means looking at his past, but differently.
Q: At one point in your film you say, “I felt like I was repaying him by putting his tortured life on display,” What are your feelings about the medium of documentary film and intrusion of privacy issues?
SJ: I think in films like this where you’re really looking at people’s lives intimately and spending time with them, there is this essential ethical dilemma that creeps into documentary filmmaking, where on the one hand documentary filmmakers as a group are people who are committed to social change and we like to think of ourselves as humanists who care about the downtrodden and the alienated. On the other hand, in following those kinds of stories, we often find ourselves sort of trafficking in peoples’ misfortunes. And it’s easier to rationalize that when you don’t spend a lot of time with your subjects, when maybe you just do a couple of interviews as part of a larger film.
But if you’re spending a lot of time with that person and developing a bond with that person, then it really starts to bother you at times when bad things happen to them, because you both feel bad for them as any friend would, but there is also a little part of you that’s going, “Oh my god, this is so dramatic, so powerful. This is going to make for a better film.” And you hate that little voice, but it’s there. And I’ve encountered that with Hoop Dreams and any kind of documentary I’ve done, but I think with this film it was particularly acute because I didn’t just meet Stevie and develop a bond. I had a bond that went back many years. So this was one film for me where those issues could be put more front and center. If I was going to make this film and put him and his family in as honest a light as I tried to, then I needed to show myself at times. I don’t know if that was a mistake or not, but that was the thinking.
Q: Even though Stevie has committed such a horrible crime and on the surface level, he is very much a monster figure/social pariah, you were able to capture on film that mysterious ‘something’ about him that is very loveable. How did you go about trying to convey that without belittling the crime he committed?
SJ: To make a film that villifies someone like him completely and paints him as a monster, what is the point of that film? Because that’s what the media does already. I’m doing a film about Stevie, not the victim, and I need to try and get the audience to think about how people come to do those things, how they get there, because they’re human beings too. And I think we as a society, it’s much easier for us to paint certain peoples’ actions as the actions of evil or of a monster because it makes us feel comfortable about ourselves that we could never do such a thing. And when you see a portrait about how someone gets to that place and understand it, I think it connects you to that person in a deeper way.
I think one of the good things about me being in the film, regardless of how you feel about me, is that I become a stand-in for the audience. Most of the people that see this film are from my class or background, not his. And your intimate witnessing of these peoples’ lives is compounded by the fact that you see me witnessing it on the screen and the discomfort around that. I think that it makes the audience wonder how they would react in my situation.
Q: I got the sense that maybe it’s not good to give someone like Stevie false hopes by being kind to him. Many people in the film, including yourself, feel guilty about having abandoned him. There is this sense that the good intentions of kind people can ultimately exacerbate the problem.
SJ: Stevie’s life is a story of continual abandonment. He was abandoned by his mother, he was abandoned by a father he doesn’t know, he was abandoned in a sense by the one set of foster parents that he loved the most, he was abandoned by me, his “big brother.” So it’s sort of like, which is worse? But he cherished the times we had together, just as he cherished his time with his foster parents. If it’s the choice between nothing and something, I guess I would choose something, even though you’re right that it can exacerbate the situation. Ultimately it’s a film about a very troubled family that wants to keep trying to be a family. I think that’s pretty universal.
(Compiled by Iyobe Kiwa)
Interviewers: Iyobe Kiwa, Ann Yamamoto
Photography: Ogawa Tomohiro / Video: Saito Kenta, Ogawa Tomohiro / 2003-10-15