‘Presence and distance’ – The Art of Personal Storytelling with Sayre Quevedo

By Sam Stone

Just before flying back to New York to start his new job at The New York Times, the 2019 Documentary Audio Recognition Award runner-up Sayre Quevedo sat down with Sam Stone for a coffee and a chat at Open City Documentary Festival. They spoke about his winning audio documentary The Quevedos (listen here), short film Espera and the radio producers who inspire him.

Sam Stone: How did you first find out about The Whickers Documentary Audio Recognition Award?

Sayre Quevedo: Lu Olkowski, who hosts CBC’s Love Me podcast, reached out to me and was like, ‘Hey, you should really submit The Quevedos‘. I was reading through the eligibility and what they’re looking for and I felt like it loosely touched on a lot of the criteria, but also maybe expanded on some of the ideas. I’m friends with [previous Whicker winners] Eleanor McDowall, who runs Radio Atlas, and Sarah Geis, who is involved at Third Coast Festival. There were conversations happening between them and folks here. I’m super grateful that they were giving my name to folks and helping promote my work. I think that’s one of the harder aspects of working in audio. Until recently there weren’t screenings, you wouldn’t see an audio piece at a documentary festival at all. Unless you’re already putting your work on a larger platform, like a large podcast that already has lots of listeners, it’s really hard to get your work out. So I’m very grateful that a lot of this was as a result of women radio producers who have been looking out for me, basically.

I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Geis last year when she won the 2018 DARA award – and I’m talking to 2019 DARA winner Eleanor McDowall this week too. It’s been so gorgeous to speak to so many talented producers.

They’re both really amazing. There’s a lot of conversation in documentary, and in radio especially, around inclusion and ‘diversity’ and what that means. A lot of people talk about how there needs to be more of it and they don’t actually do anything. Lu [Olkowski] and Sarah [Geis] and Eleanor [McDowall] are three producers who really do their best to actually bring people into the fold – and don’t just talk about how great it would be to have more artists of colour showing their work.

How has your time at Open City Documentary Festival been so far?

It’s been really sweet. I’m often inspired to create my own work watching documentaries that play with format or that do something a bit more interesting. When I made Espera, I was in an experimental documentary class in college and was watching all of these films. That’s what inspired me to start doing my own work. It’s this symbiotic thing where it feels very good to share my own work, but then to also be inspired by the work of other documentary filmmakers has been really amazing. It’s also overwhelming, because this isn’t the sort of thing that until recently audio producers have been able to do, so it’s been very sweet. But it’s a very new experience, to share work in that way and to give talks about my work.

I want to discuss The Quevedos. When you recorded the conversation with your mother in the car, did you have an idea of how it was going to go or were you just interested in recording the conversation?

She had called me the day before and told me that she had this news she wanted to share that was super important. I instinctually wanted to bring my recorder because at the time I was working as a radio journalist, but I’d never done any sort of personal documentary. I was very unfamiliar with podcasts being narrative because I’d worked in straight news journalism and was making three-minute pieces for NPR, simple stories about water fountains in high schools and things like that. I sensed that something important was going to happen and that I needed to document it, but I’m actually not sure if I knew that there was going to be any story.

Even after I did that recording, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting recording, but what am I going to do with this?’ As time went on, I felt like, what can I possibly use that recording for anyway? How would I explain to someone who’s listening to this why we found this information about my grandmother, and then never looked for her? When I finally came to be able to pitch it, I was able to point to the fact that life is busy and that there was a reason that my mother was hesitant. Also, I think there was a hesitation on my side that I wasn’t quite able to come to terms with at the time. I didn’t know what the life of that recording was going to be and ultimately, I felt like it was going to end up just staying in my computer forever. I’m very happy that it ended up finding its own life and being useful for telling that story.

When you recorded the clip in City Hall did you know you were going to make The Quevedos?

That was another example of feeling that something was important. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a game changer for me. Now I have this information about my grandmother, and I know for sure that she has died’. At that point, I had just started out my new job at Latino USA and I didn’t feel comfortable enough pitching the story. I remember walking around with my co-worker Antonia, and [her encouraging me to create a story from all my audio recording]. Then I was able to reflect on what I had already documented, because after I’d recorded each thing it sort of felt insignificant. But once I’d actually pitched the story and was thinking about how I wanted to tell it, I realised I’d already recorded half of the story in the last six years or so.

I read that you’re interested in turning The Quevedos into a multimedia book. Can you tell me more about that idea?

I’m still fooling around with that. There are a couple of different approaches that I’m interested in taking. I’d love to adapt it into a screenplay of some sort. Also, I have all these photographs from the actual process of documentation. There’s a lot of people who are really interested in audio documentary as a form of media, but there’s rarely the opportunity to see what it’s like to actually be in that world. Not to say that the photographs are of me with a microphone in someone’s face. But there was so much more than I could include in the story and so much of my experience was also visual. The story starts in Oakland, then it goes to New York, then it goes to San Francisco, and then it goes to Las Vegas. I felt like the aesthetic and visual quality of it was significant to me in so many ways. There were parts that weren’t included in the story about all these coincidences that kept happening. For example, my grandmother’s name is Alicia. And I stayed at this very rundown hotel in Las Vegas, and it was surrounded by all these other hotels that were shut down. The one that was literally right down the street from us was the Alicia Hotel. I remember seeing that and wishing there was a way I could share these visual components with an audience.

I feel like a story can have more than one life and if you have all the material, it’s worth trying to expand. But it will probably take some time because I have no experience with that sort of thing. So, I have to figure out how to approach beginning that project.

Some parts of The Quevedos are incredibly sad but overall the story seems very hopeful, as the final message is about breaking the cycle of abuse. When did you start thinking about that idea?

It took a while. I do feel like the actual process of making the documentary itself was super therapeutic and helped me reach that point quicker. I think if I had experienced this on my own and hadn’t been documenting it, it might have taken me a couple of years to realise that. Just as a result of having to synthesise the ideas and synthesise the experience, I was able to come to an emotional turning point a lot faster. When I was first confronted with the information about the abuse, I remember my first thought was thinking that we’re cursed and that we’re inevitably going to end up in these terrible situations. It seemed like no matter what, everyone has ended up either suffering from abuse or suffering from some form of mental health issue.

But then working on the script, especially listening to the conversation that I had with my mom before the wedding, I realised that’s not true. My mom has managed to completely avoid doing that and has become a super powerful, incredibly special person, despite all of the things that she went through. There was a version of the script that was much more dour and much more down in its message. And then I thought, ‘that’s not true for my mom, it’s not true for me or my brother’. It took a while, but the script writing process really helped me move through that. Also thinking about what I want an audience to come away with is actually a really helpful, therapeutic way of thinking about an idea. I wouldn’t want to leave someone listening to my story with the message that if your family is stuck in a cycle of abuse, well, that’s that. I realised I wanted to leave people with the message that: if you’re in this situation then there is a way out and leaving can be healthy, running away can be healthy. I hadn’t realised that until I started producing this work. Like I said in my talk [at Open City Documentary Festival] the other day, presence and distance are super important. It’s helpful to be able to see yourself in the third person in that way, especially in audio storytelling and personal documentary.

What other aspects of making personal documentary have you found to be positive or negative?

On the positive side, doing the work can feel therapeutic. If you’re editing, you’re forced to consistently listen to the conversations that you’ve been having over and over again. That includes the ways that you show up in those conversations as well. You’re seeing a more complex version of yourself, where you’re neither the hero or the villain of the story, and the other ‘characters’ in your life are neither heroes nor villains, but just people who are existing and trying their best. I’ve managed to build a community with people as a result of sharing my personal stories. I often come from a place of wanting to tell stories about things that I feel uniquely bothered by. I’m like, ‘here’s this documentary of me going through this thing’, and then I realise through putting it out that lots of other people have gone through similar things. Feeling a kinship with people who have been in those same struggles and having them reach out to me and say ‘thank you so much for making this, I went through the same thing’ is really heartening. Also, it’s an excellent way to pull yourself out of self-isolation, because you realise there are thousands of other people who are going through the same thing.

I think on the negative side, or on the side of the more challenging aspects of personal documentary, there’s a constant recalibration that has to happen as you do the work. A good friend of mine once said that there’s a question when you’re making autobiographical work of, ‘are you a narcissist?’. I’m constantly in a state of wondering whether I should even be sharing this with anyone. What do I owe other people? But then I remember all of the messages that I’ve received from people who have connected to the work. That helps balance it out. I’m not making this because I’m hoping to get personal glory from sharing it, or because I think this is a saucy, controversial story. I do it because there’s a greater chance of me being connected to other people and to feel seen by them. There’s definitely an emotional toll to making some documentary as well. With The Quevedos, I felt completely numb throughout the whole entire process and felt very strange about that. Only after putting it out there, and taking several months to finally re-listen to it, was I able to feel what I went through and really understand. During the time of producing the work, I felt myself completely shut down and that felt incredibly unhealthy. I’m working on figuring out how I can remain emotionally vulnerable and emotionally open while I’m making the work and not completely distance myself from it. It’s hard, we all have our own way of dealing with overwhelming emotion. I think that’s my way of dealing with it, which editorially is really great but on a personal level that’s not a sustainable way of living or dealing with things.

It’s interesting what you said about worrying whether it’s narcissistic, because you would never look at someone else telling a similar story and think they were a narcissist.

I think it’s complicated. There’s the question of ‘why am I sharing this?’ Especially in that case, it’s not only my story, but it’s my mother’s story too. I was thinking, ‘Am I doing this for me? Or am I doing this for her?’ – and at the end of the day, I was definitely doing it for both of us. I was dealing with my own questions around identity and sense of self and so much of that was connected to my mother’s story, which I’d never really heard. But then I think it also allowed her to move past a lot of the hurt and the fear she had around sharing that part of herself with us too. Regardless of what happened afterwards, there was a sense of catharsis for all of us and realising, ‘okay, now it’s all out on the table’. We’ve met this side of the family, there’s no more mystery there. We know what happened, for the most part, to my grandmother. Now that that’s all laid to rest, we can really begin to move forward and have deeper, more constructive conversations about our family and our identity without worrying about whether we’re missing something because we’ve never met that side of the family.

How has the release of The Quevedos affected your family dynamics? Has including details about your uncle Milton affected your relationship with your cousins?

Me and my cousins have a good relationship. We’ve very quickly gone into the family mode of calling each other around holidays and when we’re both in town. At first I felt guilty. I thought I should be reaching out all the time, but that’s how people’s relationships often are with their family. If you live far away from them, you forget to call them sometimes, you forget to text them and then you’re like, ‘oh my god, I haven’t texted my aunt in a week or a month I should reach out to her’. My experience has always been just my mom and my brother, and we were always in close quarters until I moved away. It took me a long time to realise that this is the normal family dynamic, this is how people act in families sometimes.

We talk, and they all liked the piece. One of my cousins and I were talking about trying to do an offshoot of the story where I look at the family history through each of my various family members, leading up to when we met and their life trajectories. Unfortunately, because we only have 40 minutes on the radio, so much of the nuance and complexity of the lived experience of those family members ended up being brushed over in some ways. Milton for instance, for all of his moral and ethical challenges, also has a really interesting backstory that I think explains a lot of why he is the way he is. So that’s something I’ve considered. But I’m also taking an emotional break from family stories since that was a lot. And in regard to Milton, I called each [family member] individually before the story aired and told them this was going to be in the story, so that they were prepared… And they all [told me] that it was totally fair to share that. I told Milton that I wasn’t painting him as a villain. He obviously has gone through his own set of challenges; he suffered his own sort of version of abuse and then learned that was the way to deal with these problems. When we spoke on the phone, he acknowledged that and he said to me, ‘We grew up during the war. And when you grow up in a war, you see that the government’s idea of dealing with problems is with violence. You learn that that’s the way that you deal with a problem is through more violence.’ I don’t think it’s a justification, but I think it’s a fair assessment of himself and why he acted in the way that he acted.

I want to talk about [your short film] Espera too. How does it feel to have something so incredibly intimate being viewed and enjoyed by so many people?

I remember finishing that piece and thinking ‘I have no idea how people are going to respond to this’. It was one of the first times I had made something and felt it really captured exactly how I feel and the intensity of that feeling. It reflected a dynamic that I’ve seen in other relationships that I’ve had.

In many ways, I felt ashamed and that it was immature. I wondered why anyone would empathise with me or with him. I thought maybe people would watch it and think we were horrible people. But now having shared it a number of times and had it screened in various places, I’ve never really gotten a negative reaction and that feels pretty incredible. Again, making work about problems that feel so uniquely your own, that no one else can relate to, and then finding that a bunch of people can relate to them, is such a real feeling of release.

When you talk to somebody and they say, ‘I’ve had that same conversation before, I’ve been there before, too’, suddenly you don’t feel as alone in your problems and it’s really refreshing. I feel really proud of that piece. I’ve had people say they’ve watched it and then immediately sent it to somebody else, which is a pretty incredible feeling. It also just feels like such a different part of my life now too. At one point I felt a little embarrassed when I would share it with people. Even a year ago, I’d be at a screening or sharing it with someone and be sitting there with my stomach completely clenched. Now I watch it and think ‘who is that person?’ – that was such a different version of myself. One of the beautiful things about doing personal documentary is that it’s a living archive of these different versions of yourself, these different times and people who you’ve interacted with in your life. I’m sure there will be a moment, 10 years from now, where I look back at The Quevedos or I look back at Espera and think that was just a completely different version of myself. I’m glad that person existed, but I’ll probably have a different personal documentary out that’s about a completely different version of myself. It’s interesting to watch that growth; physically holding a piece of your maturation is a very interesting experience to have.

Is Espera one continuous conversation or is it pieced together from several hours of audio?

That was almost a two-and-a-half-hour long conversation that I edited down to 13 minutes. I almost made it longer, but it felt unnecessary to do so and I wanted to respect [the ex-lover’s] privacy. So much of the conversation really dug into personal stuff that made him identifiable. The moments that I chose showed the conversation that we had over the two and a half hours. Everything else was sort of like the fat around that. I felt like it accurately represented what that conversation actually looked like in a lot of ways.

There’s something about the softness and sadness of the language and the nuance of the emotions that is very relatable. 

Yeah, you don’t think about the sonic quality of your relationships. Then you hear something like that, the shift in tone, going from whispers to talking, those are things that I think are already inherent but we’re often not conscious of them. We’re not actively paying attention to them.

The shifts from talking to whisper are almost heartbreaking. You feel your stomach drop listening to it.

Exactly. I think when you’re really intimate with someone, and really love them, you do that, because it’s almost like you soften your voice to try to soften the reality of what’s happening.  I feel like I’ve had this happen now in several relationships at the end of the relationship. Now I notice it a little bit more, when you drop your voice and it’s almost like you’re trying to ease the pain a little bit. I was happy that I was able to capture that in some ways. The way that people tell me it makes them feel is exactly how I felt in that moment. Which means I think I did a good job of transmuting that feeling, so I feel really proud of that.

The visual of it is lovely as well.

Thank you. Surprisingly it took a long time to be able to shoot that window correctly, because I didn’t have a tripod. I was just using a handheld camera; I was holding it and so I was shaking. Then I put it on stacks of books and that looked weird. I’m glad you like the visual. That was definitely an important aspect, as well as the captions at the bottom. The poetry of the captions was something I tried to pay a lot of attention to because I started as a poet, and then became a writer and then got into journalism, and then got into audio. I try to incorporate all of my interests and phases of my life into my work.

I like that the captions aren’t separated into ‘me’ and ‘him’. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, I had to pay close attention initially but then quickly got into the rhythm of the piece. I liked the sillier moments of the captions too, like the flashing ‘kisses’ subtitle.

A friend of mine told me it seemed kind of corny, but I thought ‘well, that’s kind of the point’. That is the feeling of when you’re first meeting someone and you spend 15 minutes just kissing on the street for no reason. There was a point where I was making the captions where I almost had them separated as one side me, one side him. I felt like that was a little too on the nose. There are some implications around the visual reference that would give the wrong impression. I was much more interested in the poetics of that moment than literally letting you know [who was speaking at any one moment].

You mentioned that you began with poetry, then writing and journalism. When did your interest in audio storytelling begin?

My mom’s a writer and a poet, so she always encouraged me to write as a kid. I went to a public arts high school and you had to do an apprenticeship every year. One year they wanted us to make a podcast, but I’d never heard of podcasts before or done anything like that. [My assigned partner and I] were given a microphone and occasionally we would go up and talk to people. But mostly we would hang out on the football field, smoke cigarettes, and then go back to class. Finally [the school] caught up to our bullshit and introduced us to a programme called Youth Radio, which is where I learned how to do radio and use audio. I was about 14 or 15, and ended up working at the programme until I was 20 years old.

When I graduated from high school, I was serendipitously introduced to narrative podcasting and thought it was a combination of the things that I enjoy doing. It’s writing, it’s poetry, and it’s also audio. From there, I was completely hooked… I spent many years making very crappy things on my own, and then eventually was able to get a job at a programme. Now I’m going to start working at The New York Times, which is super exciting. I feel incredibly lucky because I started the process that many people begin in their mid-20s of, ‘what do I want to do? I guess I want to work in podcasts’, 10 years before everyone else. I feel very sure of what I want from my work and what I’m interested in doing. Now it’s more of a matter of me actually going out and doing that work than it is a matter of trying to find the opportunities. Also, I have made friends with people like Sarah [Geis] [and Eleanor McDowall] and Lu [Olkowski], who have continuously supported me and helped me out.

It seems that beautiful and experimental audio work isn’t yet part of general public consciousness and pop culture. 

There’s a split with podcasting, where we either think it’s Serial or we think it’s Joe Rogan, some dudes in a garage shooting the shit. But then there’s this other niche that has existed for a long time of really beautiful storytelling and poetic use of audio. I feel super lucky to have found my way to it. I think I would [otherwise] have spent a lot of time being lost around where I fit into this larger audio community. To know that it exists and to actually get to hang out with people whose work I really respect and enjoy is definitely an honour.

What other audio work inspires you?

All of the Love Me stuff, and really all the work Eleanor [McDowall] is involved in it, not just Radio Atlas but also Short Cuts. One of the artists who Eleanor has worked with, and who won a Third Coast Award last year for Best Foreign Language piece, is Nanna Hauge Kristensen. I think she does really beautiful, personal work. I’m often inspired by the people that I’m already surrounded by. It’s sort of twofold. I’m inspired by their work, which is skilful and interesting and beautiful. But I’m also inspired by the closeness and proximity of being able to watch them work. Seeing someone like Eleanor, who was so involved in all of these different projects, and realising that you’re not beholden to just one thing by being a documentarian. You’re allowed to be involved in so many different ways and there’s a value in that too. I think that’s inspiring in its own way.

By Sam Stone. Sam is a journalist and aspiring documentary maker based in Bristol and London. www.samebstone.com / @samebstone