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The Challenge of The American-Made Benny

We had numerous challenges in reporting, producing, and in making the decision to ultimately publish this story. We feel this story is incomplete due to access issues and time constraints inherent with MediaStorm’s approach to a workshop story. Sometimes you can learn as much from your shortcomings as from your successes. As such, we hope this will serve as an important case study about the ethics of storytelling.

Brian Storm, Executive Producer, MediaStorm

Unanswered Questions: On the Limits of the Single-Subject Interview by Eric Maierson

By any measure, the MediaStorm Storytelling Workshop is an intense week. It is a product-focused experience, meaning that unlike in other teaching environments we are wholly focused on producing the most compelling story possible, one that demonstrates the collective skills of the participants and the MediaStorm staff. The week consists of one day of lectures, three days in the field, and another three days editing. Workshop alum will tell you, it is rigorous.

Because time is so tight, the vast majority of workshop stories consist of just one interview. For 25 projects, this model served us well.

Then came Benny Villanova.

On paper it sounded perfect: a former sanitation worker who now sells other people’s garbage out of his garage. The work of other reporters was also encouraging. Benny was charismatic, emotional, and a bit over-the-top. These were all good signs. From four years of experience, we’ve learned that workshop stories that occur in a primary location and involve repetitive events, like selling garbage, often succeed. They help eliminate variables so that students can focus on storytelling and technique.

But as is so often the case, the reality was full of surprises. Rob Finch, my counterpart who led the workshop participants in the field, describes his experience:

Benny met the crew at 10:00 on a Sunday morning with four beers in hand. He told us to wait there with our drinks, he had to go change clothes, he had just “shit his pants.” He came back out with a bag of pot and asked if we smoked.

It was clear that we had walked into a somewhat more complicated situation than anticipated.

I have never been in a situation like this with a source. Just getting him to focus on sitting down for an interview was challenging, and once it started, I could not rein him in. We’ve all been in difficult interviews, but this was different. Even when we told him we needed to reset our cameras, change cards, etc., he would not stop talking. He would scream at us, “I’m not stopping!” and just keep going. He’d cry, yell, jump out of his seat. It was like he was vomiting his story. It was an explosion, and we were trying to do triage.

His family was essentially hiding from us, and he was continually putting them down. He’d either scream at them from the other room or tell us disparaging stories about them. He was ruthless. We knew we needed to understand what was going on. He could not adequately explain himself in the short window we had, so who could help?

The only people who could give us that perspective were his family. Was this just Benny’s act? Was there something else going on? Off camera, I tried over and over to get them to talk. At the beginning, it seemed like they were genuinely mad at us for being there. In retrospect, I have no doubt that Benny never talked to them about this story or asked if it was OK if we came over.

I spent a few hours sitting in their dining room trying to get more information. It was clear they were concerned about the project. They told me about drugs, alcohol, mental illness, verbal abuse, and a general meanness.

Benny’s daughter told me how difficult it was having us there, how much they did not like attention paid to Benny. She said people did not see the real Benny. They saw the funny but charming guy written about by The New York Times. She was right; that was the Benny we originally thought we’d be interviewing.

I tried to explain that without their voices, this was going to happen again. But, in the end, I could not get them to discuss it or be on camera at all. I don’t know if it was actual fear or just a desire to avoid attention, but it was clear that after three days of trying, I was out of luck.

An Unreliable Narrator

So in the end, we were left primarily with Benny’s point of view. Granted, by necessity most of our workshop pieces contain just one interview, but this story is different. This is, in part, because Benny makes substantial accusations about his family that they chose not to address. That is their right, of course. But the result is a lesser, more inconclusive story. One that makes it harder to understand Benny’s complex relationship with them.

The short interview with Benny’s neighbor Kevin Darnell helps somewhat in this regard. He voices the strongest challenge to Benny’s narrative. He refers to Benny as “crazy” and seems at times baffled by his behavior. Still, Kevin’s reluctance to really speak his mind is, I think, obvious. Why did he break down during his interview? What exactly was so upsetting? Like so much else in this project, these questions are unresolved.

More to the point, the problem with relying so heavily on Benny’s interview is that he is, I believe, an unreliable narrator. Quite honestly, I’m still not sure what parts of his story are accurate (Vietnam), which are exaggerations (his version of married life), and what might be sheer fabrication (why he was fired from the Sanitation Department).

We know that Benny has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by the Veterans Administration. The team in the field saw his medical card. There were also intimations from Benny’s daughter that he had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, but no further details were provided.

We remain unclear, though, about the circumstances of his departure from the Sanitation Department. Benny says he was fired for allegedly taking money. A neighbor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Rob that Benny was caught stealing from construction sites.

Further, we’re unlikely to know what exactly transpired in the fight between Benny’s son and daughter. Did Benny break up the fight as he describes, or was he actually involved? The combination of limited time and only one version of the story precludes a definitive answer.

Benny told us that if we searched his criminal record there would be no history of physical abuse. So we did that. MediaStorm hired a private investigator, and just as Benny had assured us, there was no such record. Yet this fact is also inconclusive.

Benny himself describes physical altercations with his family. In one interview, he details an occasion when his wife allegedly hit him several times. Did the violence go only one way? We can make assumptions about the nature of their relationship, but the fact remains, with only Benny explaining his side of the story, we simply don’t know.

As the producer, the person who put this story together, I struggled with these uncertainties constantly. Everyone involved did. If we told only Benny’s version, would it be deceptive or was I undervaluing the viewer’s capacity to analyze Benny’s character? What is the solid ground for the viewer to stand on from which to answer these questions? In other words, did I provide enough clues to allow someone to make informed decisions, or did I simply say, “Here’s what Benny says; you figure it out.” I worry it’s the latter.

The Good and the Harm

At MediaStorm, we ask what is the good and what is the harm that can come from a story. Many on our staff questioned the effect this piece would have on Benny’s relationship with his family. Would it help to somehow heal their relationship, or, more dramatically, could it be a catalyst for turmoil and possibly violence in their household?

I don’t think any of us knows Benny or his family well enough to predict. The workshop participants spent three days with Benny. In many ways, that’s a luxury when compared with the time many in our industry are afforded. Frankly though, I think spending more time with Benny would be the only way to improve our understanding of him—which is not a criticism of anyone involved but the reality of trying to understand such a complicated person in just three days.

Consider the major issues Benny discusses: immigration, Vietnam, PTSD, drug use, cancer, financial hardship, and the list goes on. In reality, a team of journalists could spend a year excavating Benny’s story. In three days, we’ve simply opened the front door.

Necessary Compromises

The larger issue, I suppose, is what is our primary responsibility as storytellers? Is it to tell the story or to the potential safety of our subjects?

I am a storyteller, so I believe that our obligation lies in telling a story that is both factually accurate and emotionally honest. That should be our ideal. But I also recoil at the idea of inflicting pain on others. Life is filled with necessary compromises and, sometimes, I believe it’s necessary to adapt our work accordingly.

In short, I don’t think there is a definitive, always correct answer to the question of where our responsibility lies. We can never know just how far the ripples of our actions will reach nor can we sit in paralysis, always questioning the unanswerable implications of our work.

To be blunt, when debating whether this project should be published or not, I have to admit that for a long time I was not thrilled by either option. In fact, I’m still unsettled.

But I am, however, confident in our intentions.

I know that despite the many frustrations and limitations of the project, everyone involved devoted their skills to portraying Benny as accurately as our collective talents allowed, including an additional three weeks of post-production once the workshop concluded. The entire MediaStorm staff (and many non-staff, too) engaged in numerous screenings and lengthy discussions about this project and its implication.

Prior to publication, in fact, we screened the piece for Benny at his home. Because the subject matter of this project was both highly personal and deeply complex, we wanted an opportunity to gauge our accuracy. Were we being accurate? Were we being fair? You can see Benny’s response in the accompanying video, Epilogue: Benny Responds. (Subsequent to Benny’s viewing, we made several small tweaks to the piece based on a prior screening. No changes were made in response on Benny’s feedback.)

We also made plans with Benny’s wife, Maria, to watch the project without her husband and without cameras. While she agreed to this over the phone, and even seemed eager, Maria left the house while we were still interviewing her husband. We left a follow-up phone message, but our call was not returned.

Finally, for additional insight, we spoke with a PTSD counselor at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. While she was careful not to diagnose Benny from a distance, she did say that “bizarre” behavior does not necessarily correlate with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that “if” Benny did in fact have PTSD, he most likely suffered from other psychiatric issues as well.

The expert made it clear that many veterans, including those who served in Vietnam, cope quite well, even with PTSD. They live fulfilling lives in every strata of society.

In the end, I think Benny should be seen because of the larger issues that deserve our collective attention. Perhaps most glaringly is the question of how reliant should we be on a single interview to tell a story. This technique seems to be a mainstay not just in workshops but in much of multimedia. Too frequently, I think many of us have been guilty of taking our subject’s word at face value and then using b-roll to illustrate their point of view, all without much critical analysis.

On the one hand, I do not want to produce the multimedia equivalent of dictation. On the other, I believe objectivity is a fallacy, that if we start down the road of “correcting” everything a person says, we’ll end up with an unwatchable version of he said/she said. There has to be a balance, and, for every project, the measurement of that balance will be different.

But without a counterpoint here, I maintain that Benny is a deeply flawed but endlessly fascinating piece of work.

Much like the man himself.

Eric Maierson
December 2012

Benny is a “certified” garbologist. He collects what others throw away. Benny is also at war with his family. Here is a man sharing a house with his wife but living as a stranger. This is a household on the edge.

Special thanks to those who contributed their thoughts and provided feedback (alphabetically): Shameel Arafin, Lisa Jamhoury, Joe Fuller, Pam Huling, Bill Johnson, Tim McLaughlin, Brian Storm, Marcin Szczepanski, and Ellen Tarlin

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