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What Do You Need to Become a Documentary Filmmaker?

Do you love capturing moments? Do you dream about telling powerful stories through your camera? Vice- Dean of Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Dr. Bennett McClellan, shares fundamental guidelines to the art of documentary film-making.
BY Bennett E. McClellan |   09-11-2015

Anybody with a smart phone, a personal computer, and access to the Internet can become a documentary filmmaker.  Every time you take a “selfie,” you act as a documentary photographer.  When you press “video” you become a filmmaker.   If you upload your video to YouTube, you become a published documentary filmmaker. It’s that simple! 

Most of us are already documentary filmmakers.  How can we become good at it?  What will make us effective as documentary filmmakers?  Anybody can shoot video, but most videos do not move people emotionally.  How can you get people to feel something about your subject through the images you present? 

Since documentary films are visual stories, a documentary filmmaker (DFM for short) must, first and foremost, have a visual point of view.   As a DFM, you need to see things other people have not seen.  You need to show things other people have not shown.  A hundred people may witness an event, but each of those people sees a different set of images.  Call attention to a situation or event that needs to be seen differently by others.

Effective documentary films  show stories.  They do not “tell” them.   If you turned off the sound, someone watching your film should still understand what is going on.  People understand events and they understand how people react emotionally to events. 

The emotions people show are the most effective images photographs or video can capture.  In fact, to quote one documentary filmmaker, “The emotion is the image.” 

While you may add narration to your documentary film, narration cannot carry the story. 

Look for emotional images that show what is going on. 

You do not have to go to film school, buy expensive camera gear, or even learn to write well to become an effective documentary filmmaker.   Schools teach techniques.  Expensive cameras help you make nicer images.  Learning to write well is an essential life skill.  But none of these are necessary for making effective documentary films.

Here’s why: documentary filmmakers capture images.   Mostly those images already exist.  Learn to capture those images with your camera.

A documentary film weaves many images together into a coherent visual story.  Effective stories, visual or otherwise, are generally told from the perspective of a principal character.   The principal character should be someone your audience can identify with. 

Your “character” may be a person, a community, or a class of people.   As a general rule, in filmmaking, people like watching people.  Focus on people

Your principal character(s) must face some kind of obstacle(s) to achieving what they want to achieve.  Documentary subjects are often people or communities that seek justice or change of some kind.  Your topic need not be lofty.  However, your subject must interest your intended audience.  For example, you might document a mundane struggle of some kind, such as a person trying to buy bread in a community where he or she does not speak the local language.  Whether lofty or mundane, you want the audience to ask, “How will this person overcome this problem?”   Engage the audience in solving the problem.

Documentary filmmakers strive to present existing stories in compelling ways.  There are three essential qualifications for documenting such worthwhile subjects.   The first is curiosity.  The second is conscience or compassion.  The third is commitment.

Physicists, social reformers, and filmmakers alike are driven by curiosity.  Curious people see things that other people ignore or dismiss as unimportant.  Curious individuals compulsively ask, “Why is that?”  Documentary filmmakers revel in bringing forward images that others have dismissed.  Practice curiosity by constantly asking, “What do I see going on?  What have other people not seen?”

Conscience is the quality that helps one realize that a situation as it exists may not represent the way it could exist.  Compassion is the quality of empathizing with the plight of others.  Either quality serves to move a DFM to want to show the view of a principle character that may have been ignored by others.

I recently hosted a screening of a documentary film by Subrat Kumar Sahu that vividly depicted the oppression of schedule caste people.  At the conclusion, a distinguished law professor commented, “You could have made a good film if you had presented the story from all sides.”  Mr. Sahu replied, “The other side has already told its story.  If I show the story from all sides, there would be no point in showing the story at all.”   Let conscience and compassion lead you to the side of a story that has not been shown.

The third qualification for a DFM is commitment.  As a filmmaker, you may be curious about a situation, have some compassion for those engaged in the situation, but you still need to determine what side of the story has not been shown.

Sometimes it will take months, even years, for a DFM to collect enough images to discover the story that needs to be told.  DFMs spend a lot of time in dark places reviewing footage they shot, making notes, and beating themselves up for missing shots they now realized they need. Finishing a documentary film project  takes enormous tenacity.  Make sure you finish your films.

The author is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities, and founding Executive Director of the 10-Day Filmmaking Academy.  Dr. McClellan earned his MFA from the UCLA School of Theatre, Film & Television.



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