Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Road Trips

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: So you filmed your road trip. 1) what was the point & 2) why did you think we wanted to join you?

Like with many of my DDFs, I’m sure that some readers will immediately think of some brilliant example of a road trip doc, perhaps comment here or on Facebook, and decide that that exception makes this note unnecessary. So it bears repeating – if you think hard enough (or sometimes not even that hard), you can probably come up with a film or films that go against my advice and is very successful regardless – and that’s perfectly fine. In my view, I’ve seen plenty of docs that justify this advice, so my DDF stands.

This specific instance is related in some ways to a previous post on self-indulgence, but taken to the extreme. The filmmaker films him/herself taking a trip somewhere and makes the audience watch. Yes, there’s a tradition of road movies/novels/epic poems yielding universal truths and self-discovery – I get it. But, speaking frankly, to be successful, you’ve got to have some kind of purpose, some kind of core issue that you’re trying to resolve that’s more important than “I’ve got to drive out to Vegas to have fun” or “I’m driving cross country to visit my girlfriend.” Ideally, interesting things should also happen to you along the way that bring you some kind of enlightenment, otherwise, watching you drive and take rest stops grows old extremely fast.

Think about the two questions posed above. Why are you making this doc in the first place? Did you just get your camera and are practicing? Great, practice away, but your practice footage is not something you need to subject others to. Are you obsessive and film everything you do? If so, maybe the footage will come in useful someday when you have a larger story to tell, but until then, hold on to it. Is it therapy? See the self-indulgence post I mentioned above. If you can honestly sum up your road trip doc as “I drove from A to B and nothing much happened*,” it’s also probably not much of a film, and you probably shouldn’t be submitting it to festivals or broadcasters.

* “nothing much happened” includes, but is not limited to, boring conversations with hitchhikers, friends, family members, lovers, strangers, or yourself; pit stops where you or any of those aforementioned get drunk; car troubles; or endless shots of the road.


Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

3 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Road Trips

  1. kiwicafe

    obviously this post struck a real deep cord with people :)
    i went on the road in dec 2003 after a painful marriage break up.
    i shot for two years. at the moment I am in the edit process.
    started with 220 hours, down to 45 and now 17 hours of select selects
    i am a film editor with 40 years of experience, not a film maker
    however i am enjoying the process to see what i can carve out of this material. i do not subscribe to the concept that you can never make a film about nothing. we all have stories to tell, no matter how inane, it’s part of life and living. SO, i suggest, shoot what you will, edit, screen and let go, enjoy the ride, have no attachment to outcomes, have fun.

  2. I am planning to shoot the above mentioned road trip movie. But I have a general direction to go with. Recording interviews with people about the one thing they happen to be best at, in their opinion. This question will be the constant. What do you do best? People’s answers will vary as much as the people who answer them. The idea is to sort of create a video rolodex of these people, link them together through this film, and let everyone know that we’re filming this to help people make the world a better place.

  3. Pingback: Avoiding Pitfalls in Documentary Narrative « Deconstructing Narrative - Sana Bilgrami, Spring 2013

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