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What I Learned About Filmmaking From Watching 28 Documentaries in Five Days

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At IDFA in 2012, I spent five (glorious but sometimes bruising) days watching documentaries. Some of those films were great but many weren’t. Here’s what I wish documentary filmmakers  were taught in film school:

  1. A talented cinematographer does not absolve you from the need to construct some kind of narrative, however abstract.
  2. When you cast your characters endeavour to choose interesting ones
  3. Asking closed questions is not the way to get interesting answers
  4. Asking dumb questions is not the way to get interesting answers. To a man blind from birth: “when did you find out you were blind?” ” I didn’t; I was born blind.” A better question would be ” when did you find out other people could see?”
  5. Including banal answers to your questions does not help us understand the character, their situation or the film’s narrative. A “don’t know” response can be cut without harming your film; in fact it will make it better by making room for some actual insights. Cutting multiple “don’t know”s even more so
  6. Sometimes it’s not enough to passively let events unfold: questions need to be asked in order to clarify the motives/actions of the protagonists. Otherwise the audience can be left with the uneasy feeling that the characters’ actions have been edited unfairly to serve a story rather than the truth, which would be just as, if not more, interesting
  7. When 10% of the audience walked out and at least two others fell asleep during the film it’s probably not politic for you, as director, to open the Q&A with the assertion that you’ve had such an amazing response from audiences

Many of the films took an essay/poetical approach rather than the character- driven narrative beloved of TV commissioning editors, and that’s perfectly OK. But these films seemed to work best when  the insights into the human condition, or historical events, came from the testimony of a disparate cast of characters confined within one location, such as a swimming pool or park, which itself becomes a character in the film. Garden of Eden, a film about Israeli/Arab tensions and Vanessa Engle’s BBC documentary Walking With Dogs, a film about relationships, both manage to do this beautifully and the directors have produced thoughtful, meditative films that stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

Unfortunately, too many of the films I saw failed to reveal a developing narrative thread that would seduce, excite and enthrall an audience with its reveals, twists and turns; nor did they tie together disparate threads that would enlighten and inform us about the world. Instead they forced us to endure the experience, except for those brave few who staged a break-out before the end of the screening.

Nicola Lees (8843 Posts)

I have worked in the media - radio & TV, production and post-production - for more than fifteen years. I have extensive experience as a TV development producer, and have originated, developed, written and pitched proposals for award-winning documentaries, docu-dramas and interactive TV events for a range of UK and US channels, including BBC, Discovery, TLC, Travel Channel and Science Channel. I'm the founder of TVMole.com, a website that provides industry intelligence to help TV professionals and aspiring filmmakers get their programme ideas commissioned. I've written two books for Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury: Give Me the Money and I'll Shoot! Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project (2012) Greenlit: Developing Factual / Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch (2010) I've produced industry panels for Televisual's Intelligent Factual Festival (2010) and am a regular speaker at universities and film festivals (e.g. Sheffield Doc/Fest, Open City Docs Fest, Northern Nights Film Festival, Televisual Intelligent Factual Festival, Broadcast Video Expo). I've served on several film festival juries, including: FD4W International Film Festival, WFTV Awards, Northern Nights Film Festival and TV Collective Film Night at Portobello Film Festival.


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