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Jess Shane: “I’m not interested in turning people’s lives into products anymore”

Meet The Producer - Jess Shane Radiotopia Shocking Heartbreaking transformative


Jess Shane: “I’m not interested in turning people’s lives into products anymore”

What happens when you turn the process of documentary making inside out and purposely bend the rules? Well according to Radiotopia’s Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative, boundaries get blurred, mistakes proceed and lessons are learnt.

Those familiar with nonfiction audio documentary maker Jess Shane, may know her as the producer of BBC 4 Lights Out: Accounts and Accountability which explored the ethics and monetary value of storytelling, so this is nothing new to Jess. In the five part series Radiotopia presents Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative, she takes it further

In its first episode Jess recalls making ‘Perfect Woman’ for CBC’s Love Me. Perfect Woman is the story of her reading her ex-boyfriend’s diary and changing herself depending on what he wrote. At the time, Jess found making it therapeutic because she got to tell the story to her own accord. Things started to get complex when she received an email from a Hollywood producer about adapting the story for a documentary.The producer promised this big platform to tell her story, even though she would have no editorial control. This interaction made Jess doubt the benefits of documentary making.

I sat down with Jess to discuss the process of making the show and what the aims for the series were.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

JESS: My series is particularly engaged with the relationship between neoliberalism and personal storytelling because the documentary industry relies on the packaged morsel of the individual story in order to mass produce products. And it works because culturally we’ve been told that telling your story will be somehow cathartic, redemptive, brave, useful, et cetera. And so lots of people are talking about the importance of telling your story on an emotional level, but I’m trying to look at how personal storytelling operates in the world of trade and austerity.

You let us into your inner monologue and the many frustrations producers face. What was the aim of highlighting these issues?

JESS: Audiences are used to being handed the story on a silver platter. I wanted people to become hyper aware of the work and the choices that go into preparing said silver platter. A lot of people who’ve listened to the series have said, “can you stop navel gazing and telling us about the process and just give us the story? But this is the point I wanted to make you look behind the curtain whether you wanted to see it or not. And so I think that even if it creates discomfort, making audiences grapple with the fact that what they’re listening to is a construction, [that] is a useful way to make listeners feel less like audiences and more engaged, more like they are actually part of the mechanics of the sale and consumption of stories.

During their audition process to make one possible participant more comfortable, you say that they can ask you questions. What’s your advice to make sure the questions do not get too personal and make sure we divert back to the interviewee?

JESS: Well, I think that it’s okay for people to have personal questions. I think that to pretend that a purely business or a purely professional relationship is happening is dishonest. Obviously in this series I play with boundaries and push boundaries in a way that I think is irresponsible and that’s not an accident. I think depending on the relationship, there’s no one-size-fits-all. So I think, be open with people, but also be thoughtful about how much you want to share.

I think that in many ways the least you can do is to give people part of the benefit of being interviewed, which is arguably if the story isn’t going to lead to meaningful policy change or change that person’s life – which a majority of stories don’t do. Those are the outliers, not the norm – at the very least, you can give them a meaningful experience of recording.

But with that in mind, I think it’s important for people to be clear: I am doing a job. We’re acting like friends, but for the purpose of this interview, I’m doing a job and we’re not friends, and my job is to take what you say now and to turn it into something shorter, more concise. That’s ultimately what I want this piece to be about. I feel like being clear about making a distinction between the joys of the interview process and the horrors of having yourself vulnerable – your voice out in the world and no longer belonging to you in the same way, to coin a phrase by the TV producer featured in the episode.

That openness is evident through your relationship with one of the interviewees, Judy, an unhoused widow in her 70’s . We experience a blossoming friendship that has its conflicting moments, especially when Judy actually needs help regarding her personal situation. What did you learn from blurring the lines?

JESS: I was like, “I can’t promise that whatever I make about you is going to help you with your problems, but I have skills that might be helpful”. And there was a moment deep in the process where I realised that the methodology I thought would be helpful, actually it wasn’t, but could be harmful to her.

I also learned that in my attempt to help, I was not actually being a very good listener. I was thinking about what I thought was best for her as opposed to listening to what she thought was best for her. And that’s not even a lesson about journalism, that’s a lesson about life that can be applied across many spectrums. There was a moment where I just was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing here”. By totally throwing these boundaries that journalists normally have out the window, it was unknown waters and it was evident because I wasn’t necessarily being the most mindful. I don’t think I made anything worse, but I don’t know. I don’t think I improved anything and I realised I was out of my depth.

Away from the role of documentary maker, are there things that you learned personally about yourself?

JESS: I used to think that finding the perfect subject with a life story that was already shocking, heartbreaking, or transformative in some way was the kind of story that I had the power to make beautiful for them and for the world. I really am not interested in telling personal life stories. I’m not interested in turning people’s lives into products anymore and haven’t been for a long time. I’m interested in finding places where there are shared goals with potential subjects.

In the show there is a focus on the consequences of the Top Down approach where the audience gets to understand the power that the decision makers have and how little the subjects have. Going forward, what approach are you taking?

JESS: I’m interested in a framework of collaboration that is not “Top Down”. So in the series, I kind of show what not to do with collaboration. You can’t just call something collaboration and also still call all the shots. I think that I’m much more mindful of who I select as my collaborators and make sure that there’s a shared stake in these shared goals. And then we come up with a framework for collaboration together at the start.

That often relies on having a similar sense of media literacy. So [in Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative] there were huge power dynamics and that was intentional. Normally, I’m not trying to work with people where there are such big power dynamics. Maybe that will change over time as I become more experienced. But for now, I would rather work with people where I feel like we are operating with the same knowledge and in some ways privilege and power.

When talking about power dynamics and privilege I think about Ernesto’s story, the 20 year old model and recovering addict. In his episode, you admit that somebody else may have told his story better. What advice do you have for producers that struggle to navigate an interviewee’s story?

JESS: I was trying to make a point about how budgetary concerns and timelines dictate how ambitious a producer can be in the stories they tell. And in this case, what I realised about Ernesto’s story was that the story that he was sort of gesturing to, he wasn’t an appropriate central, sole subject. The story, actually, would need a much more systemic perspective, and that would require a timeline and a reporting budget and a scope that the project wasn’t really set up for.
I wanted to reveal why the personal story is often the fallback: because it’s actually cheaper and easier to make. But I do think that it’s always really important to acknowledge your positionality and ask – why am I the right person to tell this story? And if not, how can I make this work?

Something that I say in this series, and something I still stand by is if you are taking a not-Top-Down approach to collaboration, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you are the wrong person to tell the story. So long as you set yourself up in a collaborative framework where you are not being the expert on someone else’s life, you are letting your subjects truly lead. And that means factoring in a lot more time, making sure that you set up the collaborative process from the start, making sure that you are, and whoever’s funding you or distributing you, is also signed up for that. At the same time, I think it’s worthwhile to be wary that not everybody should tell every story.

There are rules stated in the first episode about journalism must nots and throughout the process you obviously bend them to make a point. I know this was an experiment, but are there any practices you’re taking for future projects?

JESS: Shared goals, much greater transparency, acknowledgement of the way in which documentary storytelling does operate as an exchange and clarifying the exchange, but in tandem with this idea of shared goals, and I also pay people whenever I can.

[NOTE: Paying subjects is one of the first rules that Jess throws out the window in the series, a subject she’s also written about. She expands on why this is important.]

JESS: I don’t think that paying people is more coercive than somebody promising to tell your story to the media already. I have no problem with splitting whatever I make with the people whose voices and work is featured in the projects. I come up with a split that feels right for the project based on the time and effort that’s put in and based on what I can afford and what we both can afford. I am very transparent about what I’m making with them, and we come up with a rate that feels good.

Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative
Listen to Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative on Apple Podcast, Spotify and other popular podcast apps >>


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