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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Betsy West discusses career in documentary journalism

For Betsy West, the best subjects are ones she admires, as she told students in an event held by the university. West, a documentary journalist, spoke on her work alongside Julia Cohen, her longtime creative partner. Together, the two of them have created documentaries on influential Americans, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Julia Child. 

“Having a partner, especially if the partner is as smart and hardworking as Julie Cohen, is a blessing,” said West in a talk at Brandeis. “Julie and I have similar sensibilities about filmmaking.” She said the two of them have similar interests in subjects and compatible story-telling methods, with both of them preferring to do light-hearted documentaries. 

West joked that getting to work on documentaries about people she admires has been “psychologically fantastic.” For West and Cohen, there is a fine balance between their personal feelings and their journalistic responsibilities. West made sure to emphasize that she hoped to explore rougher parts of each person’s story—that these were not puff pieces but instead a detailed overview of a subject’s life. 

Most of her talk was focused on her 2018 film “RBG” on Ruth Bader Ginsburg. West mentioned that getting Ginsburg to agree to film was a long process, with Ginsburg originally saying that she wasn’t ready to talk. To show how serious they were, West and Cohen reached back out to ask if they could interview some of Ginsburg’s friends, West said. Their plan worked. 

Instead of interviewing professors or academics, West mentioned that the two wanted to email friends of Ginsburg because they wanted to focus on people who would bring a “positive energy” to the documentary rather than interviewing peers. Their goal was to “make the sources come alive.” West also discussed the emphasis of the love story in the documentary. Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, was a prominent figure throughout the documentary, but this was something very intentional. “We loved that it was a feminist love story,” West said. “We leaned into it.” The two felt her successful marriage added to Ginsburg’s story and “impressive” accomplishments. 

West also addressed her work on ex-Brandeis professor Pauli Murray. Murray fought for social justice—for Black people, for women and, especially, for Black women—years before the official Civil Rights Movement began. The documentary allows sources to speak about Murray, with some using she/her pronouns and others using they/them pronouns. Deciding which pronouns to use was a struggle for West, saying that Murray always officially used she/her pronouns but did write letters about struggling with gender identity. West and Cohen left that to the discretion of the interviewees. West personally ​​”tries to move away from pronouns, and instead just say Pauli.” As Murray has passed away, West explained that she and Cohen had the film be “narrated through the sound bytes and archive tape that we find … It was tightly scripted, [and we were] careful about everything.”

This style was intentional, as West said she doesn’t like to make “docu-dramas.” “Sometimes with docu-dramas, liberties are taken with the truth,” she said. “Narrative arcs need more substance, but a documentary doesn’t follow that same formula.” She explained that while the general takeaways may be the same, a docu-drama may enhance details in order to make the story more interesting or connected, something she is not doing. She tries to be as journalistic as possible, she said. 

Her next project, again alongside Cohen, is a documentary on Gabby Giffords, a retired politician and gun control advocate. As for what comes after that, West isn’t sure. Her dream interview, she admitted to the audience, would be with Dolly Parton. West and Cohen’s work attempts to highlight women they admire, she said, an ambition they will likely spend a lot more time pursuing. 

This event occurred at 3 p.m. via Zoom on Monday, March 3. The conversation was a part of Ann Silvio’s course, Documentary Journalism: Reporting and Storytelling for Broadcast, and was sponsored by the American Studies Program and the Journalism Program.

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