Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Reportage

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.

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2 Comments

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

2 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Reportage

  1. Stacey Boudreaux

    I was very disappointed to read your article on reportage. You are correct in stating that there is no right or wrong way to make a documentary film. However, your article was less than professional when you singled out filmmakers with a news background. Please remember that these courageous men and women have put a lot of hard work, money, and time into creating their documentary films. Many of these films are also self-funded, not Hollywood productions. If you want to provide criticism you should provide it in a constructive way. Some of the most credible and interesting documentary films come from men and women who share a common background in the news industry. Many of these films have used narration, interviews, and archival footage. At times, actual images of major events can have a greater impact on viewers — for instance, the archival news footage of New York City on September 11, 2001. Those images left all of us speechless. Words could never convey the gut-wrenching emotions that we felt after seeing the towers fall. Moreover, many documentary films attempt to tell a story that has already occurred. Hence, the filmmaker will not necessarily be an integral part of a story if it’s a story from the past. Therefore, please do not let your personal likes and dislikes interfere with your ability to fairly critique documentary films, regardless of their format, since millions of movie lovers may not share your views.

    Thank you for considering another point of view.

    • Dear Stacey:

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post. However, I think you may have read more of a blanket dismissal of reporters or investigative journalism than I actually indicated above and definitely more than I intended. I also in no way valued Hollywood productions over independent ones – I’m at a loss to identify any big budget docs that I’ve written about on this blog, which absolutely champions scores of smaller, personal stories.

      So let me just clarify:

      -I fully acknowledge that many documentary filmmaker come from or still maintain a news background. Many of them make quite excellent documentary work. I would still argue that those that do typically employ different techniques in their doc work compared to their news work – ie, their docs look and feel different than the segments they produce for the news.

      -While I personally may not prefer narration, I have stated many times that it’s a personal taste issue, and its judicious use has been fine in many docs that I do like. I’ve also never indicated that I don’t like interviews or archival footage. What I did mention in my article is that when *most or all* of the conventions of news segments are transferred over to what’s intended to be a documentary feature, it usually doesn’t work. This might mean: a host/anchor, an on-air interviewer/narrator, predominantly talking heads, etc.

      -This blog, like most, and thus the critiques posted here, are absolutely informed by my personal likes and dislikes. What person offering a critique or an opinion isn’t affected by his/her likes or dislikes? That’s the whole point of offering an opinion. I often note that these are my personal opinions, and I never indicate that my views are gospel. Neither filmmakers nor other viewers have to agree completely, nor do I expect them to. I offer my opinions as just that, in the hopes that they offer some insight into how I – and possibly other film programmers since I hear from others about their own pet peeves – respond to the work that I see, and, if this gives them something to think about their own approach to filmmaking, more the better.

      Thanks again for reading!

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