I’ve watched over 50 documentaries in the last two weeks (and many more over 14 years of programming), and here’s what I’m thinking:
The first point is so crucial that I’d like to just put it up front and center, then get on with the lesser evils of contemporary documentary filmmaking: If white people, who are usually or always cis-gendered males, are featured in your film as the only subjects, protagonists or voices of authority, then you have either made a film about a small remote sect in some distant corner of the world where only white people live or you have failed Representation 101. Have you been told there are no women geologists who are working on the issue you’re highlighting? Look a little harder – guaranteed there are women who can speak to the issue. No people of colour (POC) in your purview? Then step out a little further – they’re there. And now, on to my rant list.
1) I’m altogether done with pretty images observational filmmaking – it’s great for mainstream festivals and yes that light refraction is splendid, and at this point we all understand that the equipment is sooooo nice that’s irresistible, but how about some perspective/POV? Which brings me to point number two…
2) Making a film about injustice? What are the root causes and what are the names of the people/companies who work the levers perpetuating those root causes? If I’m still asking that when the credits roll, then your film is of little use to me and the scores of activists who want to use your film as a platform for radical progressive change. Yes we can all Google the issue and find out the name of the mining/oil/gas company sowing destruction and misery and yes some of us probably know it’s got to do with colonialism/capitalism/racism/sexism, but why didn’t you say so?
3. Stop with the wall-to-wall music in your films. Please, for the love of god, use it sparingly and remember just because they do it in Hollywood, doesn’t mean the rest of the goddamned film-world has to too. Especially during interviews. As a programmer friend recently said of an otherwise good documentary: “They scored that within an inch of its life.”
4. Make your subtitles readable. That means NOT WHITE you bastards. Please note white is fine if you use the shocking new technique of drop shadow or outline on your font…
5. What is with the resurgence of Voice of God narration? Europe and North American white-guy-with-a-camera I’m talking to you. Yeah yeah it’s personal, it is to all of us, so stop making it about YOU. Let your protagonists, the front-liners, do the talking. Please note if your film is really about you or someone so close to you it is really also about you, then I am not, at this moment, talking to you.
6. Set your interviews up before capturing them: take time to get the lighting and sound just so before speaking with awesome people doing awesome work or having awesome insight before plunking your camera on a tripod and sticking a mic on their collar or above their head. This one adjustment will immensely improve about half of all the documentaries I see. And please note academics can and will be filmed away from bookshelves full of books.
7. Please stop filming hands in interviews. It’s gone too far. For the love of all that is docu-holy, please stop.
8. If your “B-roll” sucks, it means you didn’t think it out and spend enough time preparing. Which means, think it through and prepare. If I see another kayaker representing human-nature equilibrium or another goddamned windmill representing alternative energy I’m going to barf in goddamned b-roll agony. Please note I hate the term “B-roll” and know that all roll is A-list in the eye of the creator, but filmmakers, you know what I’m talking about.
9. If you can’t keep the camera steady then get a steady-cam device or tie a goddamned rope with a barbell to your wrist and stop making us feel nauseous — it’s uncomfortable and distracting. Unless of course you’re chasing a criminal or running from a rhino.
10. If you haven’t watched at least 100 documentaries before making your own, then don’t make your goddamned documentary until you have. Please note that some are and will be an exception to this rule, but they are so few that I see no reason to amend this point to say anything than other that which it suggests: do your homework.
PS: If your trailer is better than your film, you probably should have made a shorter film.
*If I sound like the Winnebago Man it’s because I’ve just come off a major programming bender and I needed to let off some steam. It’s programmers burnout. I’ll be OK again soon. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this list is some kind of manifesto for how to make some fantastical perfect doc. In fact, in the past few days I’ve programmed docs with kayakers, shaky cameras and too much music – all of them great films with minor flaws. I’m just saying that these are things to keep in mind, at least when circumstances allow.
And on a last note, some folks responding to my rant seem to think my above tone is too serious, cocky or stern, but it’s meant to be playful, an effort that might be a goddamned failure in and of its goddamned self.