Filmmaker Col Spector offers advice including remembering to entertain the audience.
1. There’s no harm in entertaining an audience
Michael Moore recently wrote an article encouraging documentary film-makers to be more entertaining. Some of my documentary-making students were shocked - surely, they argued, a documentary shouldn’t always entertain. I disagree and think Michael Moore is right. Even if the film is Land of Silence and Darkness which is deeply serious it is also beguiling and wonderful to watch. Too many first-time filmmakers fail to connect with an audience on any level and justify their position on the grounds of being “unflinching”and serious. Or, put another way - just because you fancy filming some obscure Polish choir for a month doesn’t mean an audience will be interested in watching it.
2. To call yourself a documentary maker you should know how to direct a documentary
In the same way that if you want to perform a violin concerto at the Royal Albert Hall it makes sense to take a few violin lessons first, so it takes more to be a documentary filmmaker than picking up a DSLR camera and filming the crap out of something. There’s a lot to know about documentary making - from deciding whether there is actually a film to make in the first place (as opposed to a piece for radio or newspaper), to choosing a conflict, to working out your hypothesis, to deciding on a question you want to have answered. And then there’s the ability in the edit to craft your story into a dramatic arc. Before I directed documentaries I studied the craft of documentary making to ensure that when I had the opportinity to direct my first film that it would stand out from the crowd. If you go out to shoot without knowing what you’re doing you’re likely to waste those incredible serindipitous moments that sometimes come your way when following a subject close to your heart.
3. You need to be creative to direct documentaries
Or, as Sydney Pollack said: “I can assure you that you’ll never make anything interesting by playing it safe.” Documentary making is not a piece of journalism. It’s a film. At it’s best it moves and entertains people like a feature film - or a poem. Documentary making is not a load of dreary talking-heads intercut with some archive film. You need to be creative and bold to condense, say, 30 years of a person’s life into a 30 minute film where every visual and sound element and each character feels inevitable to that film.
Col Spector is the writer/director of Someone Else (2006) and Honeymooner (2010) and film teacher. He runs the documentary consultancy service www.thedocumentaryconsultant.com