Ora DeKornfeld, a communications major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, won first prize for her video “Sensei” in the Multimedia Feature category of the 2014 Pictures of the Year International competition. Brilliantly shot and edited, DeKornfeld’s video tells the powerful story of a rape victim’s survival, resilience and determination. DeKornfeld explains how she won her subject’s trust, found a way to portray events in the past through evocative imagery, and produced a tight, dramatic narrative.
PDN: What was this project was for? How did it get started?
Ora DeKornfeld: That project was made as a final documentary piece for a journalism class. The assignment was to make a vérité documentary. It was a challenge for us to [record] something actually happening, instead of fully relying on B-roll over interview audio. My professor [Chad Stevens] assigned the project knowing that was unrealistic, so this project deviated greatly from that initial assignment, but that’s how it started.
PDN: How did you find this subject, and how get her to open up?
OD: I went to this neighborhood in Durham (North Carolina)–a pretty dynamic low-income neighborhood, and I saw a flyer for self-defense classes and that’s something I have always been personally interested in, and I wanted to do a piece that touched on women’s issues. So I called the number and ended up talking to Brenda, the subject, and she was immediately open. She told me that the reason she got into martial arts was because she was a victim of a violent crime. I didn’t push that at the time, but it was an immediate indicator that she had a real deep experience that motivated her. So I said, would it be OK if I made a documentary about you? She was really open to it.
I went to her karate class on Tuesday and Saturday for two weeks, then I asked if I could come to her house, meet her family and start hanging out with her there. And I kind of just stayed until she said, “OK, Ora, you need to get out of my house.” But through that experience we bonded.
PDN: Were you recording her and taking photographs right away?
OD: I was, pretty much from day one in the karate class. But I didn’t press her for background information from the beginning. I let those topics come up naturally in conversation, so when the interview came, it felt natural to talk about those things in front of the camera.
PDN: How long did you spend shooting it overall? How many weeks did you spend with Brenda?
OD: Probably four weeks. I was shooting two or three times a week.
PDN: Can you talk about how you were putting the story together in your mind as you were getting to know her?
OD: This story could have gone in so many different ways. She grew up in foster care, she has this interesting family dynamic, and she has this history with sexual assault. It felt very overwhelming after the interview: How am I going to tell all of this in a short-form documentary? So what I did was transcribe the whole interview and then I just picked out the moments in the interview that could tell this story with one simple narrative with sexual assault, resilience, and going on to teach self-defense.
PDN: So the story is driven by the audio?
PDN: Did you plan the shooting around the audio edit, or did you have a pile of video clips sitting around at that point that you could draw from, to match the audio?
OD: I had been filming a couple weeks before the interview so I had a pile of footage: her karate classes, her making dinner, to her trick-or-treating with her son. Once I had constructed the audio–the interview, and the dialogue that I wanted–I thought about what visuals could illustrate her words. For the back story, I wanted something that would be interesting to look at, engaging, but not too literal–kind of an abstract, ambiguous space, almost like an audio documentary where the image is in your mind. So I thought the ink water image fit well with that.
PDN: What inspired those opening images of color dispersing in the water?
OD: Most of my success with video comes from trial and error. I had seen this ink thing done before. I thought it was a really nice visual: it’s abstract, engages you, because visually it’s interesting, but it’s not specific to anything. The viewer can listen to her words without being distracted by the visuals. I was playing with different colors, and when I put it over the audio, I realized the red coming in at [the right] moment symbolized blood and pain and anger. It was trial and error, and it really seemed to work well.
PDN: Can you talk about the challenges of finding visuals for stories that happened in the past, and stories that are largely about a person’s internal struggle? Were there other aspects of the video where you had to show something that happened in that past, or in her mind?
OD: That was something that I struggled with. The water ended up being this great solution to that. Other things I used were the video portrait, and the flashing lights. You don’t just see someone talking about the past. You see these images that carry you through this experience. So the viewer is experiencing a backstory in the now.
PDN: I love the images of the kids in the martial arts studio. Can you talk about the esthetic of those sequences and how you achieved it technically? Did you pre-visualize it?
OD: I try to pre-visualize, but it never ends up that I follow through with that vision. I really feel like being there in the moment. So when I was there, it was fluorescent lights, kind of bland. I felt it would be better to do more close-ups so you really felt like you were in the space with [the kids], not distracted by bland images of a typical studio. Martial arts is very much about corporeal movement, so I tried to incorporate a lot of camera movement that complemented the kids’ movement. So if they turned to the right, I turned with them. Or I would put my camera on my sweater and drag it across the floor so that I could have some sort of dolly motion on the floor level with their feet.
PDN: With all that motion, did you struggle with the focus?
OD: It’s hard to keep things in focus. The things that are going to guarantee that it’s in focus and guarantee that it’s steady aren’t worth it to me, simply because if I’m using a tripod I’m going to miss so many moments, and if I’m using a lens with a deep depth of field–especially in a studio space like that–it’s not going to give you as nice an image as a shallow depth of field would, you just want to focus on the kid, and the kid’s motion, not so much the trophies in the background. So for me sacrificing steadiness and a guarantee that you’ll have something in focus is worth it.
PDN: How long did the editing take?
OD: The initial edit was like four times as long as the final cut. There were some great verite moments and I ended up taking most of those out to tell a more focused story. All in all, I turned in a final cut for my class, then I re-edited it for a competition, and then over break, I spent a couple weeks re-editing it again. the whole shooting ad editing process probably took 3 months. The editing process alone was just two months.
PDN: How did you figure out what to cut? And did you have help with the editing?
OD: It was hard. Brenda’s such a great interviewee. She’s concise, and has very powerful sound bites. There were two or three I wanted to keep, but ended up taking them out because I didn’t think I had the visuals to hold people’s attention for that long.
I feel like pacing is really important. It has to be paced so it feels like there’s a natural ebb and flow. When I went back to re-edit it, she was doing her karate routine, but it dragged on for too long and it fizzled out at the end. So i re-edited in a fast-cut way where it had this really powerful boom-like ending, that almost scared the viewer. When I re-edited it, it was all about, How do I make this flow better?
PDN: In the part where she says, “Don’t cry,” [at about the 4:10 mark] was she talking to you, or trying to get herself not to cry?
OD: Who knows? That’s the first time I’ve broken the fourth wall in a piece. As a female living in a patriarchal society, I felt I wanted to be semi-present in the piece. I wanted the story to transcend Brenda and to be a story for women–for both genders–but to make other women kind of present in the piece as well.
PDN: What was Brenda’s reaction when you showed her the video?
OD: I was really nervous. I had taken this one simple narrative out of her complex, multi-dimensional life and I was afraid she might be angry that I had reduced her to this simple story of sexual assault. I wanted to remain cognizant of showing her as more than a victim. But it wouldn’t have been a good piece if I had pulled every aspect of her life into this video.
I said, “We can watch it together if you want.” I watched her face the whole time she was watching it, and she started tearing up. Then when it was over she just kind of cried for maybe like 5 minutes. We sat there in silence, and just kind of embraced each other. She pointed at the screen and said, “This is why God put me on this earth: to tell this story.”
It was a huge relief. It was like, I’m so glad this has not been a painful reminder of what you’ve been through, but more like part of a healing process. At the end of the interview, she had said that as well: I’ve just never had a place to talk about these things without feeling judged.
PDN: What’s your advice for our readers about how to ask questions that elicit meaningful, revealing answers from subjects without putting them off?
OD: In the interview I was so afraid of asking most of these questions, because I knew it would be kind of painful. Like: Tell me what happened the night of the rape, how did it happen, can you walk me through it step by step. In the end, she was happy she got to talk about those things. But I wasn’t asking questions like: Well, why were you alone with him [the rapist]? Why didn’t you fight back? Instead I asked things like: What is the moment you realized this terrible thing was about to happen to you? What were you thinking about when this started happening? And she responded, I can either fight back, and risk losing my life, or I can let it happen.
Having a good relationship with her [before the interview] was a huge part of it.
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