Tips for Documentary Research

Research for A Documentary

What is documentary research?

The documentary research is the shield that the documentary film is based on. The documentary research job is not only to investigate the documentary’s subject but also to develop a point of view on the director’s vision and to connect it with the subject of the story. Many beginner directors, excited to get started, often skip this stage, sometimes because it’s a personal story. No matter what kind of documentary you do, in 90 percent of the cases, you will need to do a research.

Who’s job is it?

The research stage is usually done by the director himself or by a researcher or a few ones(in films with bigger budgets). The problem with using researchers is that they have too much power over your film. They decide what goes in and what doesn’t. If they decide a certain image is good enough to enter your film,the director can check it and see if they are right, but if they decide that a certain image is not relevant or good enough for the film, the director has no way to check it out. So if you use researchers, you have to make sure that they know and understand your vision.

Many documentary filmmakers tend to share this job between the director, writer, and the producers. The big advantage here is that it makes the process more intimate and personal.

Documentary research method

The plan you will choose for your documentary research really depends on your movie.There are 3 main ways to do a research that sometimes you will find yourself doing a few of them or even all of them.

Documentary research method #1: The written words

This an easy way to start your research. It can be the Internet or books and magazines. The problem is that sometimes there are too many books and articles to read. In such a case you should learn how to read fast. If you have too many books and not enough time, read the beginning of each paragraph and the ending, go through the content and see what are the subjects that are relevant to you and focus on them.
Also, make sure the books and articles are up to date. Check the date they were written. Your next step can be to find the writers of the books or articles that got your interest. These sources will lead you to other sources and so on and that leads us to the next type of documentary research

Documentary research method #2: Interviews

It can be a good idea to use advisors from a different viewpoint about the subject. The advisors can be academic people or just people with experience on the subject. The interviews with them are going to be recorded, but they won’t be  part of the film.
Plan ahead who are the advisors you will want to interview and what are you going to ask them. You can also explain them the outline of the film and get their review on it. some directors will bring them at a progressive stage of the video editing to hear their advice. Sometimes you might find you want the advisor to be interviewed in the film. Don’t jump off camera, can turn out to be very boring on camera. Wait until you are in a progressive stage of shooting and then see if you really need him.

Documentary research method #3: Field Research

This is my favorite documentary research tool.   Go to the locations where it all happened or to the locations you want to shoot at. Try to get the atmosphere of the place and write down everything that pops into your head. You can also go to events that have something to do with your subject.

Tips for the documentary research

  • A good documentary research starts with knowing what your movie is going to be about. Try to summarize it a one or two sentences. Failing to do so, might cause you to lose control over your research and to be spread away into many directions.
  • Do the research with an open mind. Ask questions about your theme. Understand your story and tell it in a balanced way.
  • Make sure you are telling something new about the subject. Something that the audience didn’t know. Think about what it is that you want to know about the subject and keep asking yourself what haven’t been told about this subject yet?
  • A Good research builds on a series of questions with answers and then more questions with answers. Keep digging as much as you can.
  • Start with basic questions. It is very important that you’ll understand the subject you are talking about.
  • A long research is not necessary every a good one. When you are working on a piece of information, make sure the information you are gathering on it are relevant to the subject of the film and that the audience really needs to know this information.

The Art and Technique of the Documentary Interview

Preparing & Shooting A Documentary Interview 

Documentary interview
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A documentary interview is an important technique in documentary films, where one or more persons are answering a list of questions. Some documentaries use only interviews in their films (these documentaries are known as talking heads), but it’s not as simple as it may look like.

When you are Shooting an interview in your film, you are really declaring that you are taking an active part in the making of this film and you are not just “A fly on the wall”. There are no objective questions. When you ask a question in a documentary interview, you already have the answer in it.
When you do an interview you are not only trying to get the facts, you are also trying to get a point of view and an opinion on all subject and to deliver it to the audience. You have to do a lot of planning and preparations.

Types of Interviews

There are 2 parts of interviews:

  1. Direct interview- We here and maybe even see the interviewer asking questions.
  2. Indirect interview– where we see the subject talking to the camera, but we don’t see or hear the interviewer asking the questions that are leading him as he speaks.
    It is important to know before the interview, what kind is it going to be.

Preparations for a documentary interview

  • Plan ahead all the people you want to interview. Make a list of every person you think might contribute to your film and write down what is it that they can add to the movie. Also, plan how the interview is going to be shot. Are you going to shoot him sitting down or while he is doing something?
  • Do the research for the subject you are about to talk about and about the person you are going to interview. What are his strengths and weaknesses? If it’s possible, meet with him before the interview. Try to find out as much information about him as possible. While you do the research about him, write down notes and questions you might want to discuss with him. If it’s possible to do a pre-interview with the person that about to be interviewed-Use it to explain him about the film and what you are trying to say in it. Don’t give hi, a list of the questions you are planning to ask.

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  • After you’ve done your research, plan the questions ahead. Start with brainstorming. Make a list of guiding questions. Think what is it that your audience will want to know from him.
    Write open questions (The kind that usually starts with ‘How’, ‘What’, ‘When’ and ‘Why’). Not the kind of questions where he can simply answer “yes” or “no”.
  • Write follow-up questions to your main questions
  • Make sure the questions cover the main points of the subjects.
  •  Find a good location for the shooting. Are you going to shot in his home, his workspace or a studio?  Think about things like lighting and background noises, but also about if the location can support the things your interviewee will say or the theme of your film. 

During the interview

  • The first thing you need to do is sign the interviewee on a release form. There are many kinds of release forms out there, but what you really need is that the interviewee will let you edit the footage of him in the film in whatever way you’ll need, as long as you are loyal to the truth. You also need to make sure that the form gives you the right to use the footage in every media you’ll like.
  • Don’t start with the camera rolling right away. Put the camera near the interviewee, so he will get used to it, but don’t turn it on yet. Remember!
    Your interviewee is in a very vulnerable position, so you should try to make him feel more at ease. Talk to him about other stuff then the subject of the interview. Let him know you and try to know him better. When you feel he is relaxed, you can start explaining him about the movie (If you haven’t done a pre-interview yet) and what you are trying to say in it. Try to recognise some of his fears and to eliminate them.
  • Start with the easy questions. The one you know the interviewee won’t have any problem answering.
  • On the interview, it is very important to listen to your interviewee. Allow yourself to go out of the questions and come back to them when needed.
  • When you run out of questions, ask the interviewee if hew has anything more to add. This is important because there might be an angle you didn’t think about.

Technical stuff for shooting a documentary interview

  • Tell the interviewee to answer a complete answer using the question asked. For example, if you ask him what his name, don’t let him answer “James”. He should answer, “My name is James”. That way you can edit out your questions.
  • Some directors like to use two cameras: 1 for a medium shot and the other for the close-up. There is no need to use a camera to shoot you. If you want to be in the film, you can shoot yourself asking the questions after the interview is over.
  • The camera should be placed about 30 degrees from the interviewee. That means that the interviewee is looking slightly left or right (left if the camera is on the right side of him and looking right when the camera is on his left) and Leave room for talking space
  • Avoid talking while the interviewee is talking or the video editor will curse you, when he’ll try to eliminate your voice from the interview. Sometimes it will be impossible to do that. If your voice happens to overlap the voice of the interviewee, ask him to repeat that sentence again.

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Editing the documentary interview

You can read my post about Editing for The Documentary, but for now, the important thing to know is that when you edit the interview, usually the director will choose to cover the image of the talker with other images that are somehow related to what he is saying. This is a great technique because sometimes just to see someone talking might be boring. The images can also support what the interviewer is saying and to give you more artistic ways to release your movie from the formal talking head style. The main reason is that covering his image will allow you to edit what he is saying without the audience noticing. This is good when it takes to the interviewer too much time to get to the point. When you use this interview technique, you want to show the interviewer at the beginning and then to start cover. You can also come back to him when he is saying his last sentence, just to remind the audience who is this person that talks right now.

Your homework for today is to find someone that affected your life somehow. it can be a teacher, your parents, a friend etc. and interview him. Go through all the principles we mentioned here. If you want you can send it to my mail: and I will give you comments on it. we can also upload it to let everyone see it and hear their reviews. You can also send with Wetransfer which is a free tool to send files up to 2 Giga

Documentary Storytelling

How To Tell A Story In A Documentary Film

A good story is a must in documentary films. You might have an interesting story, but that’s not enough. If you have a good story, your movie won’t be only interesting, but also unforgettable.

Here are all the stages of developing your documentary film’s story:

Find an idea for your documentary film

Observe the world around you. Everywhere you will look there is a story to tell, and every story is representing a bigger story. Keep a journal and write every idea you head. Now:
you never know when you will get back to those ideas so write the idea in detail. Things that are obvious to you now, might not be that obvious when you’ll come back to them after a few months.
Another good advice is to start reading newspapers and magazines. If you want to tell a story about real life, you got to look for it in real life.
You should have a lot of passion for your idea.

Developing the idea

The important thing to think about, when you are working on a new documentary idea, is how can I sell this movie and to whom? Let’s face it- you are going to need money to make that movie. A documentary might take years to shoot and even more, years to edit- it’s going to cost you. So thinking about your potential finders can really help you to understand how your film should look like. You need to have a general idea about it, don’t go into deep details. Unlike in fiction, documentary films are usually much more flexible with their structure, but you do need to think about what your documentary financiers might want to achieve from the film? Who is your target audience? and etc.

The next thing you need to think about is your point of view in the story. This is a very important part because this is the message your movie will deliver. I recommend reading the find your own voice article, but for now, I will tell you that to do that you need to look at the conflicts of the story and the main character and to think what’s your honest opinion about them.

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You can’t go into the script writing a stage without doing a research on the subject first. While you are doing the research, you can start working on a few very general storylines for your film.

Writing the documentary script

The documentary story structure has the same principles that every good story should have in any form of art: The 3 stages- beginning, middle and end(not always told in chronological order), a character that growths and changes as it confronts obstacles, a point of view, a climax and a resolution. The difference between documentary and fiction is that a documentary film deals with facts and not fiction. I will talk about those things in the “Script Writing Classes” section later on,
but for now, you will need to know that:

The beginning is the part that introduces us to the characters, their world and their main conflict. It is also the part that needs to hook the audience to the movie and to let them know what kind of film it is going to be.
The middle part is the part where you will probably won’t have a lot to write about. Many documentary directors have a problem with writing this part, but it is important that you will at least have a list of logic scenes that will prove your message of the film. This will help you to stay focused and not to wander all over the place. When planning the middle part, I would divide it also to a beginning, middle and end.
The climax- The last conflict our main character is going to deal with before the end part comes. It should be a very big conflict.
The end is the conclusion of the film. The ending should still be following the mood and atmosphere of all the film. It should be, as Aristotle said, ‘inevitable’ and ‘unexpected.’

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The characters

you want your characters to have some kind of journey with obstacles, but that’s not enough. You need them to have another narrative in their life. You need characters that have an interesting backstory. Sometimes you might find yourself shooting 10 characters with the same story just to find the one or two that you will need.
As long as your actor is able to take action, you can use every character you want. The character also needs to change throughout the film.

Writing a script for the documentary is very hard, but you must have at least a general idea about it so you will be more focused on the shooting. that will save you time and money in the shooting and editing stages and will improve your film.

Documentary Filmmaking Tips

Tips For Documentary Filmmaking

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Documentary filmmaking is a long process and sometimes an exhausting one. You must be prepared for disappointments and for the process of learning from those disappointments.Since you don’t have a deadline to finish shootings, as oppose to fiction films, You can find yourself shooting for years and spending, even more, years on editing the film.

The important thing to know is that when you’ll do a documentary that will work, the benefits are great! You get to explore undiscovered sides of your life and to share your voice, which turns out to be the voice of many others, with your viewers.
this is a result that has no price.
I wanted to start this documentary filmmaking course with some tips to get you start

So here are some Documentary filmmaking tips to help you get started:

Documentary director’s characteristics

As a Documentary filmmaker, you must do whatever it takes to document what is important and meaningful in your opinion. A documentary filmmaker is a one who lives to reveal hidden truths. With that, even when you tell the complete truth, you may fail, if you won’t be able to prove your film as such. A documentary filmmaker needs to have the ability to tell a story through visual images, and to be able to touch the emotions of his audience with the help of these images.When you’ll deal Documentary with a particular subject, as a filmmaker, you must be aware of three things:

  1. All the features and the point of views of the same subject,
  2. To be aware of the emotional changes that apply to him when he was exposed to the details of that world,
    and of course
  3. Be aware of the medium with which he communicates.

You will achieve awareness of these three things from repeating practice.

Communication with the viewer

The cinematic language you’ll choose to transfer your ideas has a great influence on your communication with your audience. Your movie audience needs to understand as soon as possible the message you want to discuss, and how you are going to deal with it. On the other hand, What you really need to decide is, what is more, important to you- Delivering the viewer a message or learning something about yourself and delivering it to the viewer. In my opinion, a good documentary film should be able to take us to a world of ideas we didn’t know or were too afraid to go in by our self. To help us go into these worlds outside our boundaries, a good story is a must.

Film or Video

There are many benefits to shooting in a video. A lot, actually. George Lucas once said about moving to digital that “It’s as profound a change as going from silent to talkies and going from black-and-white to color. It gives artists a whole range of possibilities that they never had before”. The advantages are big: You can shoot with a relatively small camera, which helps greatly in documentary shootings, especially if you do not want to stress your film’s object.
In addition, you can use a very large amount of raw material – As much as you want really – and it doesn’t cost much very compare to film. You can also move your materials to film (Of course there are preparations to be done).
On the other hand, there is nothing like the look of the film, so if you still shooting on film, do a lot of tests with video and know what you’re going to take and how to in advance.


Let’s be honest. In today’s world chances that your documentary will be shown in big theaters are pretty low. Today you are able to distribute your own movie over the Internet and it’s not a method you should take lightly. Many filmmakers have done just that. They picked a site where the audience could for a small fee download their movie and watch at home. Sometimes the site also contained behind the scenes of the film, trailers and more. This is a method that saves costs drastically and most importantly it is reducing your dependence on production companies and could help your chances to reach more people than on TV. The distribution through the internet is great mainly because your can reach directly to the people that most likely will take an interest in the film and not just everyone like TV does.

I hope these Documentary filmmaking tips helped you to understand what it really means to be a documentary filmmaker. I f you think you like it, I invite you to read the rest of my post in the documentary category.  I’m sure you’ll like it.

Documentary Filmmaking History – Part 2

Documentary Filmmaking History

In the first part of this Documentary filmmaking history article, I have reviewed a series of films that were a lot of inspiration to the documentary filmmaking industry that we know today. Now I want to address two equally important documentary styles in the documentary filmmaking history that came later on:

The – Direct cinema and  Cinema verity

After the second world war, the artist started to think what they did that contribute to it. One of their realization was that the obsession for esthetics had something to do with the rise of the Nazism regime. Many arts form at the after WW2 period started to focus more on the realism in their arts and the film industry was not different.  The fiction films brought us the Italian neo-realism that used real location and real people instead of actors and the documentary brought us two main sub-genres opposed the propaganda style of the older documentaries.

Direct cinema

The Direct cinema documentary filmmakers were a group of revolutionaries, who tried to interfere as little as possible in the shootings. These films were not mass production films. They were shot under the location’s natural lights and with no preparations. Their unique was in the presentations of life experiences in the most direct way possible. Sound like a documentary at it’s best, right? Well… Not so much – The thing is that when someone knows he is being watched, he will act differently, so are we really documenting the reality without any intervention? People do not behave naturally when they know they are being filmed. It is difficult to say that these films really have documented the reality as it is like they claimed they did.

A director that is very influential in the genre is Albert Maysles,  An American director. He shot with his brother, David, films with the camera on their shoulder and Interviews with a very little intervention on their part. They did wildly successful films like What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, which documents the band’s visit in the USA, Another movie was Salesman– about a Bibles sales agent, and Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones and the show that ended in the death of one of their fans.

Cinema verity

Cinema verity’s (‘cinema truth’) approach claimed that since we can’t really document reality as it is, we can encourage participants to interact with the film director. The genre was provocative and not ashamed that the camera had the power to design the reality it documents. If members of the Direct cinema took the camera to location, hoping that something will happen, at the Cinema Verity they really tried to create situations.

An important film that can be a good example is The Titicut Follies from 1967 of Fred Wiseman. The film follows the life of the mentally ill and criminals institution. 

The movie Chronicle of a Summer from 1961 of Jean Rouch is a good example as well. The film begins with a discussion of two directors on whether it is possible to behave naturally in front of a camera. The Film’s creators take the question to the streets and ask people if they are happy. The goal is to see how people react when they are near the camera.

The greatest contribution of these two genres was, that they freed the documentary films from the need to write a script. Both of them didn’t know what will happen and the video editors had to deal with the mass of raw material.

It was a very, very abbreviated record of the beginning of the documentary film genre. The main idea I was trying to pass you on these two articles is that right  from the first film, arguments about whether documentary films should reflect the reality as it is, have been asked all the time. I would recommend anyone who wants to direct documentaries to watch as many movies of the genres that are mentioned here to develop your documentary tools.

Here are some more recommended films:
Land of Silence and Darkness of Werner Herzog 1971- The film follows the lives of deaf-blind people and gives us an idea of the true meaning of loneliness.

Best Boy of Ira Wohl from 1979 tells the story of a family crisis. Aging parents wonder what to do about their son, a disabled 50 years old man. This is a very moving film with long moments of so-called direct cinema.

28 Up in 1986 by Michael Apted. A TV series that lasted 21 years. The series follows the number of children at the age of 6 and then coming back to them when they are mature. A Series that is sensitive and interesting.

That’s it. If you have any other good examples or other sub-genre in the documentary field that you want me to talk about, please let me know.

Documentary Filmmaking History – Part I

Documentary Filmmaking History

Documentary filmmaking history is not what I thought I’ll talk about When I started this documentary filmmaking course. I wanted to write articles without going through all the theoretical stuff. But I really feel that to teach documentary filmmaking, I have to begin with developing the documentary filmmaker’s mindset, and learning about documentary filmmaking history is a good way to start.

So here we go:

I am going to go through all the important stages of the documentary filmmaking history very fast. I recommend watching them and reading more about them. 

The first documentations

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, you have to start at the beginning.  It can be said that the first films created were the documentary kind of films. They weren’t fiction, any way. The first films were a baby’s meal, a train arrives, workers at the plant etc. They documented certain segments of life. During World War 1 in 1914 until 1918 the cameras kept filming the war area. The film has become a very important tool for the transfer of information and propaganda. These videos were delivered as “Newsreels” and they were broadcast in theaters. Since they are only segments of scenes rather than one long film with a basic idea, it is difficult to treat them as classic documentaries .

The first Documentary film

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, we have to start at the beginning. There is a debate between the Russians and Americans about what the first documentary film ever made:

Man With a Movie Camera – The official start of the documentary filmmaking (at least for the Russians) begins with Dziga Vertov, a poet and a video editor in Russia. He started his way from producing educational News reels for raising people to the revolution in 1917. He is best known because of this film, taken much later in 1929.
A film that is a something of an experimental documentary. In some ways, it is considered advanced even for today’s films. Average shot length in the film was 11.2 seconds. You can imagine what the viewers felt when they saw such rapid editing for the first time. Dziga Vertov made the film after he felt that cinema was stuck and took advantage of his abilities. The film depicts 24 hours in the life of the city of Odessa and other Soviet cities throughout the day. The film is most famous for a variety of cinematic techniques: he uses double exposure (what is now called super impose), fast motion, slow motion, freeze frame , Jump cuts, split screen and more. Because the editing and the effects are affecting the message of the film, there are those who refuse to accept it as the first documentary film.

Nanook of the North (1922 )  – Officially (at least for the Americans) This film is considered to be the first documentary. The film was directed by Robert J. Flaherty  And is a silent film which considers being an important milestone early film industry. It chronicles the struggle of Nanook and his family in the wild Eskimos. Beyond being an important film, the film is a historical document about a life form that disappeared already. As mentioned, the film is considered to be the first documentary Although Flaherty was accused of directing a lot of the scenes in the movie and even wanted the characters to recover customs they left a long time ago. You could say that this film is not only officially opens the documentary genre, but also the discussion about the genre. Is documentary represents reality or shapes it?

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If you really want to learn Documentary filmmaking, I recommend watching these films. Here are some more instresting documentaries from that preriod that I think every filmmaker that want to get in to the documentary filmmaking field, should know:

strike – 1924- Sergei Eisenstein, a director in the Soviet Russia has never qualified as a documentary director, but his movies like this one certainly embody the characteristics of a documentary films today. Strike describes the iron factory workers strike in Russia, where the workers were subjected to humiliation. Definitely one of the films most amazing period.

Battleship Potemkin from 1925 – The film contains the famous scene of “steps Odyssey” that won many gestures in films. To date, the film is considered one of the most influential film in cinema. Here, too, his definition of documentary is a bit problematic, but it is highly recommended for viewing for anyone interested in the documentary genre.

Night Mail -1936 –  Basil Wright and Harry Watt. A classic British film which follows the mail train moving at night from London to Scotland. Using this simple situation, the film certainly manages to capture the British life spirit of the time. The movie talk about the post office but ut also talk about the importance of working in harmony. Here also rise a debate about directing a documentary. In this case, the claims are that certain parts of the movie were filmed in the studio. Also in 1936 the political and economical situation wasn’t at it best in the British Empire, so the movie does not show the true feelings of the postal workers, but what the postal office vision was about that.

Olympia – 1938I – At the Nazi regime there was no shortage of films in the genre. Leni Riefenstahl directed in 1938 a movie that presented the Olympics in Germany. The aim of the film was to glorify the Olympic games in Germany and the German athletes. The movie is considered to have much innovation in the composition style, camera angles, editing and more. Using 50 camera operators Riefenstai created great slow motion shots. THere is no The best thing about this movie is that if you take the context out of it, you will never guess it was propaganda.
Listen to Britain  of Humphrey Jennings. The film came out in 1942 and it was a propaganda film designed to encourage support for the war. The film is considered to be a historical archive. There are criticizes about this movie being so strict and classic art style that it reminds fascist regimes movies, but one can not ignore the effectiveness it had during the war.

Fires Were Started from 1943  of Humphrey Jennings documented a night in London’s Fire Brigade unit.

Night & Fog directed by Alain Resnais. One of the more influential film documentary field if not the most influential. French film from 1955. The film depicts the life of prisoners in the camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. It was the first film that dared to face the terror of the Jewish Holocaust. Alan visiting several concentration camps in Poland and Europe.

This is a very quick list of the important films during the beginning of the documentary filmmaking history. In the next article, I will review in more detail the two genres that took a very significant part in the development of documentary film: the direct cinema and the cinema verite.

Documentary Filmmaking – Introduction

Documentary Filmmaking – Important Key Points

In this article, I will go through some very important key point of documentary filmmaking. I’m going to start with an important discussion that should be the beginning of every documentary filmmaking course and I’m also going to write some tips to get you started. I’m also going to talk about finding an original idea for your film and the types of documentary films out there. In the next lessons, I will talk about the basics of non-fiction storytelling, The art of the interview, The history of documentary filmmaking and much more.

So let’s study documentary filmmaking 

What is a documentary film?

The definition of documentary film is kind of a controversial one. Some say that the documentary filmmaking purpose is to document the reality and some would say that the role of the documentary is to interpret reality.
So who is right?
The truth is that there is no such thing as an objective film. The only responsibilities we can be fixed to a documentary filmmaker is to be fair to its object (some would argue even that). That is to let the subject that you document a chance to express itself and to be treated with respect.

Quick tip:
Many film schools will tell you that an honest documentary filmmaker
needs to show all the sides of the subjects. That makes sense, but be careful! Most subjects are not simple as black and white and there is a lot of grey. You need to find the grey area that has the blackest colors and the most white colors, but don’t attempt to give everyone sides.  Sometimes there are just too many

The movie “Roger and Me” by Michael Moore is a good example for documentary filmmaking. Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker that keeps challenging the objectivity of documentary film.
He himself claims that what he shows in his films is real, but admits that the voice overs are his personal interpretation of the facts.
The truth is that if he would just show the facts, it wouldn’t be interesting. The reality is not so interesting. Not enough to just copy it without making a commentary.

it’s important that you’ll understand that directors that are less provocative than Michael Moore also gives interpretations from their perspective to the facts that they’re taking about. That’s why most of the documentaries are made with the director’s narration.

I don’t really believe that documentary is objective reality and fiction is all illusion.                            
Mike Mills     

What am I trying to tell you?
A documentary film can not show an objective world. When you frame a certain reality into the shot, you’ve set your point of view on the object. How is that different from staging a scene in fictions? Once you’ve decided what goes into the frame and what’s not, this is your point of view. How can you objectively decide when to turn on and off the camera? 

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Be fair to your subject – but also with your film

Some may say that if the photographed object is OK with you shooting him in certain situations, then the decisions about what’s getting in the film and what does not are yours alone. There are those who feel that the director should discuss with his object about what can and can not enter the film. I don’t believe in that.
But here is the kicker:
You are not your object parent! What is important is that the film will turn out good.
Eventually, you’ll have to trust your instincts. You shouldn’t be lying about your subject to make the movie more interesting, but if your subject of the film wants to be part of the decision process of the film, that might lead to trouble.

Find an original subject for your film

To find a good story for a documentary film, in my opinion,  is more difficult compared to finding one for a fiction film. Of course, there are repeating themes (especially if you are in film school): your grandmother who raised you as if you were her child, this guy that has to deal with cancer or other terminal illness, In Israel we have lots of films about the Palestinian and Jewish problem. The problem with those issues (important as they are) is that they all been done too many times. So if you’ve been going to film about those issues, you better find a way to make it breathtaking and original. For example the film “Freeheld”, that deals with cancer, but in an original and interesting way. It tells the story of a woman dying of cancer who wants to leave all she has to her spouse, Stacey. She encounters difficulties because they are not husband and wife and together they fight for what’s right according to their point of view.

You know, the process of making a documentary is one of discovery, and like writing a story, you follow a lead and that leads you to something else and then by the time you finish, the story is nothing like you expect                             
William Shatner

Most documentaries are about the present or past, but there are no strict rules. There are films like The War Games, which is highly recommended documentary for fans of the genre, from 1965, that describe a possible future: The Film takes all the terrible facts of the second World War and uses them to describe a nuclear war on London in the future. Whatever time period you’ll choose to talk about, it always has to revolve around something that happens in life.

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How to review a documentary film

Another important point to talk about it in the context of Documentary Films is how do you criticize a documentary It’s hard to say stuff like the subject is not interesting.
I think that when reviewing the documentary, you do not judge the issue but how the director introduced the topic. It is very important that the director will investigate and show the character he chose to shoot and even more important, why he chose them.

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So what can you learn from it about making a documentary?
When you write your documentary or treatment for one, ask yourself over and over, Why did I choose this project? What can I bring to this issue? And what I can do here that we have not seen yet?

I hope you enjoyed this post and let me know if you have anymore questions or ideas for lessons