Paul Zetter – Building Empathy

Paul Zetter, media for change.
Photo by Jamie Maxtone-Graham

Editor’s note: Paul Zetter is a photographer and documentary filmmaker whose films focus on telling the stories of the differently abled. In this interview, he discusses a recent short film, My Journey To Work. We just learned that Paul has embarked on an ambitious 3-year media project called Connect to Stories From The Value Chain funded by Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation that will document ethnic minorities and their production of spices, textiles, bamboo, rattan and tea in Vietnam and then show how they improve their market links and product quality. Like the Facebook page here: Connect To Stories From The Value Chain

This interview for was conducted by Jayesh Ganesh.


My very first influences were my parents. My mother was a teacher and my father was an internationalist and a rather global citizen. Together, they shaped my tolerant world-view and I learned to be accepting of people and their varied circumstances. Our home in the UK in the early 70s was a meeting place for visitors from around the world and I grew up amidst talks of society and politics, cultures and communities.

Music had a large impact on me. I was keen to explore art and found myself capable of communicating effectively through music. The Punk Rock Movement of the mid 1970s was a very empowering creative experience for teenagers like me.

In my early twenties, I volunteered to work with MENCAP. In U.K. MENCAP is a large charity benefitting people with learning difficulties. I have since then continued working creatively with people with learning difficulties. Later in London, I attended a course on music for people with disabilities run by Janet Wyatt. I understood creativity in art and music as avenues for empowerment and education and not just therapy.

In London, I met and worked with renowned theatre director, David Glass. He mentored me and instilled in me a deep awareness of creativity, the body and how one relates to the world through touch and senses. David Glass would be instrumental in shaping my career as a filmmaker many years later.

Lessons From Educating

I really enjoy working with young people and helping them learn filmmaking. The journey usually starts with their aspirations as a storyteller, then studying story and its forms and then lastly the technical. I tend to not go into too much depth about style because I like to see what emerges from them first and then help them understand and develop it. I don’t get into film theories like the rule of thirds, composition or camera angles. Instead, I ask them to shoot something and then use their own footage to analyze it and then these elements usually emerge in discussion. This emergent learning is much more suited to my approach – it takes longer but what comes out is a more individual approach to storytelling.

Transition to Film

I became a filmmaker quite by accident. In Vietnam, I had been working on several development projects in the arts. One of these projects involved the setting up and funding of a contemporary dance company, Together-Higher. Together-Higher’s dance troupe consisted entirely of untrained deaf dancers led by two choreographers. When one of my funding proposals for a five-city Vietnam tour for the group was accepted, I realized I had not written myself into the proposal! I did not want to miss this groundbreaking tour so I offered to join the crew in making a ‘video diary’ of the tour as a record.

My mentor, David Glass, suggested that I make a ‘proper’ film. He even bought me my first camera, a secondhand Sony PD170. The film was completed in 2005 and was successfully screened in the international and niche film festival circuit. It was my first film.

The film featured dancers using sign language. There was no speech, only pirouettes. On reflection, it was formative because this style of filming, which focuses on movements and not sound is how I have chosen to approach my subjects. My films try to capture movement, touch, and the human body – only then does it address speech.

My aspiration as a filmmaker is to help organizations tell powerful stories to better convey their good work. I see myself as a humanitarian and as an educator who makes films. I am not the filmmaker who makes humanitarian films. My first impulse will always remain the need to help people understand the power and depth of stories that surround them and engage them on the value and uses of films. I want to continue to make better films. I started making films late at age 42 so I am making up for lost time.

I want to continue what I’m doing till I am not fit enough to carry a camera and shoot in difficult conditions. In the future, I will perhaps write a handbook/manual for development filmmakers and development communications people so they can benefit, I hope, from what I’ve learned.

Being Invisible in the Field

I see the process of filmmaking as creative capacity building for the commissioning organization and a chance for the staff to access and use their latent creativity. I enjoy working closely with people from the organization I film for. On the field, I prefer working alone. I usually employ on-board sound and wireless microphones. Using a DSLR with IS lenses also reduces the footprint as does only using tripod for establishing wide shots and close-up interviews towards the end of the shoot. Sometimes, it is helpful to work with a couple of program staff members who know the beneficiary and understand their story. Through the filmmaking process of planning, shooting, editing and post-production, I employ a porous system and involve organization members to create a sense of ownership. There is always a struggle between the perceived needs of the film’s donor and the real story on the ground, but it is working this out in real time that is one of the most exciting parts of the job for me.

The disadvantages of working in small teams on the field are mostly technical – outboard sound by boom pole would be nice but it’s just too intrusive for me. It would perhaps be pleasant for me to direct the film while a cameraman shoots footage but it would not capture the film as I see it through my eyes. I sometimes miss the ability to consult technically while in the field, but my priority is to not upset the gentle ecology of my subjects’ lives, so I have learned to live with those limitations.

The advantage of working in small teams is the invisibility. My subjects are hardly ever nervous or self-conscious in front of the camera. When I meet my subject for the first time I don’t carry a camera in my hands. We meet as fellow humans first and then work out the complex and mainly one-sided power relationship between the cameraman and subject. This has to come only after an initial trust is built.

Telling Stories

Organizations usually come to me with an issue and possibly a subject in mind. We then discuss and look more deeply into the story – what makes this one special or what is it about the subject’s character that enabled them to overcome something. If it’s geographically possible, I meet the subject once or twice without the camera to talk about their story and together develop approaches and angles of how to tell their story. Organizations often like to suggest their big success story as a showcase.This is fine but I’m also interested in the quieter stories of struggle. Another form I like is combining several subjects’ stories into one film.

This provides contrast and will often cover more bases of change and transformation than one person who might be extraordinary
but therefore not very representative.

In my first few films, I realized that I really had very few clean shots of the subject for good editing. In my mind’s eye, I could see the close-up shots but in reality, I hadn’t filmed them. I soon understood that this was because I wasn’t really connecting or engaging with the subject. I used to be more concerned about the technical aspects and distracted by the stress and mechanical aspects of filming the right shots. Over time I’ve learned to overcome this self induced pressure by trying to be more in their moment and react to the subject’s, as well as my own, feelings and emotions when shooting.

Enabling the Differently Abled

Exposing outsiders in wider society to the lives and decisions of the people who know them is the best way I know of developing a more tolerant attitude. This is because people close to the subject have already developed this tolerance over time. Not aggrandizing or romanticizing struggle is essential, as is focusing on commonly shared human details like how you get to work or run a business.

My greatest learning has been to see the person first and what they can achieve instead of discussing their disability and their limitations. Everyone loves, touches, jokes, eats, drinks, dreams – focusing on these things opens up pathways to a greater understanding and paves the way for a more empathetic engagement.

The strongest connection I made while filming was on a personal film project about two mothers who had autistic sons. I gave both the women cameras to film at home and I filmed using a third professional camera. After one year we had lots of great footage and I was readying myself for the edit. In the end the film wasn’t made due to the subjects’ personal reasons but the bond we had made over the year was actually the most valuable thing and now I have few regrets.

‘My Journey’ – A synthesis

The key to this film were my discussions with Mai before filming. We knew that Mai had overcome an amazing struggle but weren’t sure how to show it. We were both open to serendipity. She often took the initiative to speak and revealed personal details about her own creativity in music and how she had educated herself. I asked her to choose a song to sing in the film hoping it would fit but not knowing for sure. When she chose to sing a song about school I saw the structure – re-enactments of her self-education, her song intercut with her journey to work. This was all completely unplanned – we just let it evolve.

I think the most important thing is developing a sense of empathy with your subject and their story. In some ways working for over 25 years with differently-abled people has allowed me to internalize this, so in a sense maybe I started making films at the right time! If you can learn to work with subjects to let their story emerge and evolve it’s much better than following a script or shoot plan. It might help to think ‘how would I feel if a filmmaker I’d never met before came into my house and pointed a camera at me, my family, my possessions and friends and asked lots of questions and afterwards posted it on YouTube for the world to see?’ I feel this keenly before every shoot and try to reduce this one-sided balance of power by making the process more collaborative and of course respecting their privacy where they want it. So developing your own humility and an internal moral and ethical compass is important for me. The rest is researching the craft of storytelling not just in film but also in theatre, literature, music and art. Filming is all about how to get the most compelling story out of compromise.

Can Media make a Difference?

Yes, if I didn’t believe this I wouldn’t be making films. Films can produce empathy, understanding and a call for action in viewers for subjects and issues they might otherwise never encounter or understand. Using a creative form like film permits the use of metaphor, beauty, storytelling and cinematographic aesthetics which access more parts of the brain to produce a panoramic experience. As I’ve said, I work hard to make a difference in the filmmaking process too. If you think of the subject and their family/community as being in the centre of a set of concentric circles, then films can cut through the outer circles of wider society, more distant from the subject. A film has the ability to capture that inner perspective without prejudice or pre-conceptions, propelling the audience on the way to seeing something that has value and is representative of a life.

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