What exactly IS empathy, butt?

Continuing the hour-long class I gave to Communications students from Michigan State University, we took a look at the notion of witness in Documentary. This was done in admittedly very simple terms.

The role of a documentary-maker involves serving the circulation of life within the community and delivering the Real and the True.  One of the ways of doing that is by means of facilitating witness. The facilitation of others is something documentary-makers spend a lot of time doing. One can make documentaries about one’s own experience, of course but I’d estimate that most documentaries are about the lives of others (the ‘You’ that I mention in my post ‘Dancing into Documentary’).

A documentary-maker can present someone else’s life in the third person, as it were – ‘speaking about’ someone   ̶   but the witness speaks with the authority of lived experience. The presentation of someone else’s experience is one of the most challenging and exciting aspects of documentary-making because it means exercising empathy so effectively that the witness recognises a true ‘portrait’ of themselves but one done with a type and degree of objectivity they could never themselves bring to bear. And, at the same time, a documentary-maker must present a person’s milieu and typicality in ways which do justice to him or her – which do not misrepresent the person. This is much harder than it sounds.

The just representation of a person is a delicate undertaking and involves the interplay of 3 types of feeling: sympathy, empathy and antipathy. These types of feeling are key parts of the process of the documentary-maker’s engagement with the subject and one needs to be aware of what each is.

The witness gives testimony about an experience. ‘I was there.’ The documentary-maker, however, controls the presentation of this witness and can endorse or undermine in many ways. It’s a great act of trust on the part of a witness to put him- or herself into the hands of a documentary-maker. Who would do that unless they trusted they would be held well? The ability to build good relationships is the sine qua non of quality factual film-making.

Novice film-makers often think they must sympathize with their subject but in my opinion it’s much more useful (and appropriate) to practice empathy. Antipathy is also often shunned whereas it should be recognised, and employed as a legitimate tool. Antipathy is a voice. It tells us something if we’re willing to listen. It’s a corrective and a signpost.

It can be useful to attempt a distinction between these aspects of pathos (feeling).

Sympathy is an affinity between two things so that each influences the other. To sympathize is to suffer with or like another so as to be affected by the other’s suffering. In documentary-making being affected is fine but not so much that one loses the ability to be objective.  Empathy is identifying oneself with someone to the point where one understands that person but one’s own feelings remain distinct from theirs and one is not overwhelmed. Antipathy is an opposition of feeling, nature or disposition between things or people.

The documentary-maker needs a capacity for pathos in the way a healer does. Too much co-suffering and no one can act. And the complete absence of any degree of antipathy is suspect because it can be a sign of over-identification. Empathy is the way to go.

The great documentarian, Albert Maysels had his way of expressing how to employ this feeling side which I’d like to touch on in another post (we managed a gallop through it by means of a poster!).

To demonstrate something of how a documentary-maker presents witness in action we watched a short film made by Nia Medi, one of our students last year on Cardiff University’s  M.A. in International Journalism (Documentary option). It’s about a transgender boy. I like to use student films precisely because they are neither perfect nor expensive and one senses the commitment and the thrill of experimentation in them. They are, I hope, a great encouragement to the class who tend to think, ‘Yes, I could do that. I’d love to do that.’

To enter someone else’s world is a great thing, but to do that and then share the experience with others is even more exciting.

The title, by the way, is  pace the immortal ‘Satellite City’ BBC Wales. ‘What exactly IS scampi, butt?’, a question posed to its American lead but, I thought, maybe a bridge too far into Welsh cultural life for the Michigan students just yet!   http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fd750