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.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Are all of these anecdotes leading anywhere? Don’t let your interviewee sidetrack you.
While I touched upon this issue in an earlier DDF about tributes, that post was more concerned with the overall topic of your film. For the purposes of this entry, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that at least you have already identified a potentially compelling story you are attempting to tell, and are not just filming a vague appreciation of your uncle or guidance counselor.
Coming to NYC’s Anthology Film Archives‘ NewFilmmakers series tomorrow, Wednesday, August 17: THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK
Wendy Jo Cohen’s fictional documentary had its world premiere at last year’s Atlanta Film Festival. In my coverage of Atlanta for indieWIRE, I wrote:
While initially frankly concerned that PUSSY WILLOW would be another in a long line of unsuccessful mockumentaries, I was pleasantly proven wrong by NY-based filmmaker Wendy Jo Cohen’s smart film. The very term “mockumentary” is rather inappropriate for the film, which treats its themes and its subjects affectionately. Lampooning the style and format of Ken Burns’ PBS series THE CIVIL WAR, PUSSY WILLOW reveals the “true” story of a critical Civil War battle fought by an opium-addicted gay colonel, his aged Chinese advisor, a nerdy freed slave/engineer, and a one-armed cross-dressing teenage prostitute against a secret battalion of British forces, with the fate of Washington DC at stake. An obvious labor of love, the film successfully comments on gays in the military, racism, xenophobia, and sexism in a sly, entertaining manner throughout. Programmers should take note – a variety of audiences will respond extremely well to this film, and it bears serious consideration.
Note: I debated whether or not to post about this film, because, up until now, I have strictly focused on non-fiction work. I’m bending my own rules a bit because, in many ways, director Wendy Jo Cohen’s (aka “Grace A Burns”) loving send up offers a good illustration of documentary conventions actual non-fiction projects may want to avoid. Here, they’re funny; used in “real” docs, they’ll probably engender a “Dear Documentary Filmmakers” post or two.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Have you spent years on your film only to end up w a horribly dated topic?
Non-fiction projects can take a significant amount of time to come to completion. Years can pass by as you follow your subjects and chronicle developments in their lives related to the topic you’ve chosen to pursue. The lack of adequate financial resources might lead you to take a stop-and-start approach to working on your film. At times you might wonder if you’ll ever finish your documentary. If you eventually find the time and the resources to bring it to a completed state, will the film feel fresh and interesting, or will it seem to audiences like a relic from whatever year you started the project?
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Behind-the-scenes docs on the making of unseen films generally have an audience of none.
If you (or a friend or colleague) have made a film that has not been seen by anyone outside of cast/crew and maybe family/friends, your doc about the making of that film is most likely a non-starter – at least as a standalone project. It’s not something you probably should be submitting to festivals or broadcasters.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Remember the key word “selects” in “scene selects” -put some thought into yr picks!
Like last week’s DDF, this one is aimed at helping filmmakers make the right first impression. In this case, rather than trailers, I’m focusing on what you should (and shouldn’t) provide when asked by a potential funder, broadcaster, or market to provide a sample of your work rather than an entire cut.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Why does your film’s trailer look completely different from your film?
This DDF applies to both fundraising and promotional trailers, and it basically boils down to the idea that playing a bait and switch game is generally a bad idea. For filmmakers who are still in the process of making your film – whether that’s late development, production, or post – a fundraising trailer is a pretty much a necessity. It can show potential investors, co-production partners, or funders what your vision is, and, hopefully, encourage them to support you. For filmmakers with completed projects, your promotional trailer can help you attract audiences to seek out the film at a local festival or to purchase the DVD, for example.