Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Are these endless scenes of committee meetings supposed to win me over to your cause?
Social issue documentary can be an incredibly important and potentially powerful tool to instill change. Done properly, it can help strengthen the support of those already on your side, and, ideally get the word out to educate others on your issue and hopefully win new supporters. Mishandled, your doc makes no difference, reaches no one, and has cost you time and resources that could have served your cause better in another way.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Your struggles to make your film are too insular to serve as its focus.
I’ve already written at length about the unfortunate trend of filmmakers including themselves in their documentaries when their presence is not really necessary, so I’m not going to dwell too much on that issue here. My concern here is related, but broader – meta filmmaking.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Details matter. There really shouldn’t be typos in your film. Especially not in your name or film title.
I know filmmaking, and especially documentary filmmaking, can be a very arduous process, taking years of your life with minor or little compensation for your time and energy. I also know that, sometimes, if you’re desperate to make a particular funding or submission deadline, you might cut some corners. After all, you might reason, if you’re not sending in your final cut, there’s time to change things later to clean up mistakes you might have made along the way.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: What is the meaning of your meaning of life doc? Why am I mostly wondering why I’m watching it?
Right off the bat, let me say you may just want to file this one away under my pet peeves, even moreso than most of the other DDFs I’ve written. If you have gotten satisfaction or something worthwhile from making or viewing docs on existential questions, more power to you. I have not, and I’ll briefly explain why here.
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.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: I didn’t realize I was watching SNL. Why are there skits in your film?
Depending on your documentary’s topic and approach, it can be challenging to create visual interest. If you’re mostly employing talking heads, you may find yourself with a fairly boring looking film, even if what your interviewees are saying is riveting. Typically, a filmmaker will try to mix things up with some appropriate b-roll, possibly some graphics/animation, or archival footage in order to break the monotony. However, another “solution” to this issue that has been cropping up more often in recent years is, in my opinion, such a bad idea that I’ve decided to devote this post to it: using skits to illustrate or comment upon points raised by your subjects.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: A chorus of talking heads in agreement can weaken your film rather than bolster your argument.
While I’ve touched upon my general views on talking heads before, this DDF is less about talking heads and more about how you make a point. The point you’re trying to make could be taking a particular side in a controversial issue, or it could be something much less argumentative, such as establishing a sense of your protagonist’s personality via interviews with friends and family. How you choose to make that point can mean the difference between swaying a skeptical viewer to your way of thinking or pushing her completely to the opposite viewpoint.