4 Rules for making a Documentary

We at Lift-Off adore documentary films. When executed correctly, and the following rules are observed, a documentary can give an incredible insight into the human condition and more.

Every time I think I’ve found the perfect documentary, another one comes around and blows my mind. I love any situation in which my mind is expanded by a single idea, and this is the prospect offered by documentary films; they study missed opportunities, human error, sacrificing the norm for something greater, and real life successes and failures.

Like any piece of media, which thrives on its ability to entertain, there are many rules to observe when creating a successful documentary. In the following paragraphs I will outline four important rules for documentary film making, which all happen to feature in my favourite documentaries.

I’ll start by listing my five favourite mainstream documentaries at the time of writing:

— Film points of reference – my top five documentaries…

1. Into Eternity – Directed by Michael Madsen. 100% on Rotten Tomatoes

2. Jodorowsky’s Dune – Directed by Frank Pavich. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes

3. Man with a Movie Camera – Directed by Dziga Vertov. 97% on Rotten Tomatoes

4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams – Directed by Werner Herzog. 96% on Rotten Tomatoes

5. The Cove – Directed by Louie Psihoyos 94% on Rotten Tomatoes

Documentary Rules. No1. Content that’s news worthy?

If you haven’t seen all of the above films yet, I suggest you do. What works best in these films is the uncovering of something which the common person is likely unaware of. A documentary is a great way to unearth a subject matter which has previously been unreported on; many people live very busy lives and old news dies fast, which is why a well made, throughly researched, and expertly directed documentary must have the power to bring its subject matter back into the light of the mainstream media, making it relevant, and thus serving a power.

For example… 

When Chauvet Cave was discovered (Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’), it held the worldwide news headlines for only a few days back in 1994. Subsequently, the film only maintained its brightest spark among the Science community.

A great documentary that builds both a media, and audience buzz is something that carries with it a brilliant subject matter. If you want your documentary to stand a chance of being purchased and distributed, create a film with a subject matter that the whole planet will give a shit about. Your research will need to be extensive, and it might become a pretty hefty project, but as you probably know, once that idea finds you it will get harder and harder to ignore.

Documentary Rules. No2. Let your characters tell the story… Not your ego.

Good interviewing technique will solve the problem of poor character, and a good interview technique removes the “I” from your film. Something important to note is that nobody cares about you, as the filmmaker, we only care about the subject of the story; what happened, who was effected, and the characters involved.

Unfortunately, the only thing wrong with ‘Into Eternity’ was that every now and then we would be presented with Michael Madsen’s face. A selfie of the filmmaker with a dramatically lit match in his hand telling us something equally dramatic, and vaguely melancholic. This acted as an unnecessary device, which didn’t add anything of substance to the film. Needless to say, it was a pretty weird moment, in a somewhat near perfect documentary about the end of life itself.

One documentary that was recently screened at one of our festivals had a really courageous subject matter, excellent interviews, and a wonderful style of centralisation on the character. It was lit in a way which really gave us a view into the hidden life of the eye witness. However, at times the film would break into small vignettes narrated by the filmmaker, where they would tell us things like in order “To understand the deepest issues here, I had to dig deep into my own self conscious and tackle the demons that took me somewhere unknown…”.

If you research your interviewees correctly, they will be unique, interesting and vital to the story. A film doesn’t need its filmmaker to tell the story, its subject should do that for them.

A great example is in Jodorosky’s Dune where at no point do we hear a question being asked; the characters are telling the story, and thus driving the narrative forward. They are the centre stage because they were there, they were effected, and more importantly they are the ones who your audience will trust.

Documentary Rules. No3. Easily digestible information – maintaining a human connection.

‘The Cove’ outlines the key facts of its story in the first ten minutes of viewing. We are told:

● We are in Japan

● This man loves Dolphins

● Japan still kills Dolphins

● This man is going to stop them

What you get with this introduction is a guaranteed investment. The rule here is to be sure that you’re giving the audience the vital details as early as possible, so that you are identifying the human issue that will draw them in. Let the audience know the where, the why, and the what of the story. Follow that up with the historical context to create motive, and lead that into a simple display of the odds: what’s at play, and who is in danger. Finally, introduce the vital players and enter into a passage of no return.

‘Man with a Movie Camera’, is the oldest documentary on the list by nearly one hundred years. It is a great example of producing digestible information in its purest form. The film contains raw footage of bustling city streets under the rule of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, circa 1929. The term “fly on the wall” was practically invented here; The film is an art piece, but also serves as a visual document of a world long since gone. A modern day, and certainly cruder, equivalent would be the countless time lapse  city scape pieces submitted to Lift-Off. Many filmmakers who create these pieces fail to realise that, in essence, it is the human being that the audience are interested in; not the construction crane, or the elevator. The magic lives within the people featured in ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. The human beings captured have long since departed and yet, unbeknown to them, are forever immortalised in this film.

Documentary Rules. No4. Empathy.

Sociopaths and psychopaths rarely make for a good subject. One of the problems within the film business is that the doors need to be smashed open, and sometimes morals can be pushed aside to make space for professional investment and money. This is why there are so many terrible multimillion dollar movies in existence today; because so often substance is compromised for sales.

A lack of empathy is what creates shit inside this industry from the bottom to the top. If a film maker is solely concerned with pleasing their audience, and making sales, their film is likely to lack an earnest exploration into the human condition.

 It is vital, as the filmmaker, to see the human struggle, and understand what makes a person open and reflective. When commenting with the camera, or giving the interviewee a question that may open a window into the soul, try to empathise as best as you can. As you film, or while you’re interviewing, try to imagine what it’s like to be that person.

● You are the Hollywood Producer who said no to Jodorowsky

● You are the elderly man selling potatoes from your horse, as cars and trams race past you on an unknown street in late 20s Ukraine

● You are the person who entered the cave as a geologist, but came out of it a single being connected to all of mankind.

 With this sort of understanding you will have the tools and the bravery to go deeper with your work. From the shoot to the edit, it is all about knowing why your film is important. It’s about asking yourself the tough questions, letting go of your ego, and allowing the story to rule over everything else

Finally, when you make that film please send it to us, we would love to help you show it to the world


Written by Eve Kelly

(Feature Image ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ Courtesy of VUFKU)