Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Definitions

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re not a high school debater- don’t start your film with a dictionary definition – trite.

This is a pet peeve, I’ll admit, but it shows up so often I’m sure it’s a pet peeve for a lot of programmers and probably for a fair amount of viewers.

My memories of high school speech and debate competitions almost all include a fast-talking kid beginning by saying something like “Skepticism. Merriam-Webster defines ‘skepticism’ as…” On the doc side, I have seen far too many films opening in a similar manner, often with a card literally offering a dictionary entry of the film’s title or of some key concept or theme, such as “pe•dant•ic: 1: of, relating to, or being a pedant; 2: narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned; 3: unimaginative, pedestrian.”

If you are considering doing this, you should know that it’s simply not original at this point. You can still choose to employ this method to convey information, of course, but I’d encourage you not too. Beyond being overused, it imparts a vaguely academic tone to your film, and I’m not convinced that’s the best approach for most films to take.

You might ask yourself, why does this word need defining? If it’s the title of your movie, are you doing yourself and your film a disservice by naming it something so esoteric that audiences might not know what it means? If so, consider that the title might just be a turn off for a lot of audiences and they may never even get to the point of sitting in front of a screen watching that explanatory definition card – they’ll just skip ahead to another film whose title they already understand or are more intrigued by because of its suggestions. If instead the word you are itching to define on screen is about some core concept that your film deals with, is there an interview subject or media report or some other more dynamic way of making that term clear? If not, what’s the matter with a simple card that defines it at the appropriate place in the film in more straightforward and direct terms – ie, jettisoning all the sub meanings and dictionary entry format, and just saying what it is and what it means in the context of your film?

As with other DDFs that have discussed other pet peeves, the basic point here is that you should be aware of what approaches and techniques have become overused in non-fiction filmmaking, take a step back, and assess why you would use them for your project, or if there’s a better, more original or creative way to accomplish your goal.

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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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