Taking Another Shot

'Hoop Dreams' Director Steve James Rebounds With 'Stevie'

"The dirty, not-so-little secret of documentary filmmaking is that misfortune is what makes for a good film," says Steve James, who ought to know. Not only one of the most harrowing works of filmed nonfiction since the director's high school-to-college basketball epic Hoop Dreams, James's Stevie—named for a confessed pedophile—pulls the aforementioned secret so far into the movie's text that, for James, it becomes a confession of his own.

"I was shocked and appalled by what happened," recalls the 48-year-old filmmaker, speaking of the moment in 1997 when he learned that his subject—Stevie Fielding, an immeasurably troubled southern Illinois man to whom James had been a Big Brother in the early '80s—had admitted to molesting an eight-year-old cousin. "And yet there's always that little voice in the back of your head saying, 'This is dramatic.' It happened on Hoop Dreams, too: When William [Gates] blew out his knee, I had that nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I was also thinking, 'My God, was that a great scene?' I think if I ever give up this kind of work, it'll be for that reason: There are contradictions involved in wanting to make films that have a social purpose, and there are compromises you have to make in order to finish those films. And sometimes you don't want to have to make them."

There were times when James didn't want to have to make Stevie. When Hoop Dreams' enormous success brought an offer from Disney to direct Prefontaine, based on the life of Olympic track star Steve Prefontaine, James accepted gratefully—in part for the opportunity to make some money (not even Hoop's $8 million gross gave the filmmaker a financial cushion), but also for the chance to put some distance between himself and an increasingly difficult subject.

Reality check: Stevie and his girlfriend go cruising.
photo: Lions Gate Films
Reality check: Stevie and his girlfriend go cruising.

"I guess I had naively thought that things would be better for Stevie than they were," says James, who still harbored feelings of guilt over having been out of touch with his unfortunate "little brother" for nearly a decade while endeavoring to launch a film career in Chicago—a period during which Fielding was arrested a dozen times. "Having other work to do was a convenient form of relief. But after I finished Prefontaine, my thoughts kept turning to the [documentary] and to Stevie, and so I reconnected with him. Shortly after that, this crime was committed, and that brought me to another juncture where I had to decide again whether to continue. That's the $64,000 question in this film. I obviously did continue to make the film, but my reasons, while perfectly valid, are never completely satisfying. On some level, if I had called Stevie and said, 'Let's not do this film. I'm going to help you, but I'm not going to do a film,' that would have spoken better of me as a person—perhaps. Because I clearly had a dual interest here."

Maybe the $128,000 question in Stevie is whether James's camera gets in the way of his help—or whether a pedophile deserves a filmmaker's help to begin with. Whatever one decides, the film is a landmark not only for its degree of proximity to the titular offender (who, further complicating matters, is not without his charms), but for its thorough inclusion in the narrative of the director himself—who regularly dares to convey his deep uncertainty about both Stevie's reliability and his own. (A more benign example of the movie's psychic toll can be found in the documentarian's hair, which turned gray over the course of the four-and-a-half-year shoot.) Skirting the outer edge of self-indulgence, James concludes the film with a richly ambiguous close-up of his face as he reacts indecipherably to the claim of Fielding's fiancée that "some good has come out" of an excruciating ordeal. Asked for a current update to that reaction, the filmmaker says he's still not sure.

"The more idealistic side of me says that people need to understand how someone gets to a place where they commit crimes like this," says James. "Virtually every film I've seen about sexual abuse has either been purely from the point of view of the victim, vilifying the offender completely as evil incarnate, or characterizing the offender without trying to show the reasons behind the offense. People always say, 'How could anyone do that?' Well, this is how they could do that."

A selective preview, written by Nat Johnson, Ben Kenigsberg, Dennis Lim, David Ng, and Laura Sinagra:

March 12

Londoner Jess wants to play soccer, but her Indian parents want her to marry, become a lawyer, and learn to cook a Punjabi feast. Gurinder Chadha's girls' soccer film explores gender, tradition, and race, en route to its protagonist's ecstatic ball-bending.

March 14

Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro don camouflage and play hide-and-seek in the woods. Attention Chris Cooper: This is what a Supporting Actor Oscar gets you. William Friedkin directs.

March 14

Jia Zhangke's masterpiece, a patient, astringent '80s chronicle whose subject is nothing less than the implacable passage of time, maps an epochal period of sociocultural transition as experienced by the members of a small-town performance troupe. The emblematic film of the new Chinese independents, and quite possibly the greatest film of the last five years.

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