The Story Painter

Tight schedules and professional distance have no place in David Sutherland's documentary films, where truth takes its time and the people are real.


NO ONE MAKES documentaries the way David Sutherland does. And perhaps no one ever will; the toll is too great.

Though not a household name like Ken Burns, Sutherland is considered by those who know documentaries to be one of the nation's greatest practitioners of the form. He also is renowned for his obsessive attention to detail, extraordinary use of live sound and his habit of living months, even years, with his subjects.

Before cameras rolled on his best-known work, PBS' The Farmer's Wife, a portrait of a young husband and wife as they struggle to save their farm, Sutherland visited 43 rural families and lived with each for as long as two weeks in search of the right couple. He then spent five additional years following Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter and their three children to film, tape and ultimately chronicle their hardscrabble lives in Nebraska. The final product was seen in 1998 by 18 million viewers, an audience for a documentary exceeded on public television only by Burns' The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz.

Tomorrow night, Sutherland's newest project arrives: Country Boys, another anthropological masterpiece that intimately examines the lives of two high school students coming of age in Appalachia. The 60-year-old Massachusetts filmmaker spent seven years in and out of the hills of eastern Kentucky to complete his story.

"The way I do it takes so long because I want you to get into their skin," he explains.

The documentarian's methods more closely resemble an ethnographer's than a television director's; he steeps himself in the minute details, emotions and struggles of their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes.

"It's a dinosaur way to make films, because it's not cost effective," Sutherland says. "And I never tell kids to do it my way, which is third person and extremely close up. But I'm also cutting edge, because there was more audio in The Farmer's Wife than there was in Apocalypse Now -- and on Country Boys, there's even more audio yet. You have to be out of your mind to spend six months just mixing all the different audio tracks, but that's the way I do it."

Sutherland at times sounds more like a painter than a filmmaker as he talks about allowing viewers to feel as if they are part of the lives being framed on the TV screen. If film is his canvas, he primes it with research, carefully blocks out his story with narrative, then brushes in highlights and shadow with sound. Never mind closing the distance between viewer and object viewed, this filmmaker all but obliterates that distinction through his own intense identification and empathy with the people he films.

"The only way I can make the kind of film I do is to absorb the pain that I witness," Sutherland says. "I have to care about the people in the film so much because I'm a portraitist. I'm not an investigative reporter. To make my portraits, I need those emotional nuances. I need that -- I don't even know what the word is -- 'connection' to be able to feel and hear them sighing and breathing from 100 yards away. Getting that close leaves me battered emotionally and physically, but it is the only way of doing documentaries that interests me."

In these days of "ripped from the headlines" television, Sutherland's commitment to capturing the nuances of everyday lives is nearly unheard of, says Michael Sullivan, executive producer for Frontline, the Peabody-Award-winning series responsible for bringing The Farmer's Wife and Country Boys to PBS. "David has been making films for almost 30 years, methodically perfecting his singular vision of cinematic portraiture, trying always to get the viewer as close as he possibly can to the actual reality of his characters' lives. I often tell David when he's groaning in the cutting room through one more day, that his method is the hardest kind of filmmaking there is."

The result, Sullivan adds, are "films that people understand, with stories they care about -- films that illuminate and touch all of our lives,"

A few detours

Little about Sutherland's early career suggested that he would become one of the most revered documentarians of his time. A dyslexic whose disability was not diagnosed until he was 20, Sutherland graduated with a B.A. from Tufts University in 1967. While he spent 1969-70 as a film student at the University of Southern California, he left before earning an M.F.A and did not go into making documentaries full time until more than a decade passed.

Beyond stints on a kibbutz in Israel and an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, he spent much of the next 14 years in the tire business -- first selling them in Colorado and Montana for his uncle and then returning to his hometown of Boston to take over his father's tire and appliance store in East Cambridge.

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