Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Some stories don’t have happy endings- be wary of ending your film on a false note.
This note is pretty self-explanatory, but it speaks to a larger issue at the heart of much non-fiction filmmaking. Depending on the kind of project you’re making, one of the most exciting aspects of documentary is that you might not exactly know where your story or subjects will take you – unlike fiction projects, you’re typically not working with a script, at least not one under your total control in all cases. Following the potential twists and turns of your story can simultaneously energize you (keeping you engaged with a project that will take months or more likely years to take to completion) as well as freak you out (how is that unexpected development going to fit in with the story you originally planned?).
This unpredictability at the heart of some non-fiction filmmaking is also exciting for your audience – truth is stranger than fiction, after all. Watching how your film takes off in unforeseen directions can often leave a lasting impression, moreso perhaps than a more expected trajectory would allow.
Resist the urge to try to make what your documentary actually turns out to be into what you anticipated it was going to be when you started. Be true to your story and trust in your audience to roll with it. If your subjects don’t end up in the place you wanted them to be, that’s too bad. If this ruins the concept for your film, then rethink it – don’t just manufacture an artificial way to get to that point – it’s intellectually dishonest and your viewers won’t buy it.