Each year, the Northwest Film Center awards the Oregon Media Arts Fellowship to emerging and established film and video artists from Oregon. A collaboration between the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Media Production Association, and the Northwest Film Center, the Fellowship provides funding for individual filmmakers to create new works, or complete works-in-progress. Two years ago, Salem-based filmmaker Michael Turner was a recipient of the Oregon Media Arts Fellowship, allowing him to complete his long-in-the-works passion project, The Way We Talk, which arrives on DVD and VOD June 7th. We spoke with Michael and gained some insight into how his film came to be.
The Way We Talk falls into the underutilized genre of “personal documentary”, and manages to be both an intimate journey of self-discovery and something more universally affecting, often at the same time. The movie opens with a voice over narration from Michael, clearly and unashamedly stuttering. As he relays an anecdote about the first time he talked about his stuttering on a road trip with a friend, answering some basic questions about the condition, the subject of the film begins to take shape. What is stuttering? Where does it come from? Why is it so rarely talked about? Michael’s film aims to elucidate these questions and more, as he begins a journey to learn more about himself and others who stutter.
Stuttering had been part of Michael’s life since he was a kid, and he had long imagined that it was something he would grow out of. One day, talking to friends in his kitchen at age 28, Michael realized that his stuttering was harder than ever, and decided that something had to change. Out of desperation, he tried hypnosis, then visited a support group, and it was there that the film began. The support group was key in “discovering that my story wasn’t unique,” said Michael, “and that there were so many of us on the same journey towards accepting ourselves for who we are.”
The “personal” part of the documentary comes from Michael’s journey of finding more about his own stuttering, which is rendered with an admirable curiosity and honesty. He goes into his family history and talks with his mother and brother about stuttering, visits a geneticist who specializes in the science of stuttering, observes camps for stutterers, talk therapy sessions, and several support groups (in the US and Japan) for stuttering. With frequent shots out windows of vehicles or capturing fleeting moments in shifting environments, the film takes on the flowing texture of a travelogue. The audience participates in Michael’s voyage, learning along with him about the far-reaching effects of stuttering, told through the voices of those directly affected by it.
As a filmmaker, Michael is uniquely equipped to explore the subject of stuttering. In his travels, he encounters many different approaches to stuttering: some people have written books about stuttering, some have studied the genetic origins of stuttering, some have started camps or therapy sessions for people who stutter. Filmmaking offers a chance to incorporate all of these different approaches into one singular work. And the presence of the camera itself offers unique opportunities. As Michael says, “the camera opens up an avenue for conversation that wouldn’t be there otherwise, especially in the scenes with my family… I felt like it gave me permission to ask questions that were scary or hard, that in an ordinary conversation might be too forward.” Michael was also surprised by how willing people were to open up on camera, as “many of the film’s subjects had never talked about stuttering openly, and it was a point of shame or embarrassment.” The courage and bravery of people opening up about stuttering gives the film an empowering quality, and was rewarding to Michael, who “felt lucky that stuttering had brought us together in this very intimate way.” The trust of the subjects and the thoroughness of Michael’s filmmaking methods paid off, as the scenes of support groups are cathartic and honest in ways that few movies manage to achieve.
The film serves as a sort of support group in and of itself—by talking about stuttering, showing people who stutter, giving faces and voices to something that is so often ignored—and it has already generated positive and inspiring responses at screenings. Michael remembers, “there was an older man in LA who got up during the Q & A and with some difficulty said his name was Jim, and in his 70 years of life he’d never introduced himself in front of a group and wanted to do it that night. He got a standing ovation.”
Michael hopes the film will remove some of the stigma associated with stuttering and the harm it can do to self-image, explaining, “I really made the film movie with my high school self in mind– I hated that I stuttered.” The film provides an alternative look at stuttering, an honest and empowering take on something that can so often make people feel different and alone. Anyone, even those who do not stutter, can relate to the idea of feeling self-conscious about something beyond their control, and the film’s approach to breaking down emotional barriers resonates universally. It’s the kind of filmmaking that feels urgently important, and the Oregon Media Arts Fellowship recognized that quality of the project early on. Michael was excited at the new avenues the Fellowship opened up, saying “it gave us the confidence to shoot for something more character-driven and mysterious, that could touch people who know nothing about stuttering.”
The Way We Talk is the rare kind of movie that has the potential to really make a difference in the lives of its audience. Aside from being an engaging look into Michael’s personal story of stuttering, it shines a light onto the broader stuttering community and provides support and solidarity to anyone who has every felt different or lesser, because of stuttering or otherwise. It’s a testament how one person with a question and a camera can manifest change and insight, and a shining example of the potential of documentary filmmaking. Check out The Way We Talk on DVD and VOD June 7th.
Also keep an eye out for the 2016 Oregon Media Arts Fellowship Awards, where past winners will be recognized, and this year’s winners, Rose Bond and Pam Minty, will discuss their upcoming films. The reception will be held June 30th at 7:00 p.m.
Written by Vincent Warne, PR/Marketing Intern