It goes without saying, but let's say it anyway: Everybody has a story to tell. This particular story belongs to Joann Self, a self-made documentary filmmaker and founder and executive director of True Story Pictures.
"Surprises? Sure, I've been surprised," she says. "I always begin my interviews by having the [interviewee] look into the camera and say their name and where they were born. It's simple, and it's good to have your subjects introducing themselves. When I interviewed [photographer] Murray Riss, he said, 'That's probably the hardest thing you could have asked me.' Because he was born in Poland in 1940. During the war he moved from country to country, and everywhere he went, he had a different name. He wasn't Murray Riss until he came to America. I didn't know asking someone to say their name could be so complicated."
In college, Self studied the liberal arts. By profession she's been a grant writer, fund-raiser, and not-for-profit consultant. She never anticipated the day when she would be interviewed about her interviews. She never considered starting a production company or making documentary films.
And then one day she met Art Gilliam, who took over WLOK radio in 1977, making it the first broadcast medium in Memphis owned by an African American. He was a consulting client who wanted to develop an exhibit based on the history and evolution of his historic radio station. But he had a problem. There was no memorabilia to put on display, and it's difficult to build a museum around nothing. "All we've got are stories," Gilliam told Self. "Just a lot of great stories."
Self immediately suggested an oral history. "We would get some cameras, do some research, and conduct some interviews," she says. That's when the seed that would eventually grow into True Story Pictures was planted. That's when this young professional's budding career turned slowly into unfamiliar territory.
"I never even took a communications class," she readily confesses. "But I studied comparative literature primarily because I'm fascinated with different cultures, with how people live and interact in different places and times. Literature reflects all of that, so maybe it's not that far of a stretch."
Self has spent the last year and a half developing The Arts Interviews, an intimate, witty, and engaging documentary chronicling the lives and careers of more than a dozen of Memphis' most prominent artists, including Riss, Larry Edwards, George Hunt, Dick Knowles, Veda Reed, Dolph Smith, and Ernest Withers. In that time, the neophyte filmmaker picked up some technical skills from multimedia specialist Chris Reyes of LiveFromMemphis.com and veteran film technician Eric Wilson. But there are plenty of things she's had to figure out on her own.
"I learned the art of the interview," she says. "There is an art to interviewing for the camera, and it's different from interviewing for a newspaper or radio or anything else. There's something intense about sitting in front of a camera, surrounded by lights. As an interviewer, you have to learn how to keep your mouth shut. To shut up and listen. If you're not confident, you might feel like you have to jump in and say something every time things get quiet. But the silences are always the most soulful moments. It's always after a long pause when the real emotions and the secrets come out."
As True Story Pictures develops, Self hopes to use the lessons she's learned to train others to go out and gather life stories. She compares her organization to StoryCorps, a national oral-history project that encourages people to make audio recordings of their friends and relatives and provides them with instruction.
"But this would be local," she says, "and more engaging because you get to watch, to see all the idiosyncrasies.
"Some people can pay a couple of thousand dollars to have a professionally made life history of their grandparents," Self says. "Some people can't. But maybe they can pay $100. We think that the stories of a grandmother who lives in Foote Homes is just as important and as valuable as anyone's. We want to create a community archive that fully represents this community."
With The Arts Interviews now complete and available for purchase online, Self hopes others will recognize both the quality and value of her work.
"This kind of archive is potentially an incredible resource." ●