By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(March 2006) The Spring
2006 school session is in full throttle and between
teaching courses on small group communications, public
speaking and a documentary film class, I’m also
serving as an advisor to a group of Roger Williams University
students making their first documentary short.
The films I am screening in my Doc class provide a rough
chronicle of film history and touch on everything from
historical recreation to outright propaganda. I was
amazed at the trenchant power of Leni Riefenstahl’s
“Triumph of the Will,” during a recent screening
and how a film from 1934 was able to have such an international
impact. It made me think about current world affairs
and the power of imagery. How often today are we held
captive my such imagery and political forces twist and
turn them to their advantage?
So just what is a documentary and how is it different
from the films that regularly screen at the multiplex?
Here’s an abbreviated history:
The French were the first to use the term which referred
to any non-fiction including travelogues and instructional
films. The earliest "moving pictures" were
by definition documentary. These were single shots or
scenes; moments captured on film, whether of a train
entering a station, a boat docking, or a factory of
people getting off work. Early film (pre-1900) was dominated
by the novelty of showing an event. These short films
were called “actuality films.” They had
little or no storytelling and took place before the
turn of the century. The technological limitations of
the time meant that cameras could hold only very small
amounts of film; so many of the first films were a minute
or less in length.
Romanticism & The Newseel Tradition
With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North released
in 1922 that saw a turn in documentary film where romanticism
was embraced. Flaherty went on to shoot a number of
heavily staged films, usually showing how his subjects
would have lived 100 or more years earlier and not how
they actually lived.
But it was with the introduction of newsreels that changed
the nature of the documentary film. The newsreel tradition
is an important to appreciate. Of course, newsreels
were also sometimes staged but were usually reenactments
of events that had already happened; not attempts to
steer events as they were in the process of happening
or alter a truth or reality. For instance, much of the
battle footage from films of the early 20th century
was staged. The cameramen would usually arrive on site
after a major battle and reenact scenes to film them.
Few in the general public had any idea this is what
had taken place. Dziga Vertov was involved with the
Russian Kino-Pravda newsreel series ("Kino-Pravda"
means literally, "film-truth," a term that
was later translated literally into the French cinéma
vérité). Russian films of the period were
not always truthful and selectively mixed images. This
leads us to another area of documentary film: propoganda.
Propaganda As an Art Form
The propagandist tradition consisted of films made with
the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a
specific point or perspective. One of the most notorious
propaganda films remains Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph
of the Will, the film I screened at my class. Another
example from the period was Frank Capra’s Why
We Fight series in the United States. Capra was explicitly
contracted to create the series as a propaganda newsreel,
covering different aspects of World War II. These films
had the daunting task of persuading the US public to
go to war; which of course they accomplished.
Today, the documentary genre has become increasingly
successful in theatrical release with films such as
March of the Penguins, Fahrenheit 9/11 and currently
Why We Fight. Compared to dramatic narrative films,
documentaries typically have significantly lower budgets.
This has made them attractive to film companies because
even a limited theatrical release can be highly profitable.
Remember the success of the pseudo-doc, The Blair Witch
Of course, the nature of documentary films has changed
in the past 20 years from the cinema verité tradition.
Landmark films such as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris,
which incorporated stylized re-enactments, and Michael
Moore's Roger and Me, which made claims of a real chronology
that were later questioned by critics, placed far more
overt interpretive control in the hands of the director.
Indeed, the commercial success of the documentaries
mentioned above may owe something to this narrative
shift in the documentary form, leading some critics
to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries.
The recent growth and public acceptance of the documentary
genre, and the advent of low-cost DVDs, has made documentaries
financially viable even without a public cinema release.
Documentaries are also being released only on the internet
for those with broadband access.
Modern documentaries have a substantial overlap with
other forms of work created by and for television; specifically
with the development of so-called reality television
that occasionally verges on the documentary but more
often veers to the fictional or staged. Ask yourself,
how much of what we see is real or tweaked during the
Making Documentaries in Rhode Island
As film production kicks off in the Ocean State this
month with the arrival of Disney’s live-action
“Underdog,” I started thinking about the
individuals who toil year-round locally within the industry.
Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based
editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has
the dramatic drop in equipment prices. Today, courses
in film production touch all ages. Filmmaking has become
a truly democratic art form.
I spoke recently with two filmmakers based in Rhode
Island who have embraced the new technology and have
been successful in their efforts to create a solid business
within the industry. The company is called Two Sisters’
Production and is run by two real-life sisters: Toni-Ann
Baker and Diane St. Laurent.
Prior to Two Sisters’, Toni-Ann Baker held the
position of VP and Productions Manager of a local jewelry
design and manufacturing company for 5 years before
starting her family and raising three children. Toni-Ann
continued to freelance as a Business Consultant. Her
education is in Business Management, as she has attended
Rhode Island College and Katharine Gibbs. Her passion
and commitment remain true to herself both personally
and professionally. Toni-Ann is also an artist who specializes
in oils and she is heavily involved with her church,
community service and education programs.
Prior to Two Sisters’, Diane St. Laurent holds
a BS degree in Business from the University of Rhode
Island with a concentration in Management Information
Systems. In the past, Diane held varying executive positions
at GTECH Corporation, VP Product Development, VP General
Manager UWIN! Internet Division and VP Worldwide Software
Services. She was employed by GTECH for 15 years. Diane
also attended the New York Film Academy where she received
a certificate in Film Production and she also holds
another certificate in Entertainment Media Management
from New York University.
Today, outside Two Sisters’, both Diane and Toni-Ann
are very active working on both business and community
projects, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes independently.
Here’s what we talked about during our conversation
and what I learned:
GTM: How you got involved in this medium?
Baker: The idea of Two Sisters’ really started
when we were kids. Diane and I would go to the movie
theater and watch movie after movie all day-then would
go back the next day to watch them again. Ten years
ago we came on the scene with our first completed script
Rae’s Closet that we co-wrote. From there, we
honed our skills by formally educating ourselves and
worked on production after production to gain the experience.
Five years ago, timing seemed right, so we decided to
make our dream a reality! We started our own film and
video production company in Cranston, Rhode Island.
GTM: What challenges have you faced in running your
own media company?
Toni-Ann Baker: You learn something new and different
with every film. It is entirely cathartic. Every film
we do is an extension of the previous. Technique and
style often collide or overlap. Many of our films have
been focused on the human element, relationships between
ordinary people in extraordinary situations. For example,
49 Take Street is about a woman fighting back against
her stalker, while another film, Panic shows an agoraphobic
mother whose daughter mysteriously disappears. Of course,
our ability as filmmakers has developed, but so has
our savvy within the film business. We shot our first
three shorts in New York on 16mm black & white.
We sometimes have to pinch ourselves really.
GTM: Why did you choose to work in RI instead
of Massachusetts or New York?
Toni-Ann Baker: That’s an easy one to answer!
Diane and I grew up in Rhode Island. It’s where
our roots are and where our family is. There has never
been a question where we’d make our films.
GTM: What are the advantages you've discovered
vs. the disadvantages?
Toni-Ann Baker: Probably the only disadvantage we’ve
encountered is that there are too few film projects
to work on and little money around to fund them. Also,
there isn’t really enough free or inexpensive
studio space available while we are in between full-production
The list of advantages can go on forever, mentioning
a few: RI has a wonderful pool of talented actors and
production professionals; a beautiful and small state
offering great location opportunities. Knowing lots
of family and friends to work as extras and the grand
historical theatres like, the Columbus Theatre in Providence
and the Jane Pickens in Newport, to showcase our work!
GTM: What's been your biggest challenge in working in
the state of Rhode Island?
Toni-Ann Baker: Probably funding, but the recent appointment
of Director, Steven Feinberg to the RI TV and Film Office
is bringing excitement to all of us in the Film industry,
big or small! He had begun to make RI a true “Film
Friendly” state with tax incentives and opportunities
for everyone. He has been collaborating with the RI
State Arts Council to create and provide more opportunities
for future funding prospects.
GTM: Weren’t in New York for a while?
Toni-Ann Baker: Two Sisters’ started in the sunny
parks and shady alleyways of New York City. Diane was
living there while attending The New York Film Academy
and later NYU. Juggling motherhood and my consulting
business in Rhode Island, I would join her on weekends
in the Big Apple. We shot three short films there, “Freedom,”
“Panic,” and Crazy.”
Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked
Toni-Ann Baker: Diane and I collaborate on all projects,
taking turns between Producer, Director and Writer.
We are both storytellers, but we have our own style.
Diane just finished directing and co-producing, A Lively
Experiment, about the history and legacy of Dr. John
Clarke. She has also directed Pop’s Harley, The
Deadly Consequences of Drunk Driving, Freedom, and A
Hardened Heart. On the flip side, I produced Pop’s
Harley, wrote and produced A Hardened Heart, directed
49 Take Street, and wrote and directed Change of Address.
I also wrote and produced The Deadly Consequences of
Drunk Driving and co-produced A Lively Experiment, Dr.
John Clarke, Co-Founder of RI (1609-1676).
Diane and I together spearhead every production, but
we wouldn’t be here today, if it wasn’t
for the amazing local talent in the area. We have mostly
used the same Director of Photography (Jim Smith) and
Editor (Frank Raposo) on our projects. Then again, our
irreplaceable script supervisor/line producer, Susan
Mateus or “Suzie”, and Production Coordinator/Craft
Services, Elizabeth St. Laurent or “Lizzie”
have, been with Two Sisters’ since the beginning.
All are truly invaluable assets to our productions!
GTM: How have you been able to secure funding
for the work you've done?
Toni-Ann Baker: Good question! No straight answer. We
started by funding some of our own projects while building
our portfolio, and then we began to multi-prong our
company in an effort to bring in revenue. We offered
film classes for children, took on some commercial video
projects, did some business and marketing plans for
local business owners while praying some great commission
projects would come our way!
Fortunately, a friend of ours saw “A Hardened
Heart” a 30 min short film we made, and thought
of his cousin John DeCubellis. We began working with
the Katie DeCubellis Memorial Foundation in producing
an educational video series on the dangers of drunk
driving and substance abuse. It conveys the story of
Katie, a thirteen year old, which was killed by a drunk
driver in 1999. The film cinematography included dramatic
film reenactments that effectively captured the emotion
after the crash. These films are award winning and have
been distributed nationally to driver’s education
organizations. During this great project, we were granted
the rights to Meg and John DeCubellis’ story.
We are actively working on a documentary, the story
of their plight after the death of their daughter Katie.
This film is presently in postproduction and should
be completed by summer’s end.
Opportunities come to us by way of people seeing our
work, word of mouth, film festival screenings and press
GTM: What drives you as you go from project
to project? What would you like to see happen with your
Toni-Ann Baker: Diane and I like to work on new things.
As artists we like variety. We tend to attract non-profit
work, human rights projects, and sensitive issue video
projects. Our films are usually about characters dealing
with real life issues. We hope our work will continue
to evolve as we move forward and find new audiences
for our efforts. Also, we wouldn’t mind selling
our work to make a profit on our investment! We do love
GTM: What's it like working in a business with
your sister? Do you socialize outside of the office?
Toni-Ann Baker: It is extraordinary to work with my
sister! To realize a childhood dream is exciting and
fulfilling in many ways. We socialize all over Rhode
Island! There’s nothing more to say. We love collaborating
on films together.
GTM: Could you tell our readers about the documentary
you completed on John Clarke, how it came about and
the response it's been given?
Toni-Ann Baker: Due to great press from the DeCubellis
Video Series, we were approached by William McAllister
of the John Clarke Retirement Center Board of Directors
requesting that we work with them on several projects;
one being a short historical documentary “A Lively
Experiment: Dr. John Clarke, Co-Founder of Rhode Island
It will be screened at the Roving Eye Documentary Film
Festival in March and April. (a production of the Rhode
Island International Film Festival).
The following is a review from a recent private
November 2005 Preservation Matters,
Newport Daily News
– James Wermuth
The Newport premier of A Lively
Experiment filled the Historic Jane Pickens Theater
to near capacity this past Sunday. It wasn’t the
free popcorn or introductory remarks that brought so
many people into a theater on a sunny autumn afternoon.
It was the desire to learn more about one of our most
esteemed founders, John Clarke.
Local artist William McAllister began his independent
documentary with Clarke’s 1637 arrival in Boston.
Masterful cinematography and thoughtful editing provided
a compelling sense of Clarke’s extraordinary courage,
talents, and far reaching influence.
An ordained Baptist minister, John Clarke held antinomian
beliefs that made life in Puritanical Massachusetts
impossible. Together with Wm. Coddington, Ann Hutchinson,
and Roger Williams, Clarke settled Rhode Island based
on religious tolerance.
His most salient work was undoubtedly drafting the Royal
Charter of 1663. Signed by King Charles II, the Charter
established Rhode Island as a colony and set forth the
later served as a paradigm for personal rights and the
separation of church and state established by our founding
At a time when most movies are made for little boys
who love car chases and explosions, this film was a
welcome change. Many thanks to the John Clarke Retirement
Center Board of Trustees for funding the film, Mr. McAllister,
writer and director Diane St. Laurent of Two Sisters’
Productions, the Newport Historical Society for presenting
an exhibit of John Clarke documents, and other contributors
to the program.
GTM: Are you where you want to be with Two Sisters’
Productions at this point in time?
Toni-Ann Baker: Yes. Recently, we moved our studio to
my home office to cut down on the overhead while in
postproduction as we finish two active projects: a documentary
called “On October 29th”, written, directed
and produced by both of us; “Change of Address”,
a short narrative film written & directed by myself
and produced by Diane; on the horizon for spring is
the completion of a project called E-Motions, which
is an empowerment video of women surviving from breast
cancer. It has been developed by a spiritual, energetic,
and joy filled woman named Judy Cerrito - her company
is called Helping Others.
GTM: If you could have an ideal environment
and ideal circumstances, what would they be in relationship
to your work?
Toni-Ann Baker: We would love to work full time on our
own projects, as well as, along side of other local
filmmakers in bringing our visions to the big screen.
Also, it would be nice to be adequately compensated
while doing it!
GTM: What is your dream project that you'd like to undertake?
Toni-Ann Baker: It is Rae’s Closet. It is a full
feature screenplay we have been working on for 10 years
together. We would love to film it in RI with local
actors and crew taking advantage of the new tax incentives
GTM: Where do you see yourself and your company
in ten years?
Toni-Ann Baker: Honestly we don’t know. Over the
past 5 years, we’ve moved the studio three times,
and our Business Plan has been revised over and over
again. I suspect Two Sisters’ will continue to
grow at it’s own pace as opportunities present
themselves. That’s fine with us. We have been
fortunate so far and are excited about the future!
GTM: Is there something you would tell or advise
young people who are breaking into the business?
Toni-Ann Baker: Enjoy the ride!
Two Sisters’ Productions,
P.O. Box 10088
Cranston, RI 02910
Diane St. Laurent: (401) 578-1077
Toni-Ann Baker (401) 474-1753
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and is currently completing the
multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting
American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached