Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Director-As-Subject

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

6 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Director-As-Subject

  1. There is an interesting process problem in this issue.
    Alost always, barring a huge and clear story arc, the first structure that any documentary can organize itself around is the same path the film maker went through to get to the heart of their subject.
    So the first cuts are usually (and I think it is good) based in the time of shooting, the time of entry and discovery. This only works with the discoverer.

    Then comes a moment (after a good bit or rearranging chunks) where you start to see what the movie is really about, what the heart you discovered is, where the emotions are, and then the next cut organizes itself around the emotional throughline.
    It is here that limited editing schedules really come into play. Because going into the emotional throughline from the timeline structure is like that star trek episode (original series) where Spock has to hypnotize the crew into truly believing that “the bullets are not real…you can see them, you can hear them but they are not real…”
    It takes a lot of experience, confidence, or time to make that switch.
    HENCE…people make the move halfway. They stick to the timeline of their discovery, but make it about their emotional reaction.

    On Camp VIctory Afghanistan, so many people saw me going to Afghanistan (for those of you who don’t know me, a middle aged professor in clogs) as an amazing story. Insisting I should be in the movie, but I have been an editor for many many years and I know better. It took some standing firm.
    “You should be in your film” is what people say when they can not figure out how to give you other structural advice.
    And sometimes, you should be. But it better be good, and you better be ready to give up the goods…as in FUll Disclosure by Brian Palmer.

    Nuff said. Great topic. Teacher on sabbatical got to be a know it all somewhere !

    • Thanks Carol! I appreciate you taking the time to post, and I agree. This tendency certainly can be a consequence of filmmakers rushing to get their film ready for a programming deadline, and not having the breathing room to consider how else to tell their story. As I’ve said before – filmmakers have to really consider the option of missing a particular deadline in order to let their film be the best it can be, or risk ending up with a film that potentially no one is happy with.

  2. The paragraph on the hypothetical poverty film sounds a lot like Born Into Brothels, which often seemed at time to be more about Zana Briski’s role in helping the kids — there’s even a self-involved scene of her fundraising for HER cause.

    It’s a very old issue, look at the last shot of Cooper/Schoedsack/Harrison’s Grass, which ends with a shot of a document celebrating the filmmakers’ trip through the Middle East, making it more about them than the tribe they’re documenting.

    More recently, the worst of it I’ve seen is Angela Ismailos, who puts herself way too much into her doc Great Directors, and Oliver Stone, who is already famous, sure, but who doesn’t need to cut so much to his own face in his doc South of the Border.

    I’m curious what inspired this post.

    • I wasn’t thinking of BORN INTO BROTHELS – it really was just a hypothetical example I pulled out of thin air.

      As with many of my DDFs, the inspiration came from one or more documentaries I’ve seen for a variety of purposes – I won’t reveal specific titles or contexts, because it’s my hope that these tips can offer food for thought to multiple filmmakers, not just a specific one. Suffice it to say that I have seen far more than one recent film where filmmakers, in my opinion at least, seemed to lose their way and focused less on their actual subjects and more on themselves or the meta-context of their filmmaking. While exceptions are out there that have resulted in fantastic films, I’m fairly confident that, unfortunately, these will not join their number.

  3. Pingback: Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Interviews « what (not) to doc

  4. Pingback: Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Introductions « what (not) to doc

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