Dear Documentary Filmmakers: I didn’t realize I was watching SNL. Why are there skits in your film?
Depending on your documentary’s topic and approach, it can be challenging to create visual interest. If you’re mostly employing talking heads, you may find yourself with a fairly boring looking film, even if what your interviewees are saying is riveting. Typically, a filmmaker will try to mix things up with some appropriate b-roll, possibly some graphics/animation, or archival footage in order to break the monotony. However, another “solution” to this issue that has been cropping up more often in recent years is, in my opinion, such a bad idea that I’ve decided to devote this post to it: using skits to illustrate or comment upon points raised by your subjects.
As a hypothetical example, your interviewee, a lawyer, poses three speculative arguments about the subject of your doc, the death penalty. To break up her talking head interview, you film three scripted skits with actors (or, often, unfortunately, yourself) that you believe demonstrate the absurdity of these arguments, and intercut these with her interview.
This approach is similar to but more problematic than utilizing re-enactments, which I generally find distracting and unhelpful. At least in their case, the filmmaker is usually trying to recapture something that likely actually happened. Skits, on the other hand, are so deliberately constructed, often with an eye toward humor, that they lose any sense of verisimilitude. While the intention might be to lend some color to theories or arguments posed, any authenticity or credibility tends to be buried under what amounts to a cheap gag.
My usage of the very term “skits” underscore this; despite what your goal might be, I think of them as diversions. Rather than helping your viewers focus on an argument, they may lead them to dismiss or ignore it instead. Skits tend toward the puerile, and they often simplify more complex issues into a more digestible format. While this can have the desired impact of making your audience chuckle, it can also distract them from fully engaging with the topic under consideration. Add the technical complications skits present – they are often performed by bad or unfunny actors in a badly directed and staged setting – and you risk coming off as an amateur.
What’s worse, skits can upstage or even undercut your interview subjects. It’s a good idea to treat the people who agree to be interviewed in your film with respect. You don’t have to endorse their arguments if they run counter to your thinking, but be conscientious about how you demonstrate your disagreement. Holding your interviewees up to ridicule with some sophomoric Funny or Die skit will probably make them think twice about working with you or other filmmakers again, and therefore cut off potentially fruitful dialogue. Leave the skits to the comedians and find a more honest way to engage with the issues and individuals in your film.