What Do Protagonists Get Out of Documentaries?

Posted on August 17, 2011

Filmmaker Koen Suidgeest of Karla’s Arrival explains why doc films offer a voice to those who have been silenced. Karla’s Arrival will have its U.S. premiere at the NY International Latino Film Festival on August 17.


If there’s anything that has become clear to me, it is that different audiences all over the world have very similar humanistic questions.  And after numerous private and festival screenings, I have a pretty good idea what audiences wonder about after seeing the film. Karla’s Arrival is about teenager Sujeylin Aguilar who lives in a park in Managua, Nicaragua. In the beginning of the story, she is pregnant and planning to raise the child right there on the streets. We follow her through the birth of baby girl Karla and during the first year of their lives together.

The audiences’ concern for the well being of Karla and her mother has been heartwarming. As such, one of the questions I get most is about what they got out of participating in the documentary. Sometimes the question is even asked with a pointy finger: “Did you make sure she got something out of it?”

What do protagonists get out of documentaries? Why would they agree to having a crew around for days on end, following their every move and totally depriving them of their privacy? For Sujeylin, who then lived in extreme poverty under a tree in a park, there were several reasons. Some of them are simple: although we didn’t pay her (luckily she understood this part of the deal), she knew very well that she would enjoy a certain amount of protection and benefits when we were around for the various shooting periods. Simple things: when we ate, she would too. That was one less worry for the day. If she had to bring Karla for a medical check-up and we were not shooting, we’d drive her there. But here is a more profound reason.  Before making Karla’s Arrival, I spent many years researching street communities – mainly in Central America but also in India. 

There is one thing that I have found that all these kids have in common: a tremendous need to tell their personal story, yet a general frustration that no one is interested. It is simply amazing, when you first get to know a street kid, the ease with which they will share their entire life story with you within the first 15 minutes. So, if you’ve been living in a park in Managua for six years and this somewhat strange tall Dutch guy shows up and says: “I’m interested in your story. I want to spend 15 months with you and I want you to show us every detail of your life,” what would you do? Sujeylin was quick to decide and stuck it out with us all the way. And is this not the greatest gift of documentary making? To give a voice to those who have been silenced? 

I personally feel this to be a tremendous responsibility but also, particularly in my experience with that wonderfully strong and dedicated young woman called Sujeylin, an honor and a tremendous pleasure. And to top it off, after screening Karla’s Arrival herself this past February, Sujeylin finally decided to check into a shelter for young mothers after having resisted professional help for years. So yes, she made sure she got something out of it. 

Read an interview with Koen Suidgeest that BTB published last December as part of a series of profiles from ITVS’s International Call.


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