Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Every time you’re on camera, your doc drags. Why are you IN your film? Focus on your subjects.
I wish I knew where this trend was coming from, but there has been an increasing number of docs in the past few years where the filmmaker has decided s/he needs to be on camera, even if the film is not a personal one. The worst of these place the director in the position of an on-camera subject and/or host, and usually end up distracting the viewer from the film’s true topic, becoming instead all about the filmmaker, leading the audience through his/her filmmaking journey. Let me state this emphatically – unless the film is about you as a central protagonist, or unless your absence would severely jeopardize your project, you don’t belong in it.
There are certainly documentaries where the filmmaker’s presence is pivotal – there’s no question of that – but look at the context. SUPER SIZE ME is about Morgan Spurlock running an experiment on himself – he could have approached the topic in another way, but he chose to make himself a test subject, and it paid off. Josh Fox has a personal stake in GASLAND – again, perhaps there were other ways to proceed, but there’s an honesty to including himself as an identification figure – he felt a direct impact from the topic he explored in the film. Filmmakers like Michael Moore and Werner Herzog are different cases, of course – it made sense for Moore to appear in ROGER & ME, and less so with each subsequent film, but, like it or not, he’s built up his own brand and style. Herzog may not necessarily belong in his films, but, hey, he’s Werner Herzog, and he can get away with breaking a lot of rules and still make really fascinating projects. The simple reality check here is that most documentary makers are not people like Michael Moore or Werner Herzog, and they shouldn’t just attempt to copy their schticks.
As an example, let’s say you begin a foundation to address an issue like poverty. As part of your humanitarian goals to increase public awareness, you decide to make a film about poverty, but instead of focusing on individuals directly affected by poverty, you film yourself driving around state to state talking about poverty, and you film your confessionals about how dealing with the issue of poverty has affected you. In this case, you’ve moved yourself from being a background part of the larger story (poverty is a problem) to being the star (you’re doing something to address poverty). While I can’t guarantee that this film would be terrible, at the very least it’s not directly focused on the central issue you purport to be interested in exploring.
If you’re considering being in your film, you should ask yourself a few very simple questions, and answer them honestly: Why are you in this film? Is this story really about you? Could this story be told without you as effectively or even more effectively? If you’re in the film out of ego, you should probably rethink your reasons for making your project at all. If you’re not a part of the story, and instead are attempting to function as an on-camera host, helping direct the viewer through the story, realize that you’re not filming a segment for the local news, and that this tactic will end up making you and you film look awkward or cheesy. If you’re concerned about your audience not being clear about something, consider employing concise cards explaining whatever it is on screen, or minimal narration if necessary. Viewers don’t need to see you.
If you are actually a part of the story, take a step back and consider if your role is central or peripheral. If it’s a central role, find an appropriate way to balance your presence in the film with the larger story and issues involved so it doesn’t just become the You Show. If instead you truly have a peripheral role, your decision to include yourself may lend your presence in the film more weight than it deserves, and may end up undercutting the significance and impact of your central subjects.