I was pretty nervous when I phoned David Hoffman last Thursday afternoon — to the point where I forgot to do all the things you’re supposed to when starting an interview: make small talk with the source, say a little on what your story’s about, ask how long they’ve been living in the area.
This may have been a stroke of luck, as it turned out.
For the unacquainted, Hoffman runs a popular YouTube channel with over 600,000 subscribers that contains nearly 1,800 archival clips from his prolific, ongoing career as a documentary filmmaker. My first encounter with his work, like all the best YouTube discoveries, was serendipitous. I remember about a year and a half ago, when I stumbled across this video of Bill Ehrhart, poet and Vietnam War veteran, recounting the horrors of what he saw and did during his tour of duty.
Ehrhart speaks uninterrupted for about fifteen minutes about landing in Da Nang with the expectation of being showered with flowers and kisses like the G.I.s liberating France in World War II. The style is candid and cuts nothing out. You can see the smoke from Ehrhart’s lit cigarette wafting into the frame in the first few minutes, which he drags only once throughout the whole cut. Combine the lack of editing with Ehrhart’s fantastic storytelling and it’s as if the camera and the 30 years between you and he are erased.
This is by design. Hoffman said, both to me and in many of his recent videos, that a skill he’s cultivated over his six-decade career is an ability to draw the best out of sources — not by asking perfectly planned and researched questions like Terry Gross or Nardwuar Serviette, but by knocking down the walls between him and his interviewee and simply speaking.
“I put aside every thought I have in my head, and I just open myself to the thought of the other person,” Hoffman said. “That takes a certain amount of courage. In other words, I let go of every opinion I have, thought I have, next question [I have] — and I float in their space.”
It was something he and I connected over — the feeling, familiar to reporters and documentarians alike, when an interview drops its formality and turns into a conversation. Knowing how to encourage this candidness, he said, is what makes for great interviews.
In recent years, Hoffman has turned the camera back onto himself, and in doing so made a job out of something more commonly done by people 50 years his junior. In the way an iDubbbz might, he prefaces every video on his YouTube channel with his recollections of what it was like to film in the era the archival clip is from and, when their topics are controversial, states his own perspective on the matter.
“When I first approach a person, I first and throughout let them know who I am,” Hoffman said. “I am not a voice asking a question. I’ve got feelings. I’ve got things that I know about and things that I don’t know about.”
I think there’s something to the idea that YouTube’s draw is its ability to place its audiences in close proximity to its content creators. Like it or not, our monkey brains seem hardwired to trust people to whom we relate, and this is in stark contrast to the stance assumed by the traditional media-making world.
Journalists often present themselves as members of the Press, capital “P,” and refrain adamantly from appearing as characters in their reporting. This is for very good reason: journos are bound by a code of ethics that requires maintaining a boundary between oneself and one’s sources, since crossing this boundary carves a slippery slope into friendship and bias.
But if the past five or more years have taught us anything, it’s that many of the institutional pillars that have long supported the “Fourth Estate,” like keeping both one’s audience and their sources at arm’s length, are destabilizing. What’s risen in their stead is no improvement. Reporting that sees itself as catering to an audience with presumably short, mercurial attention spans — or worse, one hungry for an authority to make up their minds for them — seems to be part of what’s caused many traditional news outlets to have lost their credibility in the eyes of many.
I think Hoffman’s popularity speaks to a potential third way out between bad reporting and bankruptcy. The beauty of his style is that he approaches both his sources and his audience as the same person: David Hoffman, independent filmmaker. It makes you wonder: perhaps the antidote to fake news is more humanity, not less.
In the spirit of Hoffman’s ethos of candidness, I admitted to him exactly what I was feeling on that day: that interviewing David Hoffman, documentarian extraordinaire, felt a bit like telling Ernest Hemingway how to string together a sentence. He laughed. I think it was a pretty good interview.