Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Topicality

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Have you spent years on your film only to end up w a horribly dated topic?

Non-fiction projects can take a significant amount of time to come to completion. Years can pass by as you follow your subjects and chronicle developments in their lives related to the topic you’ve chosen to pursue. The lack of adequate financial resources might lead you to take a stop-and-start approach to working on your film. At times you might wonder if you’ll ever finish your documentary. If you eventually find the time and the resources to bring it to a completed state, will the film feel fresh and interesting, or will it seem to audiences like a relic from whatever year you started the project?

As a hypothetical example, let’s say back in 2008, your cousin made the Olympic diving team, and you filmed him from training through qualifying and all the way to his disastrous performance in Beijing, where all the media cared about was the winning Chinese team. You amass hundreds of hours of footage. Back home, you realize you’re out of money, so you can’t hire an editor and you put the project on the backburner until you receive that grant you applied for. You don’t get the grant. Months go by as you take on paying work to cover your bills. You work on the Olympics doc when you have some free time, but before you know it, it’s the end of 2010 and it’s still not finished. The project becomes an albatross around your neck, so you resolve to finish it by Summer 2011 no matter what. You beg, borrow, and steal, and, somehow, you complete the film and start sending it off to festivals and broadcasters – three years after the 2008 Olympics.

This three year gap between the events filmed and the finished project isn’t itself the problem, of course. It depends on the story you decide to tell after so much time has passed. If your doc tries to generate suspense about events that took place in the film that are either public knowledge or easily researched via Google, you’re fighting a losing battle. Did he make the team? Did he win his event? In the Internet age, it takes seconds to find these answers. In addition, in this hypothetical example, the events take place on the world stage, so a large percentage of your target audience of diving fans will likely be very aware of who was on the team and how they did at the event without having to search out the information.

Taking this kind of storytelling approach may make sense while you’re in the process of filming. If your topic is perhaps not as much in the public consciousness as the high-profile Olympics, you might have some more leeway. But if you see time ticking away, you have to ask yourself if this is the best way to tell your story. One year out, five years out, ten years out, will this approach resonate for your viewers? Will this seem current, or will it just underscore that the events took place years ago, and lead to easy dismissal by the audience (or programmer or broadcaster)? At a more harshly honest level, ask yourself if your project is still relevant after so much time. Yes, you spent time and resources on your film, but that by itself doesn’t mean that you have a project that others will want to see. It may have been something more worthwhile in a six month window after the events you filmed, but it has long ago reached its expiration date – at least in the form you have been intending.

If you reach a point where you conclude the project you conceived is no longer topical, try to determine if there’s another angle you can take that is not focused on this kind of “will he or won’t he?” question and instead asks a different one. In the Olympics example, rather than trying to generate doubt about whether your cousin makes the team or medals in his event, your doc might offer that information from the outset, and instead ask what drives a young athlete to compete. You could present an amazingly intimate view of an athlete’s life and his experience competing at the highest level of his sport. Something like this could be timeless, with the specificity of the 2008 Olympics as more of a simple backdrop to his experiences rather than the ultimate driving force of your story.

The bottom line here is the basic reminder that you have to remain open and flexible. Your project may not end where you expect it to when you first began, or other circumstances might bring you to a different place. Rather than stubbornly cling to your outdated initial plans, allow yourself to re-assess and you might come up with something even better than you originally expected.

2 Comments

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

2 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Topicality

  1. Jill Orschel

    Nice article. I agree with your advice to remain open and flexible while gathering footage. No project has ever turned out the way I expected….and that’s been a good thing. The best thing about doc making is the discovery!

  2. If you think before start, this ain’t a problem.
    I have seen this happen with two different people. Both didn’t have any clue of what they were doing (not even in a creative way).

    I agree that each documentary is a discovery, for the topic itself and the cinematic narrative (but not to be used as an excuse!)

    Please, directors, think.
    we appreciate!

    M Singer.

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