Dear Documentary Filmmakers: It’s not “cute” to interview kids about your film’s topic. If it’s not about them, leave them out.
Add this one to the list of trends that I’ve noticed over the past year or two – a film is about something decidedly unrelated to kids, say campaign finance reform or the plight of the endangered Siberian musk deer, yet the filmmaker thinks s/he should get the opinions of some precocious tots. Maybe the filmmaker thinks this would be somehow endearing, or, instead, ironically underscore how simple the answer to a problem is but that adults are missing it – “out of the mouths of babes,” as it were.
Generally – it’s overused, it’s not original, and it’s not effective. If the topic doesn’t have a direct, tangible, and justifiable connection and bearing on the people you interview, why should an audience care what they have to say? The same goes for other interview subjects, not just kids, of course, but it strikes me as much more deliberately manipulative when kids are dragged in.
If your topic does have an impact on children, then, by all means, consider interviewing them. However, even in this case, there’s only so much of a Cindy Brady lisp to which an audience will want to be subjected – look beyond their cuteness factor and how you think it will influence viewers and try to select articulate, intelligible child interviewees. Cuteness only goes so far – if you want your points to be taken seriously, remember who you’re attempting to reach, and do so intelligently.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re not a high school debater- don’t start your film with a dictionary definition – trite.
This is a pet peeve, I’ll admit, but it shows up so often I’m sure it’s a pet peeve for a lot of programmers and probably for a fair amount of viewers.
My memories of high school speech and debate competitions almost all include a fast-talking kid beginning by saying something like “Skepticism. Merriam-Webster defines ‘skepticism’ as…” On the doc side, I have seen far too many films opening in a similar manner, often with a card literally offering a dictionary entry of the film’s title or of some key concept or theme, such as “pe•dant•ic: 1: of, relating to, or being a pedant; 2: narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned; 3: unimaginative, pedestrian.”
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Competition docs are now their own genre- to stand out they must transcend their own conventions.
I have a confession to make – I take more than my fair share of guilty pleasure in numerous competition-based reality TV shows (TOP CHEF, PROJECT RUNWAY, THE AMAZING RACE, BIG BROTHER, etc etc) – they’re a fun, simple escape from thinking about the larger issues that I’m so often confronted with in many of the films that I watch. Of course, I appreciate lighter or non-issue-driven documentaries as well, but one thing that tends to strike me when I see competition-oriented docs is that they too easily fall into the conventions of reality TV. Maybe it’s a personal thing for me, based on my admitted escapist use of reality TV, but this results in a certain lack of full engagement with or appreciation for these kinds of documentaries.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Using a barrage of low-res stills to illustrate pop songs you don’t have the rights to = bad.
The use of music in film is a huge topic – far too huge for a single blog post or for a non-expert like me – but, having encountered the above scenario a few times, it bears some consideration.
There are perfectly valid reasons for why you may want to use recognizable, popular songs in your film, just as there are equally good reasons to forego that route to instead have an original score. I’m not going to argue here why you should take one approach or another, but I will focus on the former and some of the missteps I’ve occasionally observed.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Is there a story here, or are you just sharing your anecdote-filled tribute to a loved one w me?
While it’s easy to pick up a camera today and start shooting, thanks to the relatively cheap and easy accessibility of video, I can’t stress enough that this alone does not a (good) doc make. Just because you can shoot it, doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily of substance there, or at least not necessarily something other people will want to see. This isn’t exclusive to the above DDF, but family/friend tributes are a typical subject I’ve encountered many times where this is unfortunately evidenced.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make that video honoring your grandma, or record stories about your dad by his old college buddies – of course, make whatever you want to make, and I’m sure your family members are lovely people. You should ask yourself, however, beyond your family and friends, who else would really benefit from seeing it? Is it something that a perfect stranger would be interested in? Does it offer an engaging story, regardless of personal acquaintance with the featured subject?
If it does, great – fine tune it as you would any doc, so it’s potentially presentable as a film and not as a home movie, and consider submitting it to festivals in the hopes of sharing that captivating story (and your fascinating relative’s life) with a larger audience.
If instead your film doesn’t offer an entry point with which outsiders can engage, be realistic about what you have – a surprise that you can present to your loved one at an anniversary or birthday party, perhaps, but definitely not something that you should be sending to programmers.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Viewer discretion advisories are for TV shows. Programmers are adults, you don’t need to warn us.
Within the last year or so, I’ve started to notice that some filmmakers are using viewer discretion advisories at the beginnings of their films – at least for the docs that have crossed my path for various programming or curatorial purposes. I’m not sure if the warnings have ended up staying there or not when the films actually screen publicly, but that’s part of my issue here – it comes down to you as a filmmaker understanding who is watching and judging your film and how you should and should not address them.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Resist the foolish desire to film yourself introducing your doc to the viewer.
Like Tuesday’s DDF, this one also takes off from the same previous post about directors making themselves the subject of their docs. Indulge me, there’s unfortunately more to be said about this unfortunate trend.
Admittedly, this is less prevalent than filmmakers appearing in their interviews, but I’ve come across it enough times in recent months to inspire this post. This should really only apply to beginning filmmakers or perhaps to those who have come from an institutional, industrial, or educational film background but are now trying to reach a broader audience. In the case of the latter, there can be different conventions in play that make filmed hosted introductions acceptable, but this is not really appropriate for films that go out on the festival circuit or onto potential distribution or broadcast.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Reaction shots of nodding interviewers look lame on the news. They look super lame in docs. Don’t.
This DDF is essentially a short subset of a previous post, but I’ve seen it far too often recently that I have to spend a couple of paragraphs on it.
Laying aside the larger issue of including yourself in your doc in the first place, if there’s one thing that I can say pretty certainly is that you should not be in the frame when you’re interviewing your subjects or reacting to what they say when you’re interviewing them. The audience doesn’t need to see you on the screen holding your microphone and/or camera. We don’t think this person is just speaking off in the distance about some issue unprompted – we know you are there and making a film. Unless you are Barbara Walters and filming a TV special, I fail to see why you think you should be on camera with your subject. It doesn’t create visual interest, it creates visual distraction and a cluttered, TV news like feel.
I’m especially taken aback when I’m confronted with reaction shots – the cut away to the nodding interviewer I reference above. Just don’t do this. Your audience will nod their own heads if they feel like it – they don’t need to model their responses to what they’re hearing by watching you. It’s unnecessary and it makes you look either egocentric or amateurish, and both undermine your interview and your interview subject.
The point is your film itself is your voice, your presence, your reaction to whatever issue or subject matter you are addressing – you don’t need to include yourself literally to offer commentary. You do this by selecting the topic and approach in the first place, by including the specific interview subjects that you do, by making specific editing choices, etc. If you worry that you’re viewpoint is not being conveyed properly, there’s probably a larger problem with your doc than can be solved by filming yourself interacting with your subjects.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Do your research on what kind of films fests/broadcasters accept. Don’t waste your $ & our time.
This one’s short and simple, and really should go without saying, but unfortunately I’ve seen more than enough evidence to the contrary: Do your research before sending your film in to a festival or a potential broadcaster. While many are open to a variety of films, some are instead very very specific about what they do and don’t show. Don’t submit your film everywhere. Read up about a festival before submitting your film for consideration. Go through their submission guidelines. Make sure your film fits their criteria so that it has a chance of being selected. If the festival only considers films made within the last year, don’t submit your film that’s been on the circuit for the past three years. If they only accept feature-length projects, don’t mail in your short. If they are focused on social issue docs, think twice before sending in your portrait of your quirky aunt. If they only accept general entries from local Mexican documentary filmmakers, don’t submit your US-made project.
Festival submission fees add up quickly. Even if you’re independently wealthy, why waste the money? Beyond that, if you have plans to make another film, why take the risk of giving a bad impression to festivals or broadcasters who you could potentially work with in the future?
Your impulse, after months or even years of making your film, is to get it out there. That’s understandable – but do so strategically. Come up with a plan, and constantly reassess and adjust that plan as you receive decision notices from the festivals to which you’ve applied. Just as not every film is appropriate for every festival, not every festival is appropriate for every film. The same thing can be said for broadcasters. Be smart about how to position your film to give it the best chance of getting the exposure you want for it.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Endless dance/theatre rehearsal scenes are of primary interest only to those in that discipline.
While I’ve previously written about doc makers who don’t successfully convey why their audience should be as enamored with their musician or visual artist subject as the filmmakers are, this DDF is a bit more specific to performative art topics, such as dance or theatre. I’ve run across scores of films that go behind the scenes of these disciplines, to show the development of a modern dance concert or the new staging of a classic play, for example. I enjoy being afforded a privileged look into the creative process – this can be illuminating, pulling back the layers between what the final version shown to the public is and where the project began.