How It Feels To Watch a Better Version of Your Documentary
I received an email the other day from my former documentary professor. She reached out after discovering her friend produced the FX documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” The documentary revisits everything that led to the pop star’s conservatorship and examines how we failed her as a society. “Of course I thought of you!” my former professor kindly added.
For my senior thesis, I directed and produced the documentary Leave Britney Alone: A Woman “Created” for Our Consumption. I came up with the idea after reading about Spears’ conservatorship during the fall of 2017. According to Dictionary.com, a conservatorship is “an agreement or order under which one person or entity controls the personal and financial affairs of another, such as a minor or someone who is considered legally incapable of managing their own affairs.” I found it incredibly odd that no one had discussed the star’s precarious situation since it became permanent in 2008. As a multi-millionaire, Spears has no control over her finances or everyday decisions.
The more I read about Spears, the more I realized how her story (as a case study) demonstrates almost everything that’s wrong with America. I decided I wanted to tell her full life story, and how we as a society wronged her at every point of her career. However, most people I spoke with did not take my idea seriously.
I pursued the subject anyway.
When I completed my thesis in May 2020, I wasn’t super proud of what I produced. I had to temporarily convert my film into an audio documentary, even though I spent a year alone sourcing archival material, because I lacked footage. The coronavirus halted filming, and I completed interviews on Skype. The video quality was not good enough to include. I also couldn’t source enough material on the conservatorship. I ended up settling on the forty minute audio documentary on everything that led up to the conservatorship.
When I submitted my thesis, I didn’t want to look at it again for a while. Then, I saw the trailer for “Framing Britney Spears” and felt incredibly dumb. I thought, “I missed my shot.”
You start thinking about what could’ve been.
When I started reaching out to subjects, I received few replies. No one wanted to discuss the star on camera, or trust a college student with the material. (I get it now lol.)
The subjects I saw in the FX documentary were people who never responded to my interview requests. In fact, I discovered the hosts of Britney’s Gram, Barbara Gray and Tess Barker, were participating in a special project. They shared this in a now-deleted tweet, months after I contacted them. That special project ended up being “Framing Britney Spears.”
As I watched the documentary, I thought about what could’ve been if I had the same resources as FX and The New York Times (which co-produced the episode). It reminded me of the power of credibility and how difficult it can be to tell a big story with a small budget.
You admire the craftsmanship.
I didn’t make my documentary for a general, uninformed audience. As a journalist of any medium, you always need to assume the audience knows nothing. I was too involved with my material and too close to my subject. That’s why there’s a whole crew behind a professional documentary.
“Framing Britney Spears” isn’t for the fans or the activists, it’s for the everyday person who knows a little or next to nothing about Spears and the #FreeBritney movement. It re-examines almost everything Spears endured from the media, the public, and the courts in the last three decades — all in seventy minutes. That’s hard to accomplish.
You consider what you would’ve done differently.
Of course I have a bias watching a better version of my documentary. I thought about all the archival footage left on the cutting room floor—what they didn’t use, and I did. I also reflected on the director’s approach to the subject’s story, and which topics I would’ve spent more time on.
For example, I thought the director (and producer), Samantha Stark, could’ve made more of an effort to center Spears’s voice. Sure, she hasn’t participated in a substantial interview in more than a decade, but, there are plenty of earlier interviews that provide further insight into the “unknowable” star.
Furthermore, “Framing Britney Spears” spends more time on what happened to her than it does framing who Spears actually is. We gather from other people that she’s kind, resilient, capable, loves her kids, and lives to perform. But we only hear from Spears when she’s reacting to something controversial— whether that’s in response to her break-up with Justin Timberlake or the public perception of her as a mother.
It reminds you that you’re on the right path.
I used a lot of the same archival footage and hit a lot of the same beats as a damn FX documentary! That only affirms that I’m on the right path and that I should always follow my instincts. There’s always room to improve, and practice makes perfect, darling!
You remember there will always be more to the story.
When I first pursued this subject, no one was paying serious attention to Spears or her conservatorship. #FreeBritney didn’t exist. I saw the story evolve in real-time, which was a blessing to witness. Spears is now gearing up for a court battle over her conservatorship, and will hopefully share her story one day. I can’t wait until that happens. Maybe by then, I’ll gain the credibility to help her tell it. #FreeBritney.
If you’d like to listen to my thesis, you can click the link below.