Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Your struggles to make your film are too insular to serve as its focus.
I’ve already written at length about the unfortunate trend of filmmakers including themselves in their documentaries when their presence is not really necessary, so I’m not going to dwell too much on that issue here. My concern here is related, but broader – meta filmmaking.
Making a film about making a film is not inherently a bad idea, of course, but it’s not easy to pull off, and it’s definitely not always appropriate. It’s often just not that interesting, except to the filmmaker and possibly other filmmakers who might empathize. I hate to tell you this, but a general audience probably doesn’t want to know that much about how difficult it was to make your film. Most viewers are looking for an escape into entertainment, while others want engagement through something educational and issue-driven or artful.
Your odyssey to make your doc will probably be too insular, especially if you allow that aspect of the film to dominate your supposed real topic. That may be an extreme case, when your doc about an environmental issue, for example, becomes hijacked into your doc about that time when you tried to make a doc about an environmental issue. While I’ve run across a fair amount of these types of situations – sidetracked docs – the more common occurrence is more of a hybrid meta approach, often played for absurd comic relief or pointed criticism. Think would-be Michael Moores, ie, filmmakers making a doc on a controversial issue who decide to include footage of themselves repeatedly trying and failing to get interviews with key representatives of industry or politics on the opposing side – montages of waiting on hold, leaving voicemail messages, sending emails, etc. As I’ve said before, for better or worse, Moore made it work for himself, but that’s his schtick – it doesn’t have to be yours, and, frankly, it probably shouldn’t be.
Viewers likely have experienced the frustration of bureaucratic red tape in their lives. Because of this, you might intend its inclusion in your doc to speak to your film’s overall point. However, it’s usually not that cinematic – it’s not visually interesting, it’s not dramatic, and it’s not unexpected. It’s also been done to death by others. The viewer is not going to be shocked that President Obama hasn’t responded to your email request for an interview. She’s not going to start a protest because the insurance company you’re criticizing in your film put you on hold only to tell you that they will not offer any comment. He’s not going to freak out about Monsanto ignoring your multiple voicemails. Including footage of these kinds of things are kind of a cheat, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s too easy, and it’s unnecessary. It’s far more effective, and concise, to just include a card (or perhaps a line of narration) to tell your audience that you made an effort to reach these individuals or corporations but were refused or ignored.
It comes down to retaining your focus on your topic, and not getting bogged down with process. Meta filmmaking can become an easy crutch for filmmakers – it’s familiar, it provides a sense of narrative and chronology – but recognize it as a crutch that you’re falling back on. Often it results in sequences in films (or entire films) that are more interesting and relevant to you than to your viewer, and that fail to make the point you were intending to make in the first place.