Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If the most interesting thing in your doc is the postscript, you may have finished too soon.
Often, after watching a documentary, the viewer is left with questions about what happens next: Did your ex-junkie protagonist stay clean? Did your Everyman David win his court appeal against the corporate Goliath? Did the actions depicted in your film lead to any concrete change for either your protagonist or society at large? While audiences attending festival screenings or special events where the filmmaker is present for a Q&A might have the opportunity to get some of these answers, a larger portion of your potential viewership hopefully would be seeing the film in wider theatrical or home video release or broadcast where you won’t be on-hand. Some filmmakers address this by including update cards at the end of their films, providing a brief postscript – a “where are they now” type of update for the key figures featured. Others prefer to leave some ambiguity in place, perhaps hoping that audience members will seek out further information and get involved in the related cause (if it’s a advocacy-based project), or otherwise are content that the story they’ve told works most dramatically without need for an update.
Either approach is valid, of course. As filmmakers, you are closest to your subjects and most knowledgeable about the topic on which you’ve spent months or years working, so you (and your team) will have to determine whether leaving some aspects of the story open-ended has more impact versus tying everything up. Of course, that said, I still urge you to be open to constructive feedback and flexible enough to consider changing your mind if the story is not working the way you think it is.
For the purposes of this post, I want to speak to those cases where you decide to include a postscript. If you’ve been able to engage your audience to the extent that they’re invested enough to want to know what happens next, you’ve gone a far way better than a lot of other filmmakers, and that’s no small feat. While your postscript can address your viewers’ curiosity, be careful. After watching a feature-length film, they’re often looking for a concise and, to some extent, predictable range of outcomes. To use the examples above: Your ex-junkie protagonist either stayed clean or started using again and is struggling with rehab. Your Everyman’s appeal was denied or he won. The protagonists successfully influenced the creation of a new law or they are still fighting to get their message out.
If, instead, your postscript throws the viewers for a loop with some radical and fairly unpredictable development, they may leave feeling unsatisfied, or worse, that they’ve wasted their time. If your film focused on the struggle of a junkie to get clean but your postscript reveals she is now the leader of a religious cult, the viewer is going to scratch his head and wonder why he didn’t see anything that set that up. If your film was about a victim fighting back against corporate greed but your postscript reveals that he is now a senior VP at a rival company, the audience will feel cheated that you didn’t explain how that happened.
While these hypothetical examples are extreme, this boils down to storytelling, and knowing what that story is. This can be the bane of the documentary filmmaker’s existence – knowing when your story is finished. For some types of docs, you can keep filming for decades because developments keep occurring, but just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. Similarly, sometimes the story you think you have can take a radical new direction, changing the very nature of your film. If this happens, you might believe that what you’ve already put together is strong enough to stand on its own, and you move along with your plan. Perhaps you’ll address the radical changes in a sequel. If these changes are not really widely known publicly, you may not even address them in your film. But if the changes severely undermine the integrity of the story you were planning to tell, or if they are public knowledge and undercut whatever impact your film was meant to have, then it might be time for a radical rethink, and adding a hasty postscript to the film probably won’t be enough. You might need to completely change your conclusion, filming new footage.
While I haven’t seen the film yet, think of the example of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY. Within weeks of the announcement that the film, the third in a series of docs about the West Memphis 3, would be screening at Toronto and the New York Film Festival in September, there was an unanticipated development in the WM3’s case leading to their freedom. The filmmakers immediately made plans to incorporate these changes, with the new version scheduled to premiere at the NYFF (Toronto will show the earlier version due to time constraints). Granted, in this case, the filmmakers and their ongoing project are relatively well-known, and their process of following the case should make the earlier version worthwhile, even without the new footage. But they also recognize that with such a major change to the status quo happening, they had to include it in the film, and not simply in the form of a update card – their audience would need to be given a more in-depth look at the new developments.
If you find yourself revealing developments in your postscript that are as or more interesting than everything that’s come before in your film, you may have to face the difficult possibility that what comes before isn’t really picture-locked, not anymore. You may have to revisit your story, look at your footage with fresh eyes informed by the new developments, and determine if your doc is as compelling and complete as it can be, both for yourself and for your audience. After working on it for so long, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, but he end result may be a lot more rewarding.