When you watch a documentary, a good documentary, the story flows so naturally that you can get lost in the world that is being portrayed.  You forget you’re watching through a lens and a director’s eye, and you feel like you are there.  You are immersed.  The art of documentary is one that, when done right, seems like it’s easy and anyone could do it.  That’s the brilliance of it – a good documentary maker lulls you into a sense that they are just photographing what’s there.  If you feel like you are ready to plunge into the world of documentary, here are some essential tips to get you started.

Story versus Issue

If you want to call attention to an issue you must personalize this issue so that we, the viewer, can feel a personal attachment to it.  You don’t want to film someone giving a lecture on the topic, you want to find an actual human whom you can follow who faces this issue in their life.  Through showing how someone actually deals with a particular issue, you can breath life into the issues surrounding the issue and really get your point across.  The trick is to engage the audience, and the best way to do that is to personalize it for us.

Story First

You must delve into the character, but more importantly you must delve into the world in which the character lives.  You should research your subject, but also what inspires and surrounds the characters.  Sometimes this involves doing research that is a bit uncomfortable, but it’s this level of commitment to the story that can get your documentary the proper weight as a film.

Old mans glasses on an opened book on the table. There is a film camera on background.

Old mans glasses on an opened book on the table. There is a film camera on background.

Character’s Will Dictate the Narrative

Sometimes a documentary film maker will have a preconceived notion set up ahead of time and a story they want to tell, then, they hit the real world looking to fill the story board.  That is going to get you in trouble.  You want to have a story in mind, but let the subject itself dictate where the story will go, and let it live.  Always be present and keeping in mind the greater arc of the story.  If you let the subject become sympathetic, little things they say will shape the profundity of the story and allow the documentary a greater life.

Dig and Dig Deeper

Sometimes through the making of a documentary, the actual story will change.  Perhaps in filming you’ll realize something much more dramatic is going on, or that the character is only a representation of a greater good or badthat is happening.  It’s important to always be aware and cognizant of that and to not miss the opportunity to have your documentary become bigger than you initially thought it would be.

Ethics Matter

Another problem documentarian film makers face is near-constant ethical and moral dilemmas.  Sometimes we’re tempted to breach ethic boundaries for the story.  It’s important to never do that – first of all, you are filming and there will be proof of your indiscretions, and more importantly, a ethically transparent and rigorous documentary will hold much more credibility when facing critics.  Proper attention must always be paid to remembering that you are filming a real person and depicting their real life.