Conversations at the INC: John Kennedy, Documentary Filmmaker and Social Justice Advocate

04 June 2018 By Zach Waddle main 0 Comments

Unfortunately, I did not have the pleasure of being present at John Kennedy’s talk. The good news is that you can watch it! There are so many ridiculous videos out there on the internet that will likely be preserved for posterity. I’m thankful for that, but I’m most thankful that among those is a video like this. John is a documentarian and a social justice advocate, but what these titles fail to adequately express is that he is such a compassionate person. He is working with the non-profit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to produce documentaries that give different people and communities the opportunity to share their stories. He’s extremely passionate about listening to people and letting them tell their story straight from the heart, and he’s very adept in becoming completely immersed with his subject and organizing their journey so that it can be presented to the world in the most authentic and influential manner possible.


Conversations at the INC: John Kennedy - Documentary Filmmaker from The New Media Incubator on Vimeo.


Now, John will tell you that he isn’t the most articulate speaker, but he doesn’t have to behe isn’t the storyteller. What he’s doing is listening to the story being told, letting it be told by the people who have lived it, instead of trying to dictate it to fit a predetermined narrative. “[I]n that space, […] I clench my chest around my heart and then I slowly release it,” he explains. “I try and do anything I can in the interview space to like unshield myself, open myself up for this moment, for this story, […] and giving that energy and that space for that storyteller to know that I’m there with them while they reveal.” It's in those inspiring moments that he says the very air quality changes around him.


An audience member asks John what advice he has on combating the manipulation of stories. His reply, however, seems to contradict the points he'd been making: he says he does, in fact, manipulate the story. “You watch this video and it rolls out, hopefully, in kind of a natural narrative.” He points out that while his work may appear to be presented organically, each video has a hook. He openly admits that the purpose of the hook is to play on your feelings and draw you in and, I must say, he does so in a way that still feels natural.


He offers the audience a breakdown of his approach for each story. “It’s going to lead off with an interesting statement that catches your attention," he explains. "It’s going to then go straight into humanizing your main character. [...] It’s just me looking for these hooks to manipulate your emotions- It just is.” Next, he discusses adding in the element of danger from the story to show the viewers what the storytellers stand to lose. His honesty about the intentional manipulation of emotion is what allows his work to retain its integrity, preventing the story from becoming sullied by a forced narrative.


It really can't be emphasized enough that John understands the importance of authenticity. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, it’s so easy for potentially magnificent things to end up feeling homogenized by the time they reach their audience. It is truly unfortunate when a piece feels that contrived and shallow. Aside from big companies trying to toe the line, I don’t think most people intend to bring down the quality of their own work. I believe this to be a result of what John mentioned about an interviewer going into a story with their mind already made up as to how it’s going to unfold or, at least, how it's going to be presented. While some of John’s advice such as being true to yourself and keeping an open mind may seem cliché on the surface, if you’ve watched even a moment of his work you’ll see that these are important, but often overlooked truths that will ultimately determine the quality of your work.


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