Just Be Frank...

This blog started nearly three years ago when I embarked on a journey to follow a passion to make documentaries. As I whizzed around New York City with an oversized video camera, navigating peak hour traffic whilst trying to keep the lens on my protagonist, blind-jazz singer Frank Senior, there were moments of despair. Moments when the inner critic tried to take over and convince me it was doomed to fail. Happily, although I'm back in Australia it feels deeply rewarding to know that "Just Be Frank" continues to travel. Next week it will be showing at Palm Springs Shortsfest.

People have asked me how psychiatry and documentary fit together. The thing that draws me to both is a deep interest in human story especially stories of struggle and resilience. Both psychiatry and documentary filmmaking have helped support one another in many ways. I have used the skills I have learnt through psychiatry to both interview and intuit some of my film subjects.They have both been paths which have challenged me to the core of my being and forced me to face both the light and shadow parts of myself and those I have encountered along the way.

Working in the area of mental health I am always intrigued by what is the ingredient that allows some people to move forward and flourish despite their traumas and disadavntages and others to disintegrate and fall into psychosis, depression and suicide. In documentary I have found stories of survival and resilience. Whether in the streets of havana or the post-tsunami shores of Sri lanka I have been inspired by the way people can keep moving forward despite tragic life losses or oppressive political regimes.

Coming from a medical perspective when you are faced with someone who has a problem your role is to intervene and assist them to improve their situation. However, in making a documentary there can often be a conflict of interest between the protagonist and the filmmaker. I was faced with this many times during the making of Just Be Frank. As I tried to make an observational documentary about a blind man I was often confronted with situations whereby it seemed appropriate to assist Frank rather than film him, which resulted in missing 'dramatic moments'. I was shooting on fifth avenue at Frank's news stand one day trying to capture him crossing the footpath to his stand. I waited for a flurry of people to pass and then told him to go. At that moment he took my lead put out his stick and a woman in suit and heels crossed the path tripping on his cane and ending flat on the footpath. I saw it happen through the camera and immediately stopped the camera to help out. Frank was apologising to the woman and when she walked off he requested through his giggling that I include that scene in the film to depict what happened to him frequently on Fifth avenue. He may have been saying that to make me feel better but either way I had missed the moment. This issue of ethics is a big one in documentary filmmaking. Where do you draw the ethical line of putting down the camera and helping out in a situation. Some may argue that by telling the story rather than fixing it you can have more impact to create change.

The link between film and medicine for me is my fascination with human story. As a medical student in anatomy I remember gradually dissecting an old woman's body, each week a deeper exploration into all of the hidden organs. It culminated in reaching the brain. I held her brain in my hands in complete awe that such a mass could house the mystery of the soul, all of this old woman's memories, loves, losses, thoughts. It made my own life feel somehow very fleeting and insignificant. So many different emotions we experience during our lives when in the end, there is just the physicality of brain left over.

Documentary filmmaking for me is in many ways an anatomical journey. I meet my character and using the tools of curiousity and empathy gradually peel away the layers, going deeper and deeper into understanding what makes this unique human being live the way they do.


  1. this is why I love you! I am thrilled that your film has found wings.I am very keen to see it too! Rachel

  2. This is so beautifully written. To me, pure writing is when I as a reader can forget I am reading, and feel as if I were in an experience. Not in my seat, but in the lifestream of another, who for a few moments, or forever, does not seem separate from me at all. Thanks Elise. I am left only with a longing to see your film. Thank you for making it.