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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