Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Thank you for letting your “exotic” subjects speak for themselves instead of doing so for them.
I tried to write this DDF in more of a positive tone, but as with many of these pieces of advice/constructive criticism, it can very easily be flipped to a negative, because that’s often what sticks out and bears commenting upon. In this example, I’m pleasantly surprised when a typically Western filmmaker makes a doc on a non-Western topic and actually realizes the critical distance needed to not make the film about his/her impressions of the topic, instead allowing the subjects of that culture to tell their own stories.
Now, frankly, it’s kind of sad that this does surprise me when it happens – underscoring that, too often, I’m confronted with films ostensibly about Japan or India, for example, that might feature some Japanese or Indian subjects, but are really not about them, but instead about the filmmaker’s perception of them. Or, more irritatingly, the filmmaker believes s/he is more qualified to explain the culture (or “magic” or “spirit”) of some “exotic” locale than the people who actually are part of the culture. To me, these projects always vaguely remind of that guy in college who studied abroad sophomore year only to return wearing Euro clothing, affecting an accent, and “accidentally” dropping foreign phrases into conversation.
I’m sure that certain places can have a profound effect on a filmmaker for various reasons, but I’d ask that filmmaker to seriously consider if they really have a story to tell if they somehow want to capture this impact, and if that story is reasonably likely to have much of an effect, if any, on an outsider audience. If you’re content in making some kind of personal meditation on what made Thailand so amazing for you, more power to you, but keep in mind that what you’re making is just that, a personal meditation. Don’t presume that you have the necessary experience or appreciation of a foreign culture that you can encapsulate everything about it in any kind of authoritative or definitive way. If what you’re making is not expressly centered around you and your experience, then perhaps you should ask yourself why you aren’t letting the people who are actually from this foreign place, who have lived in this place their entire lives, tell their own stories and those of the place? Why do you find it necessary to filter everything through yourself, through an intermediary? Are you being patronizing or even infantilizing?
Those filmmakers that recognize the dangers of falling into these traps often see the value in removing themselves from the documentary altogether. Your quest to Kenya to find a story probably shouldn’t be as interesting as the story you found – and if that’s the case, why spend precious film time on it? Why not devote the film to that core story, and to the core characters you’ve found? Rather than drone on about how you felt about these subjects, or about how you think they were feeling at any given moment, simply turn your camera on them, observe them, and let them provide that information directly, if they’re so inclined. If they want to explain the “spirit” of their country while they’re at it, I’d hazard a guess that they could do a better job than you.