When we started watching Lee’s documentaries, as opposed to his fictional films, I started to notice a difference in not only story telling – which was obvious, given that documentaries have a completely different narrative structure than narrative films – but also in how more effective the development of people is when they tell the stories themselves. Lee, in his films, often has too many characters to fully develop every one of them, and this is where many of his shortcomings come in. A lot of the problems that I have had with his films in the past has dealt with the way that certain characters were portrayed, and how the majority of the female characters have not been multi-dimensional or well-developed. I have not felt the same about any of the people telling their stories to Lee for the documentaries, and found that the way that the girls in 4 Little Girls were presented/remembered by their family members and friends painted a much fuller picture of them than Lee has been able to achieve with many female characters (i.e., Nola, Jane.)
I understand that the interviewees are supposed to be telling a certain story the way that they want it to be told, which is why the victims of the bombings seem more well characterized than the fictional characters of Lee’s other films, but I also found that the interviewees were well-developed as well – especially in IGIW&DCDR and WTLB. Characterization of the interviewees was primarily developed by getting to see footage of them talking about an event that was traumatic for almost all of them, which was aggravated (in a good way!) by Lee’s prodding – no, enticing questions. Documentaries are amazing because we get to see a raw reaction, even if the stories that are being told are not being remembered correctly. In WTLB, I think it was in the first part or the beginning of the second part, I remember the radio DJ Garland Robinette, breaking down when trying to describe how the lack of response to Katrina made him lose faith in the country. While a great actor could possibly portray that type of emotion artificially, it is much more intense coming from someone who truly believes something so strongly, and who went through hell before losing faith like that. The sympathy and attachment that one may feel towards someone bearing their soul and their feelings to a camera may be relative, but it is much more effective just because the interviewees had to survive immense amounts of pain and suffering in order to tell their stories, and as a documentary this is a detail that the audience is aware of from the start. And this rings true for all of Lee’s documentaries that we have seen; 4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke, and If God Is Willing.
This brings me to one of the most interesting parts of If God Is Willing, which is the use of interviewees from WTLB. With the exception of Mookie’s cameo in RHS (which was kind of weird), Lee has never used a character in more than one film, but he used almost all of the same interviewees in what was almost a follow-up documentary. The use of the same people from WTLB was effective because, at least for us, who watched it two weeks in a row, the audience may already recognize these people, and have prior knowledge of their lives and experiences. I think it’s interesting that Lee chose to do this within a documentary rather than a narrative film, but in the context of the aftermath of Katrina and of course the oil spill, it only makes sense that he would try and do a follow up on the citizens of Louisiana who have not been doing very well since 2006, clearly. Because WTLB was so gut-wrenching and emotionally effective, many viewers may be eager to see what happened to all of the interviewees – at least, more so than they would be to see what happens to Dap or Nola. Documentaries don’t often have happy endings – or a real ending at all – so the continuation of these stories comes naturally. The real people who were interviewed had lives that continued after WTLB stopped filming, so if their lives continue to be difficult, why shouldn’t they get the chance to tell their stories again?