The Art of Really Listening
Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Nikolchev on telling unexpected stories
Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Nikolchev is a People Nerd who looks forward to being surprised. A former PBS producer and co-founder of Hot in Here Productions, Alexandra’s work centers on social justice issues, with a particular focus on immigration. Her PBS documentary “Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie)” won a Peabody Award and she received an Emmy Award for a three-part PBS investigation into the U.S. Border Patrol. Those kinds of narratives in particular, she says, require filmmakers to leave their preconceptions at the door.
“When you’re interviewing someone, it’s really about being present with them,” she says, adding that really listening opens up the discussion in ways you can’t anticipate. “Then you get material that might surprise you. Because if you’re telling a story and nothing is surprising by the end, then you haven’t been listening.”
Plus, Alexandra says, it’s often the smaller, unexpected moments that can really lend insight into a person’s story. On a recent shoot for her latest project, a documentary about a group of community organizers in Youngstown, Ohio, she recalls an unplanned early morning moment that ended up leading to a critical insight into one of the film’s central characters.
“The film focuses on young people who are trying to help revitalize the town they grew up in, in the middle of the Rust Belt. Most of the other people they grew up with have moved on, but they’re buying up old abandoned properties and renovating them, and filling them with families. We got to the office, which is this old craftsman home where they run things, at like six in the morning to meet one of the guys, Ian, and talk to him. And the exciting footage is of him wiping down his desk with these sterile cleaning cloths, because it just reveals what kind of leader he is. The care and attention to detail, the need for everything to be in order. That moment will tell you so much more about him than watching him in a big meeting. It’s one of those smaller moments that we all can relate to, of walking into the office in the morning, and what the first thing you do is. That moment is going to tell you so much more about that person than they could tell you themselves.”
dscout sat down with Alexandra to talk about capturing those unexpected moments, the responsibility that comes with storytelling, and the art of listening.
dscout: What is it about telling other people’s stories that fascinates you?
Alexandra Nikolchev: I was an extremely shy kid, and so my way of connecting was to watch people. That was what was within my comfort level. When my family would go out to eat when I was young, I actually used to move closer to other tables so I could listen to other people’s conversations. Like, embarrassingly close, and I wouldn’t even really realize it. I was just so enamored by people. I hated being the center of attention, but I liked watching other people interact. I was too scared and shy to interact with people directly, but that was sort of how I found to connect with them. I love people. For me, that’s the reason for being here on this planet, to connect with other people. I’m fascinated by what makes people do what they do, how some people overcome certain things in their life and some people do not.
There’s something really amazing when someone tells you their own story; you can see something light up in them.
Was that what led you to filmmaking?
I kind of came into filmmaking sideways. I’ve always been interested in storytelling, but I thought I wanted to work in education. My mom was a teacher, my grandmothers were teachers, and I really got into filmmaking because initially I wanted to teach media to kids. Because to me it felt like that was something that was missing in education, helping kids to see the value of their own stories, and their connection to places in the world. And film, and documentary film particularly, give us a pretty incredible way to show that. There’s something really pretty amazing when someone tells you their own story; you can see something light up in them.
I think a lot of people don’t realize what’s unique about themselves, or they take their own life for granted. Often when I’m talking to someone, it’s the first time they’ve really reflected on their story, and there’s a moment when they realize how extraordinary it is, which is a pretty incredible thing. The best compliment that I can get as a filmmaker is when someone says to me, “I didn’t realize that anybody cared about my story, but since I’ve started talking to you I’ve realized that I do have a story to tell.”
The best compliment that I can get as a filmmaker is when someone says to me, “I didn’t realize that anybody cared about my story, but since I’ve started talking to you I’ve realized that I do have a story to tell.”
You’ve done quite a bit of work telling stories about immigration. For a lot of immigrants, they may not have had a lot of previous opportunities to tell their story, so they’re telling you for the first time.
It is, and immigration stories are really incredible survival stories and stories about the strength of human spirit. A lot of immigrants often really feel that they’re just sort of surviving, and they don’t take the time to reflect on what they’ve actually accomplished, for themselves and their family. For a lot of immigrants English is not their first language, and for the older generation in particular, that often means they’re treated a certain way, they aren’t really listened to. I had one woman tell me that everyone talks to her like a five-year-old, because her English isn’t perfect. Part of it is just giving someone a space, and the respect to tell their story. That means a lot to people. It’s a different kind of treatment than a lot of people who have immigrated as adults are used to.
Telling those stories also really escalates things to another level—immigrants’ stories are very personal of course, but they can also have huge ramifications for their lives, socially, culturally, and of course legally. The Peabody Award winning PBS documentary you helped produce, “Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie),” is the story of twenty-four-year-old Angy Rivera, who has been in the United States and undocumented since she was four years old. In the film, she says, “Being undocumented isn’t something we can put in the back of our heads. When I wake up, it’s the first thing I think about.” Her telling her story is going to have a huge impact on her life. That has to add another huge layer of responsibility for you as a filmmaker. So how do you approach telling a story like that, and make sure that you’re honoring it?
That’s what I really like about documentary as a medium; it gives you a chance to tell some pretty amazing character-focused stories. When you’re telling somebody’s story in a very intimate way, it’s really about building a long-term relationship. There’s a lot of observation that goes on, there’s time without a camera, there’s a lot of back and forth. One thing I’ve learned in my career is the importance of really listening, reflecting back, and saying to them, “Okay, this is what I’m hearing you say is important.” Repeating back to them what I’ve heard and getting their buy in through that process. Because something I might hear and think is incredibly important in somebody’s life might actually not be. So I try to keep that in check, and try to make sure I’m not only telling the story through my eyes, but also through theirs.
One of the most memorable moments I’ve had as a filmmaker was talking to a 17-year-old whose father had died trying to cross the border. We were talking about what it’s like to be undocumented, and I remember she started talking about how her family could never go on vacation. They only lived a few miles from Disneyland, but they were too afraid to all get in the car together, because it would attract attention. So they never went, even though her Dad had wanted to take them. It seems like a smaller thing maybe, but again I think often it’s those little moments that we can relate to that are most important to convey.
And ultimately, with a lot of the stories I tell, especially with the undocumented community—the people I’m talking to are choosing to tell their story. In a lot of cases, they are much more aware than I am of the risk they’re taking. They know what they’re doing and they’re choosing to talk, and so to censor someone and not let them tell their story is condescending. Part of my responsibility as a filmmaker is to talk it through with them, make sure they understand what they’re doing and if they do, make sure I don’t censor what they want to say.
You mentioned the importance of really listening, and that’s something that’s obviously hugely important no matter why or how you’re telling someone’s story—but sometimes the story aspect of that can get in the way a little bit. No matter the medium, people can enter into a situation sort of already knowing the story they want to tell and trying to make what they hear fit into that story. That’s something journalists obviously come up against, but researchers do as well. So, what does that mean to you, to truly listen?
You know, from a filmmaker’s perspective, in documentaries today there is a lot of pressure to tell a story that feels like narrative. To tell it with a beginning,middleand end. To have a villain and a protagonist. That’s how a lot of filmmakers talk about story now, with these fiction tropes, when they’re outlining and putting up note cards and crafting the overall arc. It’s what the industry expects from us, but I think in doing that it’s easy to lose sense of what’s actually real. A lot of filmmakers go into the field thinking, “How are we going to edit this footage?” And you have to think about those things up to a point, but when you’re with a subject and filming, you also need to be very present. You can go with a road map and some ideas, but when you’re there, it’s really about being present and listening to someone, and then you get material that might surprise you—even if it complicates your story. Because if you’re telling a story and nothing is surprising by the end, then you haven’t been listening.
Part of it is just giving someone a space, and the respect to tell their story. That means a lot to people.
That’s a pretty good argument for diversity of perspective.
Absolutely. I used to work for PBS News, booking guests for a national news show called “Need to Know.” Part of my job was to book people for the roundtable discussions the show would have on issues like Medicaid or education. It was so important to book a diverse group of people, not just find the three people who had written the most about the topic. You need to make sure you’re getting the perspective of everyone: women, people of color, people who represent different classes, rural and urban too. That process made me so aware of the importance of listening. We need to have diversity in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the audience. Talking to new groups of people is critical. Because oftentimes when we’re only engaging with people who have the same perspective as we do, we can move into shorthand, or pigeon hole someone into a certain role, or think all the facts lead to an inevitable conclusion. But we have so many blind spots in how we view the world. You can’t make up what somebody else’s perspective is. That’s a huge part of listening. We might think we’ve heard it before, but we are informed by our experiences and you can’t assume what somebody with a different experience from you is thinking. Really listening opens up the discussion in ways that you could never anticipate. It’s the only way that we’re going to actually get a better understanding of who we are as humans, as a country, and how we can work together.
It’s actually one of the things that I really appreciate about the branded work that we do. We get to engage an audience in documentary-style storytelling on topics they care about and reach new viewers that aren’t necessarily your typical PBS-documentary watchers, which is really important. And it’s especially rewarding when you’re working with brands that want to reach a diverse audience—and we’re seeing more and more that do these days, which is really refreshing.
— Alexandra Nikolchev
If you’re telling a story and nothing is surprising by the end, then you haven’t been listening.
So what’s that intangible thing that makes someone’s story worth exploring in a documentary?
For me, it really comes down to that human connection. Sitting down with someone and getting that moment. Some of it’s intangible, but there’s also a sense of, if I find this person compelling, whether you like them or you’re scared of them or whatnot, but the fact that you want to sit there and listen to what they’re saying and you’re curious to hear more. If you feel that way, then other people may too.
And it’s not just situational. I’ve told some stories about people who are doing great things and helping to bring about great change, but they’re not going through change themselves. That becomes complicated. They’re not as compelling as characters. I’m also really taken by the idea that we should move away from only telling stories about heroes. To me the most interesting stories aren’t about extraordinary people, but how people live with and react to the circumstances before them. That’s one of the most interesting challenges for me as a filmmaker, how to tell those more complicated stories without losing an audience. If someone isn’t always making the most moral decisions, how do you make an audience care about them? You have to create that sense of empathy. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, about seeing the humanity in a lot of different people that others might write off. It’s something I want to tell more stories about.