Category Archives: Dear Documentary Filmmakers

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: The Return

Just a quick note that my “Dear Documentary Filmmakers” series of tweets/posts is scheduled to resume tomorrow, beginning on a weekly basis. I put the series on hiatus at the end of the year but in the months since, a new crop of documentaries, viewed in and for a number of different contexts, have provided grist for the mill.

A couple of reminders: 1) I take pains not to identify the specific film that may have inspired a comment – while I might have some snarky fun, my aim is to offer hopefully useful feedback, not to embarrass or criticize a specific individual. 2) These opinions are my own, and they’re just that – you likely may be able to identify exceptions to much of what I say, but, in general, if I’ve been motivated to write about something, I’ve seen it done badly a few too many times and I feel it bears comment.

For my past DDFs, click here.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Technical Considerations

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Fascinating characters can let you get away w a lot, but pay attn to your doc’s tech aspects.

I can think of few things more frustrating for a programmer than sitting down to a documentary and being simultaneously enraptured by a topic or interview subject but repulsed by the shoddiness of the filmmaking. It pains me to have to pass on some otherwise promising projects because they just don’t measure up professionally or aesthetically.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Narration & Tone

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re not a DJ/planetarium announcer- don’t tell me to “sit back, relax & enjoy” your film.

While I’ve addressed my general dislike for narration in a previous post, I recognize that it’s a creative choice that some filmmakers will continue to make if they feel it’s appropriate for their project. I still caution restraint, as excessive voiceover – like excessive anything – can be a distraction from the core of your film. The above DDF addresses another aspect of narration that irks me and is generally a terrible idea: utilizing a conversational tone.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Bad Ideas

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Promising you’re going to have an amazing party is not the best way to get your film programmed.

Of course, this isn’t limited to just documentary filmmakers, but the doc film world does like its parties, so I’m comfortable with the association here.

This small bit of advice could have been part of my IFP blogposts to filmmakers regarding festival submissions (here and here). Chalk this one up as another bad idea. Sure, everyone likes a good party, but I don’t care if you’re going to have a monkey on a flying trapeze, the hottest go-go boys serving unlimited bacon donuts, or Justin Bieber performing in kd lang drag, you’d better have a good film first of all. Trying to bribe a festival programmer with the promise of excellent promotion when you don’t have a film that holds up is definitely putting the cart before the horse. Focus the energy you’re devoting on planning that party to crafting an engaging film – you can worry about the velvet rope and caterers later.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Road Trips

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: So you filmed your road trip. 1) what was the point & 2) why did you think we wanted to join you?

Like with many of my DDFs, I’m sure that some readers will immediately think of some brilliant example of a road trip doc, perhaps comment here or on Facebook, and decide that that exception makes this note unnecessary. So it bears repeating – if you think hard enough (or sometimes not even that hard), you can probably come up with a film or films that go against my advice and is very successful regardless – and that’s perfectly fine. In my view, I’ve seen plenty of docs that justify this advice, so my DDF stands.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Exhaustiveness

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If you need to put an intermission in your doc, you could probably use more time w an editor.

No, I’m not joking. It may not happen often, but I can remember at least three recent docs that I’ve watched that have literally included an intermission because the bloody thing was so long.

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IDFA 2010: The FORUM in Brief

My second of two articles out of IDFA (the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), focusing on the international co-production financing market, the FORUM, is now up at indieWIRE here. Doubling as an entry in iW‘s Filmmakers Toolkit, it’s also intended for filmmakers interested in learning about what makes for an effective pitch.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Fandom

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Fandom films are tricky – too dismissive, they mock subjects; too respectful, they’re dull.

Films about fandom or subcultures can be extremely popular – you’ve got a core fanbase which hopefully will embrace and support the film (out of an obsession with the subject matter and/or because they see themselves reflected on screen) and the potential of attracting more general audiences to bear witness to the fanatics and their escapades.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Otherness

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Thank you for letting your “exotic” subjects speak for themselves instead of doing so for them.

I tried to write this DDF in more of a positive tone, but as with many of these pieces of advice/constructive criticism, it can very easily be flipped to a negative, because that’s often what sticks out and bears commenting upon. In this example, I’m pleasantly surprised when a typically Western filmmaker makes a doc on a non-Western topic and actually realizes the critical distance needed to not make the film about his/her impressions of the topic, instead allowing the subjects of that culture to tell their own stories.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Biopics

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Filming scripted scenes from a historical figure’s life doesn’t make a doc. Stop.

While I welcome films that stretch the boundaries of what can be considered a documentary or not, there are certain kinds of projects that I feel are decidedly excluded from a non-fiction classification, even in its most liberal sense. Despite this, every year I encounter a small handful of these projects, which leads me to wonder why some filmmakers have such a weird perspective on what constitutes a documentary.

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