Dear Documentary Filmmakers: So you were at that big event/happening/protest. Do you have a story to go along w that footage?
Between the advent of cellphones with video recording capabilities and the affordability of compact video cameras, pretty much everyone can and does capture just about everything s/he comes across that seems interesting. When something happens, everyone’s camera comes out – there seems to be an impulse to have visual evidence that screams, “I was there!” If the event is truly significant on some public, even global, level – something more like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, less like a flashmob during your county fair – you might be motivated to go a step beyond posting to YouTube or to your blog and try to turn your footage into a documentary. If so, consider if you have a story to tell other than the fact that the event occurred.
Often what you have is raw footage. Yes, you were there. You whipped out your camera, and you tried to capture a sense of what it was like to be among the crowd. If there was a rally, you probably recorded some of the speech given by an impassioned advocate for the cause. You probably conducted a few vox pops to get a sense of what fellow protestors thought, and maybe even what uninvolved passersby might be thinking. If authorities intervened and unfortunately abused their role and used force, perhaps you might even have disturbing footage of police brutality. This is all fine. You could cut together some of this footage and create a “day in the life” of OWS. If that’s all it is, however, I’d seriously question it if it was longer than 10 minutes. I’m not saying a feature-length version couldn’t work under any circumstances – perhaps someone could put something amazing together. I just don’t think it’s likely or that easy, and I don’t think it would sustain a viewer’s attention. For a feature length project, you need to find an interesting (and, ideally, a unique) angle – a story that goes beyond the simple fact that an event took place and you filmed it.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to share some timely, topical event with larger audiences. I would argue, however, that this kind of thing falls more into the category of reportage, and the best platform for getting reportage out there is the potential viral sharing of the Internet. This is what YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook can do well. Immediacy is the key word here. You were there? This is what you saw? Sharing raw footage – or quickly edited footage – is perfectly fine if these are the main points you want to get across, and social media is probably one of the best, if not the best, ways to do so.
Documentaries, and especially feature docs, can and do address timely events, but more often they are at their best when the filmmaker puts in the time and effort to develop their footage into a more complex story, often but not always at the service of some argument or position. Finding that story, and the best way to tell it, involves painstaking months, or even years, of work. Filmmakers can incorporate on-the-fly filmmaking, but they try to use it in a thoughtful, developed manner – it’s not simply, “I was in Tahrir Square,” it’s the story of an individual or a group of individuals, what led them to Tahrir Square, what they were risking by being there, what they hoped to achieve, and what the Arab Spring says about the greater Egyptian society or the Arab world in general.
Whereas social media hinges on immediacy, the work of feature documentary filmmakers often benefits from reflection. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule. You’ll likely be able to think of examples of a topical and remarkably thoughtfully constructed viral piece, or of a feature documentary that was made and released in a ridiculously short period of time in order to capitalize on a current event. Even so, in general terms, if you’ve got reportage you want to share sooner rather than later, hastily cutting it into a feature doc is probably not the way to go. So when you download that Occupy Wall Street footage you just recorded yesterday, think about what you have, what you want to say with it, and what your best vehicle for doing so will be.