The ethics of documentary imagination: Clare Weiskopf and Nicolás van Hemelryck on making Alis

    Sometimes, a lengthy development phase is necessary to keep director-character power dynamics in check, say the IDFA Bertha Fund-supported filmmakers. And contrary to popular belief, that can actually lead to a more creative film.

    In the award-winning documentary film Alis, Colombian directors Clare Weiskopf and Nicolás van Hemelryck go behind the cement walls of La Arcadia, a state institution for at-risk teens in Bogotá, to embark on a documentary journey of imagination. Inside, the filmmakers begin with a simple game: they ask a group of young women to picture a fellow resident, Alis. Who is she? Their answers range from innocuous to intimate to traumatic, as we collectively get to know a friend, a crush, a new roommate with big dreams, and a victim of sexual violence—in short, someone who is just like them.

    But while the film may be simple formally speaking, the process of making it, just like the powerful emotions it evokes, was anything but. Speaking to Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck reveals a painstaking development period that spanned several years, full of workshops, research, consultations, and burgeoning friendships, ultimately giving way to a cinematic tour de force that paves a subtly subversive course of documentary filmmaking. Significantly, the ethics of director-character relations cannot be separated from the artwork itself here. But according to the filmmakers, the film was never part of the plan: it all started with the girls.

    “We were there about two weeks, but we were very impressed by the girls,” Weiskopf remembers of their first visit to La Arcadia. That was back in 2016, when the filmmakers were initially invited to give a documentary workshop at the school with the local cinematheque. The workshop was short, but it left a lasting impression on the directors.

    “When you think about these kinds of populations, you always think of pity, or you feel sorry for them. And what happened is totally on the contrary,” Weiskopf says.

    “We felt admiration for them instead of pity, so it was a big surprise for us, and it challenged our prejudice,” Van Hemelryck adds.

    It’s not hard to see why. In conjuring up the imagined Alis, the girls’ responses weave together into an elaborate tapestry full of emotion and revelation, where preconceived notions of real versus fictitious fall by the wayside. It soon becomes irrelevant whether Alis is thin or fat, what color her hair is, or if she’s an ugly crier. As the film goes on, and third person is gradually replaced by first, we are privy to the spark of first loves and queer embraces, and the pain of abuse and abandonment. All backed by the characters’ incredible strength, openness, and humor that never fails to astonish.

    Characters first, but not a character-driven documentary

    For the filmmakers, that meant finding any way possible to continue their workshops at the institution. But as they perpetually returned to La Arcadia, the pair began to conceive of their own feature-length film, even if it took some time before it took on a viable form.

    The directors recount an initial stab at a character-driven documentary—what, in hindsight, Van Hemelryck calls “the most obvious idea you can have.” But making such a film proved unfeasible for a few reasons.

    “These girls are changing all the time because they come from really unstable backgrounds,” Weiskopf explains.

    “And once they leave, many times they lose contact because there isn’t a phone number or permanent address,” Van Hemelryck says.

    Besides, when faced with the sheer magnetism of these young women, the filmmakers soon realized that working with only a few characters would undermine both them and the stories they wanted to tell. “We didn’t want to make a character-driven documentary because it would be very small,” Weiskopf says. “They have so much potential and there is a lot of them, so it would be very difficult to portray just one girl.”

    Ultimately, almost all the girls wanted to participate in the project. “It was a huge work, and then in the editing, they were all so, so strong that we ended up with twenty characters in the film. That’s something we never thought would work. And probably if we told the funds in our applications that there would be twenty characters, no one would believe in that. But you watch the film, and each of them is so unique.”

    Encounters over observations

    Working with a vast number of characters, all of whom defied expectations, demanded a different kind of film language. It became clear that an observational film wouldn’t work, and not only because of the number of subjects involved; it just wouldn’t do justice to the girls. “We didn’t want to just follow them,” Van Hemelryck says. “We felt there was much more that could be done with them.”

    The turning point came from a simple exercise during the workshops: the filmmakers tasked the girls with writing a story and bringing it to the next class.

    “They all came back with very imaginative stories, but they always came back to what they knew—their surroundings, how they were brought up,” Weiskopf says. “We realized no one ever asked these girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, because they think they don’t have the right to dream.”

    Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck knew that the girls’ powerful imaginations, and offering a chance to use them, would be key to the project. Alis, the make-believe resident and filmic device, was born.

    But that’s not to say Alis can be reduced to any one person or thing. Watching the film, we learn of Alis’ complicated personality, her difficult past, and her dreams for the future. In one incarnation, she grows up to become a trans man, hard-working and well-dressed, with a wife and two kids. In another, she’s a talented pop singer, and in yet another, she’s been elected president of Colombia. The contradictions are striking, yet incredibly human.

    “We don’t care if what they tell us is true or not. That’s not the point,” Weiskopf explains. “This gives them a chance to imagine, and to imagine a better life.”

    “We came to understand that imagination can say more about ourselves and our biographies,” Van Hemelryck adds. “We’re used to learning about people and what has happened to them in their lives. But especially with teenagers, they haven’t decided almost anything yet, so it’s very unjust to think they are what they’ve been through.

    “We saw that only you can imagine what you imagine,” he continues. “It really speaks about your inner self. And [doing this] was a way of leaving the decision to them about what the character is. Not only what they have lived and the fear they have, but also their dreams.”

    Making a story about storytellers

    The result is a different kind of documentary storytelling that is utterly participatory and unexpected, stretching beyond tropes and conventions; forgoing observation in favor of play and experimentation. And, as the filmmakers point out, it means we really get to see these characters for who they are.

    “There are many documentaries that use the characters to say something about the world,” Van Hemelryck says, painting a hypothetical picture: “a documentary about a war in this or that country; they follow a character, and somehow we don't feel like we really met the character. We don’t know much about them, but following them, we understand a reflection about the war or a specific theme.

    “Here we wanted to make the contrary, we wanted to really get to know them,” he explains. “In the beginning, it’s just a game—it’s imagination. But more and more, you get into the feeling that you’re connected to the girls, and you don’t care what’s true, what’s not true, what happened to Alis, what’s made up. You connect with the girls very emotionally.”

    Still, the filmmakers never went in with the goal of critiquing documentary stereotypes. What they did do, it becomes clear, was stay true to their characters as human beings—something they say can get de-emphasized in other modes of documentary filmmaking.

    “There’s this thing in documentary where they tell you to just go and shoot, and then in the editing room you find the story. It was very hard for us to make it that way in [our previous film] Amazona, and in this film, we also wanted to make a completely different and challenging film, so we took a lot of time developing it,” Van Hemelryck explains.

    Taking responsibility in every stage

    That lengthy development process ran the gamut from expert-led research in youth psychology to close consultations with the girls’ caregivers.

    “We worked with psychologists, experts in trauma, who prepared us for shooting. To know when to stop, and to give tools to the girls so they can also say ‘I want to stop’ with signs with their hands. So the whole team was very prepared,” Weiskopf says.

    Other considerations included filming extensive research material, which was then checked by the head of the Colombian youth institute and the school’s in-house therapists to ensure the project remained beneficial to the young women, not harmful.

    When shooting rolled around, a series of workshops took place as well, where the girls were prepared before going on camera and guided into the interviews. Afterward, they came together to debrief as a group.

    “The interviews were one by one, so it was very intense and beautiful when all the girls came together as a community, and they realized they come from the same place. Normally these girls put on a tough face. Because they’re always defending themselves, they’re always very strong with each other. Here, it was very beautiful what happened because they realized that they’re all the same,” Weiskopf explains.

    Finally, after the film was completed, the filmmakers returned to the school for a private screening with the girls.

    “That was the moment we understood that things had worked the way we wanted,” Van Hemelryck remembers. “They thanked Alis for allowing them to express things they had never been able to express before. They said, ‘if the film is so amazing, it has to be because we are so amazing. Because if we weren’t that great, then the film wouldn’t be.’ They felt admiration for themselves by watching the film.”

    Following through

    Hearing the journey behind Alis, you start to understand the lengths Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck went to in crafting a scrupulous, sensitive film that supports their characters in no small way. But it would also be an understatement to describe Alis as merely a collection of ethical filmmaking practices. On the contrary, the film is living proof that entering into an equitable relationship with your characters can be a solid foundation for creative documentary filmmaking.

    Again, we are confronted with the subtle subversion of Weiskopf and Van Hemelryck’s directorial prowess, as they upend our commonly held beliefs about how to make a good film. But importantly, that was never the goal. Finding an impassioned way to tell this story was.

    And as the filmmakers assert, that duty goes well beyond the images on screen. “It’s very important for us always to mention this,” Van Hemelryck says at the end of the interview, “because we finished the film, but we haven’t finished our process with the girls.”

    In the lead up to the film’s release in Colombia this October, the directors are working with a local NGO to build a new center for at-risk youth after they turn 18, when they can no longer stay at boarding schools such as La Arcadia. Rather than set up another live-in institution, though, the plan is to offer day programs with various workshops and support models, from therapy to job placements, where participants are paid for their time there. The campaign, aptly titled #AlisExists, is already in full swing.

    “The budget is four times more than the budget of the film, but we have a great partner,” Van Hemelryck says. “We’re really hoping to get international support and most importantly, local support, so we can really launch this place.”


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