Ps and Qs of Q&As

At this year's Silverdocs, I attended a screening of Mugabe and The White African, a powerful documentary about a farmer in Uganda who was fighting to keep his farm from a corrupt government and racist thugs. At one point the farmer and his son-in-law are severely beaten and the film shows footage of the two recovering in the hospital. At the question-and-answer session following The White African, the director revealed that she had to sneak the camera into the hospital for those shots and that her and her crew would have faced harsh consequences from the government if they were found out. This knowledge added a whole new level of a appreciation for a riveting film.

Through film festivals and attending special screenings (courtesy of the DC Film Society), I have had the privilege of participating in many Q&As. These are mostly with the film's directors, but occasionally with actors, writers or producers. If it's a documentary, the Q&A might include the film's subject. When done right, the Q&As can be both enjoyable and informative. But the success depends as much on the audience as it does on the speakers. Questioners must remember that they are not having a private conversation and that these sessions are an opportunity for every person in the theater. Good questions about the film or the special guest make the most of this opportunity. Anything else is a waste. If you're in the audience and raise your hand or step to the microphone, remember that this session is not about you. To that end, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Ask a question. This would seem obvious, but it's not. I've been to countless Q&As where someone gets up and says to the person on stage "I just think you're wonderful" or words to that effect. NO ONE CARES!!! Go home and write a fan letter or an e-mail. The same goes for political opinions. With documentaries audience members seem to feel the need to say how much they agree or disagree with the film's points. Again, no one cares. None of this benefits anyone else in the audience. Many times, it doesn't benefit the talent either. After a screening of The Truth About Charlie, one guy first told Thandie Newton "You were great in Mission Impossible: II," and then added "Tom Cruise sucked." Newton just sat there. What was she supposed to say?

2. Know something about the people on stage. I'm not talking about extensive research. You don't have to know their whole filmography. Just have some basic facts about their work. Spend a minute in the Internet Movie Database. At a screening of Levity, a woman asked Holly Hunter why she hadn't appeared in any films since The Piano. Hunter shot her back a steely glare and replied that she had been in several films since The Piano. Nothing like sharing a collective awkward moment with an Oscar winner.

3. When in doubt, go with the bread-and-butter questions. If you can ask creative, unique questions go ahead. Those are usually the best choice. But if you can't think of one and want to ask a question anyway, there are some reliable standbys to fall back on. None of these are particularly impressive, but they all make sense and give room for commentary on the film. Some examples include:
  • What drew you to this story?
  • What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?
  • Why did you make these casting choices?
  • Was there a particular look or style you were going for?
4. If you ask a stupid question, don't press it. Remember in school when teachers would say "There's no such thing as a stupid question." Well, they were wrong. Stupid questions are a fact of life. I've seen them asked, have had them asked of me. I'm sure I've asked plenty myself. So at a Q&A anyone might ask one. If you do, it's not the end of the world if you let the question go quickly. Don't dig the hole any deeper by pressing your question. A few years ago at a screening of Limbo, a woman asked director John Sayles whether tobacco companies had paid for characters to smoke in the film. The idiocy of the question was apparent to everyone else but her. A tobacco company would pay to have cigarettes featured in a movie by a independent left-wing director whose films almost never draw huge crowds? I don't think so. Sayles politely answered no, but then the woman kept persisting, annoying Sayles and eliciting groans from the rest of the audience. I wished I could have apologized to Sayles.

5. Enjoy it. If the guest enjoys being there and answering questions, if he or she takes the work seriously, but does not take themselves to seriously, then Q&As are fun. As I mentioned, Q&As are a rare opportunity to learn about a film and the people who made it. When done right, they can make a good movie even better.

Adam Spector
September 1, 2009

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