Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Call me crazy, but when I watch a doc, I don’t expect to see an overlong news segment.
While television in many cases can provide documentary filmmakers with a much larger audience than festival screenings and small theatrical releases, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily adopt the conventions of TV news reporting in the hopes of being more appealing to potential broadcast sales. Usually what’s appealing about documentaries on TV is that they are different from the standard TV news report or news magazine segment – the best of them employ different approaches to storytelling and character development, ones distinct from a typical news set-up that usually involves an onscreen host/interviewer, voice over and/or onscreen narration, sit-down interviews, and sometimes vox pops, and of course, for the nightly news, anchors providing intros and banter with reporters.
Of course, there are many and varied approaches to documentary, and some of the above can be used effectively, depending on the project, while others are usually always bad ideas. Adopting all of these techniques in your doc is a terrible idea. The result ends up being some kind of bizarre expanded news segment – an overlong 20/20 or A CURRENT AFFAIR, perhaps. Sometimes this seems to be done because the filmmaker actually has a TV news background, and that’s how s/he knows how to tell a story. Others, as I noted above, perhaps might think this approach will make their project more attractive to certain broadcasters.
Some may disagree, but for me, documentaries that adhere too closely to reportage just feel like odd ducks. Because they mimic news, they create a very different level and type of engagement with the viewer – one that’s more passive and possibly even less focused or more prone to distraction. Story elements and characters are typically spoonfed to the audience, and the host/interviewer is granted a level of authority that may predispose the viewer to accept conclusions without question. They also can look alternately either too slick and overproduced (perhaps with TV style chyrons and graphics) or too quickly and cheaply assembled (by being or attempting to appear immediate or topical).
While not the case with all docs, among some of the best are those whose filmmakers have invested significant time to delve into a topic, to find a unique or nuanced approach, in contrast to what can often be a cursory interview that’s more in line with television news. There’s obviously no one way to make a doc, but if the viewer likens your project to something they could imagine their local news anchor cobbling together for a three-minute segment, expanded to feature-length, it’s not likely to impress them or leave much of an impact. Try to leave the reportage to the reporters and find a more interesting way to tell your story.