Category Archives: Dear Documentary Filmmakers

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Defensiveness

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If your doc suggests you’re not confident about your film, you can’t expect viewers to be either.

If you’re making a personal doc, you’re often facing an uphill battle. Despite having the potential to achieve a kind of storytelling that may very well appeal to a larger crossover audience of fiction devotees more than a typically more self-selecting advocacy-oriented doc might be able to, you usually don’t have access to the same funding sources for development, production, or outreach support. Combined with this lack of resources, because timeliness isn’t always as much of a factor as with social issue docs, you might also spend a longer time making your portrait or essay doc. However, while the cards might be stacked against you to some extent, you probably won’t do yourself any favors by reflecting this in your actual film.

In recent years, I’ve found a disturbing tendency among personal doc makers – often first time filmmakers, but not always – to spend an unnecessary amount of their project’s running time justifying its very existence. It seems to be a defensive reaction to the resistance you have felt during the process of making the film – a (perhaps justified) feeling that since there’s little financial or even critical support of the kind of film you’re so convinced has to be made, you have to argue for it, in either subtle or more explicit ways, by making it part of the film. This seems to especially be the case with personal docs because often (but not always) in these types of films, the filmmaker has a more direct presence, either by being in the film as a subject or narrator.

While I understand this kind of sentiment – the film is in many ways your baby, and you’re a proud parent who wants the world to celebrate its birth as much as you do – I’d caution you to be careful. Hopefully, your film is about something other than justifying its own importance or right to exist. You may have fought, and are still fighting, to make your doc and get it noticed, but don’t get hung up on the meta level. Don’t lose sight of why you made the film in the first place, what it’s really about, and what you hope to communicate to audiences through it.

Unless it’s somehow pertinent to your overall story, you don’t have to dwell on why you’re telling this story, or why this story is important. If you do a good job telling the story, your audience won’t wonder. You have to believe that it’s important, frankly, because you decided it was and because you’re telling it. To spend an inordinate amount of time justifying yourself can come off as defensiveness and weakness, refocus your audience away from what’s really important in your film, and lead them to doubt that it (and you) are worth their time or attention.

Note: With the Sundance lineup being announced beginning today and over the next several days, and the festival coming up all too soon, I’ll be suspending my regular Dear Documentary Filmmakers series for awhile. Time permitting, I hope to post my series of Sundance Docs in Focus beginning in late December, as I did last year.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Reportage

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Call me crazy, but when I watch a doc, I don’t expect to see an overlong news segment.

While television in many cases can provide documentary filmmakers with a much larger audience than festival screenings and small theatrical releases, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily adopt the conventions of TV news reporting in the hopes of being more appealing to potential broadcast sales. Usually what’s appealing about documentaries on TV is that they are different from the standard TV news report or news magazine segment – the best of them employ different approaches to storytelling and character development, ones distinct from a typical news set-up that usually involves an onscreen host/interviewer, voice over and/or onscreen narration, sit-down interviews, and sometimes vox pops, and of course, for the nightly news, anchors providing intros and banter with reporters. Continue reading

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Hagiography

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: While you don’t have to be impartial, whitewashing your subject’s faults diminishes your doc.

You’ve decided to make a film on a public figure of some sort – perhaps an internationally-known historical personage or a locally-known small-town politician – and you’re approaching the project as a kind of biography. Even though your subject was implicated in some kind of scandal, or perhaps didn’t have the smoothest personal life, you choose to ignore these darker aspects of her life or instead to present a revisionist version which makes her out to be unblemished. In so doing, you’re perpetuating myth-making, and, especially in the case of political subjects, essentially generating partisan versions of history – at worst, a form of propaganda, and at best, hagiography. Continue reading

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Pet Causes

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re on a crusade for or against something. Will others care enough about it to watch a doc?

Let’s say you have become so motivated by some injustice or state of affairs that you’ve become an activist of sorts. You decide that you want to share your cause with the world by making a documentary about it. Before you commit to such a course, however, you should really ask yourself: Is this issue widespread enough for others to care about it? Can this topic sustain a feature-length treatment?

I’ve already written at length about advocacy docs and some of the pitfalls to try to avoid, so I’m not going to dwell on that here. Instead, the focus of this DDF is much more basic: Is it worth making a film about your topic in the first place?

One answer is, of course, absolutely. If you are a filmmaker, and you enjoy making films about things happening in your life, you may feel that your pet cause is as worthy of being filmed as any other issue out there. More power to you. Make your film about why you think male dogs should be forced to wear pants, and enjoy watching the final product with your friends, family, and pets. However, if you think your two-hour long pantalooned dog advocacy project is likely to resonate with the masses, I’d wager you are probably wrong. I’d guess that it’s unlikely to make it into most (if not all) of the festivals you send it to for consideration, and I’d very much doubt that broadcasters or distributors would be quick to offer you a platform either.

If you are thinking more along the lines of reaching audiences rather than making a doc simply for yourself – you have aspirations to show the film publicly, whether at festivals, conferences, theatrically, broadcast, or ancillary markets in the hopes of convincing people to join your cause and make a difference – then the question of whether or not it makes sense to proceed with the project in the first place bears serious consideration.

Is your cause something major, or more of a pet peeve/cause? How important is this issue – to you personally, to your community, and to society at large? Are there a significant amount of people affected by it? Would an advocacy documentary help your cause? Realistically, is the cause complex/controversial/wide-reaching enough to engage audiences for 15 minutes? 30 minutes? 60 minutes? 90 minutes?

Let’s say you have become a staunch anti-double parking crusader, and you’ve been trying to get the fines increased for all the jerks who block your car. Before you run off and make your 180 minute opus, TRAPPED: FOUR WHEELS AND NO WAY TO GO, you should probably realize that it’s going to be tough going to get an audience to watch it. Many people are likely inconvenienced by double parking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to go out of their way to watch a film about it. They might support your political lobbying, but a doc is probably not the most effective way to get your message out. Frankly, unless you’ve got some amazing tricks up your sleeve, I would be surprised if you have enough interesting things to say about the subject to fill 5 minutes much less a feature-length version of this hypothetical doc.

I do want to add one caveat, however, though with caution. Sometimes, projects that initially seem focused on a pet cause that shouldn’t work end up becoming more about the individuals involved in the cause than on the cause itself. In the hypothetical dog pants advocacy doc above, for example, the filmmaker himself, or perhaps other advocates he finds, might be fascinating eccentrics who are more able to carry a film than the cause itself can – it still merits serious consideration if these quirky character portraits can sustain a viewer’s attention over time, of course. Even the double parking scenario could potentially result in a similar character find, if you as a filmmaker are open to possibilities, and able to be honest with yourself about whether or not your project is working. If you acknowledge that a doc on double parking just isn’t going to set the world on fire, but you chance upon a double parking activist who could give Jack Rebney a run for his money as the angriest man in the world, you may have found a different film altogether, and one that may be worth pursuing after all.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Immediacy

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: So you were at that big event/happening/protest. Do you have a story to go along w that footage?

Between the advent of cellphones with video recording capabilities and the affordability of compact video cameras, pretty much everyone can and does capture just about everything s/he comes across that seems interesting. When something happens, everyone’s camera comes out – there seems to be an impulse to have visual evidence that screams, “I was there!” If the event is truly significant on some public, even global, level – something more like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, less like a flashmob during your county fair – you might be motivated to go a step beyond posting to YouTube or to your blog and try to turn your footage into a documentary. If so, consider if you have a story to tell other than the fact that the event occurred. Continue reading

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Manipulation

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Do you really need to zoom in on your interview subject as s/he begins to cry?

The above example is a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being done anymore – quite the contrary. You’ve managed to get your interviewee to open up about some painful subject and you notice tears beginning to well. You think, “This is it, this is the shot!” and you abruptly zoom in so that the audience is sure to catch that tear in all of its magnified glory on the giant theatrical screen in your mind. Continue reading

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Respect

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Why would you make a doc on a trans person yet insist on using pronouns your subject doesn’t?

This couldn’t be simpler, as far as I’m concerned: If you, as a filmmaker, convince individuals that you’re the right person to tell their stories, then you should treat them with respect. They’re entrusting you with access to their lives, so show them the same level of trust with how you represent them. Continue reading

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