Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Selection

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Picking the right subjects to follow is so important. The ones in the film I’m watching are the right ones.

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Two films in a row about the same exact topic? Really? sigh.

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Next time, please try to have a point before making your film. Filming your search for one is not new or fun.

These tweets are about filmmakers doing their homework, being prepared, and making smart editorial decisions – largely before getting too far along into their projects.

Topic selection is the larger issue here – is your film showing us something new? If other films have been made or are concurrently being made about the same topic, are you focusing on something different or unique that those other films didn’t cover? Are you using the same interview subjects that those films used? In many ways, you’ll be becoming somewhat of an expert on your topic during the course of working on your film, so follow through and do the research to make sure that your project won’t be undercut by someone else’s if they happen to finish first or are programmed first. Make sure that your time and resources will be best spent working on this film.

If you find out that someone else has already made a similar film, or has a headstart on making one now, try to take a fresh look at what attracted you to the topic in the first place and see if you can come up with a new angle that would not only engage you, but signal to others that your film is a different approach worth watching even if they’ve seen that previous film. But please, if you do find yourself in this situation, do resist the urge to go meta – films about the search for what to make a film about are rarely successful and usually tedious. Instead, take the time to locate that new approach to your film before you start again. You might shift gears away from the macro topic area to focus on an individual subject you’ve found who brings a distinctive micro perspective to the issue, for example.

Subject selection is also key – depending on the type of project they’re making, filmmakers will sometimes chance upon their subjects, while in other cases, they may seek them out, perhaps as experts in a particular field. The former can be a godsend – something about that subject captivated you as a filmmaker, and you hope to capture that essence for your audience. It’s important to recognize that you can get too close to your subjects at times, however, and they may not be quite as interesting for the purposes of a film as you might think they are. The reverse might also be true – you may be too close to a potential subject, like a family member or friend, and you might fail to recognize that they might make for a fascinating documentary portrait until someone else points it out to you.

If you have a topic that would benefit from seeking out subjects, once again it bears repeating – do your research. Find out what other films or TV shows these potential subjects may have appeared in related to the same or similar topics. Are they over-exposed? Will they bring anything new to your film, or will they be repeating information found in other projects? Do you need them because they are providing a vital perspective, or do you have enough “experts” already? Do you risk losing the throughline of your project by including too many voices? Be willing and able to make the difficult choices of scaling back what you choose to include in your film in an effort to make it stronger – just because you filmed 50 people doesn’t mean it benefits your project to include them all in the final cut.


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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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