South Bend, Indiana, is a city known predominantly for two names – Notre Dame and Pete Buttigieg. Years ago, it was known as the headquarters for Studebaker. But, in between, there are fascinating stories that showcase a city that has rebuilt itself from the ruins of its industrial past. It’s a city that is beginning to turn a corner.
Directors Ryan Blaske and Zach Schrank tell the story of South Bend as it is today in their new documentary Big Enough, Small Enough: South Bend in Transition. InSession Film had the chance to interview them to learn more about the making of the film and the unique story of South Bend.
What was the beginning of the idea for this documentary and how did the project start?
Zach Schrank: The idea for this project started in the Spring of 2019 when national media began coming here for newspaper and television stories trying to understand how South Bend was reinventing itself, who Mayor Pete was, and how he fit in with its evolution. There had been gradual changes for several years in and around the hulking emptiness of South Bend that were beginning to emerge as a phase shift in the life of the city. This shift crescendoed with Pete Buttigieg announcing his run for the presidency, ascending in the polls, and going around the country proclaiming, “South Bend is the message,” and “I want to tell the story of South Bend.” In town he was saying things like, “South Bend is back,” and “Being a mayor is a lot like being a conductor of an orchestra, and you are all part of the symphony.” I started to wonder how the people in this “orchestra” felt about the sync, rhythm, and trajectory of the music. What type of “symphony” is this? National media seemed to be curious about this, too, and started visiting to find out. South Bend had never received this much attention before and for most people here it was a strange and interesting experience to read and watch stories about our city in Time Magazine, The New York Times, or on ABC or CNN. This city is small and isolated from major media so I think a lot of journalists had a difficult time figuring out what type of place South Bend is, making sense of the type of transitions it had gone through, and how to compare it to the identity and history of other cities. Media would fly in for 24 or 36 hours and a rotation of the same people were being quoted for positive or negative comments on issues in the city for a lot of these outlets. Living in South Bend, we saw this as an opportunity to talk to a variety of residents in the city to allow them to tell a detailed, nuanced, and fuller picture of how people here were experiencing its changes and to document this particular moment in time while the mayor was running for president. We knew this type of project required 6 or 7 months of meticulous work, not 6 or 7 hours with the same 6 or 7 people. Our hope was that a final product could serve as a snapshot or time capsule of that moment in 2019 and early 2020 with a diverse array of people who could all reflect on the directions of the city and tell its story. The project started from this idea and we began asking people who we believed might have some interesting insights into the improvements, changes, and enduring problems in South Bend if they would be interested in meeting with us for interviews.
How did you and your directing partner meet? What was the collaboration process like?
Ryan Blaske: Zach gave me a call after my good friend Chuck Fry recommended me. Zach and I discussed his ideas on the film during lunch and I was all in. I was able to see how we could visually tell this interesting story in our city in this unique time.
Z: Ryan and I met through a mutual friend, Chuck Fry, a South Bend filmmaker and storyteller who has worked on numerous creative videos and commercials documenting organizations and events in the city. He recommended I contact Ryan about collaborating on this project. I am glad Chuck paired us together because Ryan had the right equipment and experience to make a high-quality film. Most importantly, since he grew up and lived around South Bend his entire life, he had the right eye to capture people and the city from different angles. The collaboration process was surprisingly organic and effective. I am a Sociologist at Indiana University South Bend and have worked on qualitative interview projects in the city over the years, but I do not have any experience with videography or editing film. So, I was able to make contacts and conduct the interviews as we worked together to inductively sketch out themes in the film. In the end, though, Ryan had the magic touch bringing all of the images and sound together as we spent several evenings and weekends at his apartment whittling 20+ hours of footage down to 80 minutes.
How long did this project take?
Z: It took almost 8 months for us to complete this project from start to finish. We began interviews and filming in July of 2019 and ended in December. We edited the film into its documentary form in January and February of 2020.
What drew you to the documentary format?
Z: We did not set out to make a full-length documentary. Our original plan was to create a series of vignettes with a range of people around the city. We had an open-ended goal of composing some form of oral history of South Bend residents reflecting on city changes and the mayor running for president. As we proceeded into the interviews, though, it became clear that we had enough material to weave into a documentary with accompanying b-roll.
R: After the first or second interview I knew this was going to be a bigger project than we originally intended. The conversations were so thoughtful and interesting that a small vignette would not do it justice. The story had taken a new direction and we were along for the ride.
How did you decide on interview subjects?
Z: We wanted to find people who were plugged into various organizations, neighborhoods, and issues around the city and could speak at length about the good and bad of South Bend. Some of the people interviewed were individuals in our network or people we knew about doing interesting things or working on new creative projects. Others were people I met randomly around town in parks. We asked people who had recently started new small businesses in once vacant sections of the city to participate. We also asked around for references and recommendations for people who had deep history and perspectives living in South Bend. The commonality of all who participated in this film is that each was fighting to improve South Bend in unique and inspiring ways. We were lucky that so many people were willing to meet with us and share their stories.
So many of your interview subjects are people who are actively participating in the growth of the city, whether that’s as a business owner, an artist, or a community leader. What is it about South Bend that spurs this type of ambition?
R: Living in a Midwest city like South Bend can bring some limitations that larger cities can offer, but on the flip side, a smaller city brings the advantage of lower barriers of entry. South Bend is often called a Beta City for larger cities in the country. I believe we have created a culture of creatives, business owners, and artists that are not afraid to try something new and build the life they want. Our city is very supportive of these endeavors and has built the city to a more desirable place. I’ve always believed having limitations pushes you creatively to think outside the box and explore new ideas.
What was location scouting like, and how did you decide on the locations used in the film?
R: I’ve lived in and around this city my whole life and, being a freelancer, you tend to film the same locations again and again. I wanted to explore the city from a new vantage point. I would drive around the city with the idea of capturing something different, an uncommon angle or approach. As we filmed the interviews, I would take notes of topics we talked about and keep that in mind when I was out shooting B-Roll. Using the drone brought some new perspectives I’ve never seen before. I’m grateful for the technology filmmakers have these days to tell their stories.
Was there anything that surprised you that came out of these interviews?
Z: I am very appreciative that so many people were willing to meet for an interview on camera and trusted us to accurately present their thoughts and opinions.
R: The name of the documentary “Big Enough, Small Enough” came from our interviews with the residents. Zach and I were constantly surprised how often that phrase would come up during the interviews. Nearly every interview they would bring up some version of this phrase.
Talk about how you address former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in the documentary. He’s never shown on screen in any way, but his impact is clearly felt and even discussed. How did you walk the fine line between making a documentary about South Bend but also including information about its most famous son without letting him become the focus instead?
Z: It was very important to us that the film honestly portray the perspectives of people living in South Bend without any narration, and our goal all along was for this to be a story about South Bend as a whole. Of course, it is impossible to talk about transitions in South Bend without discussing the role of Mayor Pete. He certainly played a big role in the city. However, I imagine there will eventually be a documentary about Pete Buttigieg. There was already plenty of local and national media attention directly about him, but the actual story of South Bend was rather limited and sometimes distorted in these accounts. We felt that we could offer something that national media (or even local) could not; that is, lengthy insights from an array of individuals in South Bend who largely were not participants in the political media process, curated as a documentary. And for the film to serve as a snapshot in time of this city’s moment as a whole, it had to remain focused on their stories and perspectives.
Why should people who have no connection to South Bend watch this documentary?
Z: South Bend is a hard place to define or explain to outsiders. I grew up in central Indiana and South Bend is just different from other locations in the state and around the country. When I moved here 7 years ago, it took some time for my wife and I to make sense of what this place is. The central hub of the city felt vacant with old empty brick buildings lurking among it. It is a city of contrasts. A rich industrial history that descended into economic and population decline. Home of a world premier university with an incredible endowment that is largely disconnected from the poor city that surrounds it. It has schizophrenic weather, depressing lake-effect winters with a grey dome hanging over the city for 6 months of the year, yet it is situated near Lake Michigan that makes for a great summer playground. It is a really easy, low-key, cheap and friendly place to live, yet it is poor and stratified along class/racial lines. But there are people in every part of the city doing great community work, starting great new restaurants, and building a unified vision for our future. A lot of these contrasts are illustrated in the documentary and we hope it gives people with no connection to South Bend an accurate feel and look to what it is like here. And we also hope that it provides some context to the place where Mayor Pete is from when he launched an unlikely and surprisingly successful campaign for the presidency.
Talk about the visual style used in the film. I’m especially interested in the camera movements during some of the interviews. It’s an interesting creative choice. How did you decide on that approach to the interviews?
R: During the filming of this documentary the interviews would sometimes be very spontaneous. I always had my camera, light, and microphone ready to go if Zach had a new lead. I wanted to have the subject be placed in the environment that shows their daily life in South Bend. We filmed in offices, houses and coffee shops. The handheld interviews were more fitting for the subject’s environment. These types of interviews often involved tours of their space, and I wanted to capture that feeling of being there with them. For the B-Roll I wanted the city to speak for itself, almost all of the b-roll is completely static with the only movement being the city.
Is there anything you hope viewers come away from this documentary feeling or understanding?
Z: Big Enough, Small Enough: South Bend in Transition is a completely independent film the two of us created without a budget. It was something we felt compelled to make. Neither of us had done anything quite like this before.
R: There are many cities like South Bend in the United States and I hope this documentary shows how a city can come together to make a difference and improve the city they live in. We have problems just like any other city, but I believe South Bend has a special bond and united goal to improve our city.
What did you learn from the experience of making this documentary?
R: This was my first full-length film in my filmmaking career. I was so proud of what Zach and I were able to accomplish with no budget and limited resources. I learned that making a film in today’s world just takes the passion and drive needed to complete it.
Anything else you want to leave with viewers of the film?
Z+R: We appreciate anyone who has taken an interest in the film and watched it.