Why I Do Documentary Video Production
By Sean Korbitz
“We travel, some of us forever,
to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
The most common question I’m asked about doing documentary video production is a simple, but sometimes shattering, “why?” “Why” can form the basis of so many questions, but of the five “w” questions, it is by far the most piercing in its candor. “Why” has such a negative and accusatory quality that even FBI hostage negotiators avoid using “why” questions at all costs.
To be fair, “why,” is a logical question to be asked from most of western society, especially most Americans. It cuts right to the point. “Why are you doing this?” “Why go there?” “Why them?” “Why you?” “Why not do it this way?” Unfortunately the only response, even by someone seasoned in hearing such a question as myself, almost always requires a defensive position. How could it not? “Why” bathes every question in a light of skepticism regardless of the intention of the curious mind. It’s a question that you rarely receive about your choice in jobs when working or applying yourself anywhere else but the humanities sector (teaching too). Often, “the money or pay,” is as adequate a response when asked “why,” in any other profession. This isn’t the case for human-rights, non-profit or documentary based work. All three of which I attempt to make my living in. “The money,” is not an adequate response, most notably because there isn’t any for the honest here. Read into that last sentence what you will.
Uttar Pradesh, India
A privileged white guy from rural Colorado, I sat behind that same narrow-perspective-lens until I was in my mid-twenties. I’ve always known I carry an inherent open-mindedness, my emotions on my sleeve and what I believed was a worldview that made me make choices based on what was best for humanity. Those ideals came from everything I saw on TV as a child, or learned from books or teachers, my saint of a mother and yes even the internet (barely) for those questioning my age. I was an overconfident, wisdom lacking, near-nihilistic idealist with a suitcase of conclusions based almost entirely on the experiences of others. Ahhhh… unfounded confidence… ignorance. I had a lot of it, and the worst part was just how confident I was in how little ignorance I thought I had.
Then, through fate, I had one of the weirdest decades in my twenties. Most would consider the sorts of things I went through, and ultimately survived, the kind that qualify you for a reality show or at least some life-changing shift. I didn’t get either. 30 brain tumors, a bilateral kidney cancer and lifelong genetic cancer diagnosis and I never found that path in the woods that diverged so that I might take the road less travelled. Instead I found the road to more self-deception. More of my ego telling me because of my circumstances, “I must be right,” in my now even more cemented ideals. Most of this, I know now, came from fear.
I spent that decade just before my 21st birthday until around my 31st birthday learning to adapt faster to the changes that come with a genetic cancer. I got to a point where I was even able to go back to college, graduate and find a career path in journalism, specifically documentary and long-form journalism. With brain tumors clogging up my neural pathways the entire time, I wouldn’t advise it as a modality of studying.
“Great life story,” you say, but what does that have to do with traveling? I suppose it all does. This career gave me a key to the world.
At 29 I took my first job in India as the director of a documentary (this is one of the points where I inevitably receive a “why” question in 50% of cases). I spent almost seven weeks in places no tourist goes or has access to (again… “Why?”). The time shattered me and everything I knew about how people existed. I went again at 30, but instead of the first trip’s wanderlust, I saw everything through a newfound lens of cynicism. I didn’t like this new lens. The amount of poverty you see in some places in the world can destroy you. Without proper context and all information it’s overly inscrutable to be among 1.4 billion people and a 180 degree contrast of essentially everything about life.
Uttar Pradesh, India
Spend time in a village in rural Uttar Pradesh (northern India), then take a 36 hour train to Tamil Nadu (southern India) if you want to get as far from your current situation than anything you could find. This will break your bubble immediately, it can also break you, and I can assure one of these two things. You should be prepared to go through an emotional rollercoaster and question life. It is not the “spiritual journey” most speak of when they walk the Ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi, or sit contemplatively in front of the Taj Mahal’s manicured grounds or spend an hour with a guru, sadhu or baba to learn how Vedic Sanskrit texts relate to your life. It is not that journey. Can you hear my lens of cynicism? It persists to this day, but I’m happy to report it’s become a slightly healthier lens of skepticism.
After joining Lightworkers Republic and taking my current position as COO with my business partner Andrew, the universe put a beautiful organization, Far Away Friends, in our lives. In no time, we were being vaccinated and packing our bags for Uganda to film new material for Far Away Friends and the primary school they helped build in rural Amolatar District, Uganda. This was Andrew and I’s first travel job together as business partners—a test of any business partnership if you haven’t tried it yourself.
Those three weeks were the most life-changing moments of my life—so special that I tend to keep the memories to myself. Every single day of late July and early August of 2017 was a gift from the universe. I found my tribe. A baker’s dozen of like-minds who not only gave me hope for humanity, but made me into that best version of myself because that’s the only version they deserved from me, nothing less. When you find your tribe, or if you already have, you know what I mean.
When I was asked to return with Far Away Friends for their July 2018 trip it was beyond humbling but a pretty easy decision for me. Again, when you find your tribe, you get it.
I wanted to change things up for my fourth bubble-bursting lens-smashing trip. I didn’t want a job driving my every day. I wanted to go “naked” in a sense. Open to anything that might happen as everyone else on the journey would be. It was worth every minute.
I’ve been back in the United States for a little over a week, physically—mentally a few days, after the jet lag. I’ve had trouble getting back to work at Lightworkers, but I’ve never been as happy with any decision I’ve made in my life as I am with the last three weeks spent in Uganda—more than the first three in fact. It will take me months to understand all of the beautiful states, lives and souls that I found there or strengthened. Lightworkers Republic has creative films in the works that will take us all over the world over the next few years, and I’m excited for everything ahead. Living in the present but always looking to the next journey because that’s all there is now.
As the quote by Anais Nin at the beginning of this blog states perfectly, “We travel, some of us forever to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” There is something extraordinary about traveling to other cultures, knowing other humans, eating their food and being in their homes. The further from your current comfort zone, the larger the effects. The quote by Nin is poetry to me because it’s not only the states, lives and souls of others that I seek; it is in fact, those things within me that I also seek in my travels. All of the states of me that I discover, the lives I get to live in this one we have and the souls I share and carry with me forever. That’s my best explanation of “why” I do what I do.
Light•work•ers (lit•wurk'.ers) noun. any being dedicated to making an impact on the world through the cultivation of passion, inspiration, and teamwork.
Re•pub•lic (ri•pub'.lik) noun. powerful body of people that make up a group of individuals.
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