Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If your doc suggests you’re not confident about your film, you can’t expect viewers to be either.
If you’re making a personal doc, you’re often facing an uphill battle. Despite having the potential to achieve a kind of storytelling that may very well appeal to a larger crossover audience of fiction devotees more than a typically more self-selecting advocacy-oriented doc might be able to, you usually don’t have access to the same funding sources for development, production, or outreach support. Combined with this lack of resources, because timeliness isn’t always as much of a factor as with social issue docs, you might also spend a longer time making your portrait or essay doc. However, while the cards might be stacked against you to some extent, you probably won’t do yourself any favors by reflecting this in your actual film.
In recent years, I’ve found a disturbing tendency among personal doc makers – often first time filmmakers, but not always – to spend an unnecessary amount of their project’s running time justifying its very existence. It seems to be a defensive reaction to the resistance you have felt during the process of making the film – a (perhaps justified) feeling that since there’s little financial or even critical support of the kind of film you’re so convinced has to be made, you have to argue for it, in either subtle or more explicit ways, by making it part of the film. This seems to especially be the case with personal docs because often (but not always) in these types of films, the filmmaker has a more direct presence, either by being in the film as a subject or narrator.
While I understand this kind of sentiment – the film is in many ways your baby, and you’re a proud parent who wants the world to celebrate its birth as much as you do – I’d caution you to be careful. Hopefully, your film is about something other than justifying its own importance or right to exist. You may have fought, and are still fighting, to make your doc and get it noticed, but don’t get hung up on the meta level. Don’t lose sight of why you made the film in the first place, what it’s really about, and what you hope to communicate to audiences through it.
Unless it’s somehow pertinent to your overall story, you don’t have to dwell on why you’re telling this story, or why this story is important. If you do a good job telling the story, your audience won’t wonder. You have to believe that it’s important, frankly, because you decided it was and because you’re telling it. To spend an inordinate amount of time justifying yourself can come off as defensiveness and weakness, refocus your audience away from what’s really important in your film, and lead them to doubt that it (and you) are worth their time or attention.
Note: With the Sundance lineup being announced beginning today and over the next several days, and the festival coming up all too soon, I’ll be suspending my regular Dear Documentary Filmmakers series for awhile. Time permitting, I hope to post my series of Sundance Docs in Focus beginning in late December, as I did last year.