12 IDM: Eight Rules For Making A Great Documentary

IDM students are busy working on their documentaries. The below document from Little White Lies should help give some tips…

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This year’s exceptional Sheffield Doc/Fest got LWLies thinking about some of the pros and cons of the documentary form.

MATT THRIFT 21/06/13 15:23

Now in its twentieth year, Sheffield Doc/Fest gives us the most comprehensive opportunity in the UK to not only spend a week watching documentaries, but to decide what documentary means to each of us: to trace the thematic and formal links we each find in our personally plotted routes through the programme; discovering what we think documentary is, should be or could be today. It didn’t take long for some fundamental rules of documentary filmmaking to make themselves known, but to what extent did the filmmakers at this years festival stick to them? Which succeeded by forging their own path? Which suffered by sticking to tradition? Or lost their way in trying to break from it? LWLies  looks at eight rules for a great documentary.


1. Invest in a tripod

The big screen can be very unforgiving, so it proved surprising how the faith of many filmmakers in their (often fascinating) subject matter led to an abandonment or outright disinterest in questions of composition or aesthetics. Of course, there were films shot on the fly, covering events as they unfolded where such concerns were simply impractical, a kinetic aura of verisimilitude (i.e. shaky-cam = documentary = real) something Hollywood has latched onto ad nauseum. But when you’re shooting an interview without bullets whizzing over your head, like the one which opened Lech Kowalski’s ‘Fracking Is Bad’ doc Drill Baby Drill, there’s really little excuse for filming it as though you were auditioning for 2nd Unit director on a Tom Hooper Call of Duty movie.

At the opposite end of the spectrum altogether was Benjamin Greené’s exquisite Survival Prayer. Charting the daily existence of the remnants of the Haida community on an archipelago off the coast of Canada, Greené’s film was one of gentle power. Astonishingly composed from its opening frames, this was a work to dissolve into, it’s meditative pace and deceptively slight focus set by the rhythms of its subjects and the natural world at the forefront of their foraging existence. Greené’s patient edit and exceptional eye trusted his images to speak volumes, highlighting the pride of a cultural heritage on the brink of extinction.


2. Respect your subject

You’d think that a filmmaker would feel protective towards the subject of the documentary they’ve invested so much time and thought into, and luckily this was more often than not the case. Of course, they don’t have to necessarily like the person at the heart of their film, as made clear by director Samantha Grantin the post-screening Q&A of her film, A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at The New York Times. However, when you’re making a film about a paranoid schizophrenic on the verge of recovery and terrified of relapse, there’s surely a better way forward than making them re-enact their darkest moments for the benefit of the reconstructions you believe should frame your film. The director of NCR : Not Criminally Responsible didn’t seem to think so. Sean Clifton had spent years in a forensic psychiatric unit after “the devil told him to stab the prettiest girl he saw”, and John Kastner’s film charts the slow process of rehabilitation and entry into a halfway house with a fellow paranoiac.

It’s worrying clear that Kastner’s primary interest lies in the film he’s making, through which an uncomfortable feeling of stage-management permeates. There’s an exploitative air to proceedings, not least with regards Sean’s martial arts-obsessed, clearly volatile roommate, for whom the presence of the camera actively feels like a thorn in the side of the side of the recovery process. An antidote to NCR was found in the form of veteran British documentarian Kim Longinotto, whose radiating admiration for her eponymous Salma was apparent in every frame of her affectionate, if straightforward, portrait. Salma herself, an Indian poet who began writing during the 25 years she spent imprisoned by her husband, proved quite the presence at the festival, as seemingly determined as Longinotto’s film not to be defined by her heart-breaking story.


3. Find a focal point

The highlight of Doc/Fest’s opening night festivities came in the form of a screening in local Peak District cave, The Devil’s Arse. The film in question was Sundance hit, The Summit, charting a disastrous attempt to reach the peak of K2 in August 2008, an expedition in which 11 climbers lost their lives. Magnificently shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Irish director Nick Ryanhandled the dramatic beats in the narrative with gusto, communicating a lucid geographical sense of the mountain and each tragic stage of the expedition. He was less successful in finding a character through-line on which to hang the narrative. While each of the climbers were clearly introduced and their relationships established, it ultimately proved too large a cast for him to confidently wrangle, his sense of national pride finally getting the better of him in the film’s recourse to celebrating the actions of Irish climber, Ger McDonnell above all else.

So, good job there was a master on hand to show us how to really focus a narrative. Walter Murch, responsible for his sound design and editing work on the likes of The GodfatherThe ConversationApocalypse Now and, umm, I Love Trouble, turned up with director Mark Levinson to present the world premiere of Particle Fever. This lean, lucid and enormously accessible 97 minutes on Cern’s Large Hadron Collidor and the quest for the elusive Higg’s Boson particle was culled from over 450 hours of raw material. Drawing focus from a background cast of over 400 to four or five principles, Murch drew out the drama in the physicists’ quest, delivering explanation and tension in equal measure. That such esoteric subject matter should prove one of the most purely enjoyable documentary experiences of the festival is testament to his work, and we can only hope there were some brave distributors present to witness how well it played to the room.


4. Choose your subject carefully

The great Japanese director Shohei Imamura, subject of this year’s director retrospective, showed the importance of searching long and hard for the right subjects for your film. With his two-part 1971 television documentary In Search Of Unreturned Soldiers, Imamura elicited scathingly candid interviews from former combatants of the Pacific War, living abroad in the thirty years since its end. If the first episode, in which he scours Malaysia for a subject is more the slow-burn, concentrating for the most part on his Where’s Wally-san quest, the second Thailand-set encounter more than compensates. As three former soldiers (two now a doctor, one a farmer) question the price of their brutality over ever-increasing volumes of sake, tensions begin to mount as lips loosen. It proves a penetrating insight into the mindset of a closed culture, and quite astonishing to think it was made for, let alone broadcast on, television more than forty years ago.

While Imamura could have had few expectations when he first landed in Thailand as to the kind of footage he’d end up leaving with, one has to feel sorry for director Vikram Jaytani, for whose film The Secret Life Of Uri Geller – Psychic Spy? he appears to have been promised so much, only to leave with so little. Geller (and spoon) were in attendance for an extended post-screening Q&A, which served to clarify no more than the film itself, a redundant exercise in which Geller answers no questions about his alleged career working for Mossad and the CIA. Geller did however inform us afterwards that, “I’m a master of publicity, I’m a showman… becoming controversial is essential for my career”, if anything casting doubt on such claims made in the film that he may have psychically knocked out Egypt’s radar defence system to allow Israeli planes to perform the famous Raid on Entebbe. Or that via ‘remote viewing’ he can see things “very far away”. Or that he and Frank Sinatra were the only people to have a licence to carry seven guns in New York City. He wants you to understand that’s seven, not six.

If Jayanti’s film itself weren’t so sloppily made, one might be inclined to feel more sympathetic to Geller’s evasive non-commitment to answering any of the director’s questions on camera. Intentionally or not, we’re finally left with a portrait of a man desperate for approval and fame, a paranoiac obsessed with security, who only sees fit to refer to himself in the third person. There’s definitely a fascinating film to made about Geller, but this isn’t it. If it ever does get made, it’s unlikely to come with the approval of a man whose only straight answer during a long ninety minutes is: “All I can say is that after 9/11 I was reactivated by a man called Ron”.


5. Integrate your score

While the spectacle of the first of Doc/Fest’s opening night celebrations was undeniable, musical extravaganza The Big Meltundoubtedly suffered in comparison to last year’s similar endeavour, Penny Woolcock’s British Sea Power-scored From the Sea to the Land Beyond. Musical director Jarvis Cocker pulled out all the stops (and a big brass band) to accompany the steel industry themed archival footage cut together by director Martin Wallace. The problem lied less in Wallace’s montage, which whilst erring on the repetitive may well have engaged further in a different context, than in the busyness of the performance of the Pulp frontman and co. taking place directly in front of the screen. More a case of the images accompanying the band than vice versa, it was difficult to take one’s eyes off of the floorshow, especially during the rousing spectacle of its This Is Hardcore finale. Too often, the tail ended up wagging the dog.

The most fully integrated use of music accompanied what ultimately proved to be the finest film of the festival, John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project. Screened under its (thankfully) working title, Akomfrah utilised a chronological selection of his subject’s favourite musician, Miles Davis, to directly and contrapuntally comment on and question the archival montage which makes up the entirety of the film. “When I was about 19 or 20, Miles Davis put his finger on my soul”, says the eponymous cultural theorist and left-wing intellectual. As Akomfrah unleashes his symphony of images, each immaculately placed to inform and reflect upon the film’s themes – of youth; racial and cultural identity through decades of social and political change; how we perceive ourselves and how we’re perceived by others – Miles’ music evolves underneath. A masterclass in the marriage of form and content, of music and image, it’s also one of the best films of the year.


6. Don’t impose an agenda

Documentary filmmakers have the same tools at their disposal as those making narrative features, they just need to be a lot more careful how they use them. Music has always been an easy way to manipulate the tone of a scene, playing a sprightly or ominous score underneath the same piece of footage will change its meaning entirely. Whilst it’s still a documentarian’s job to engage the audience, there’s a fine line between enhancing a scene’s meaning and altering it to meet a preconceived directorial agenda. It’s of particular importance when the subject in question can’t speak for itself. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’sBlackfish proved one such example.

An undeniably harrowing investigation into the mistreatment of killer whales at the Sea World amusement parks in the US, which led to numerous deaths and injuries of those entrusted with their care, Blackfish uses every pro-tool at its disposal to apply genre elements to its portrayal of events. That the film includes a clip from the 1977 Jaws knock-off, Orca proves telling, going as it does to great directorial lengths to ensure it plays out like an interspecies-B-revenge-flick. As a result, some silly anthropomorphic characterisation lends itself to the remit, becoming an inevitability amidst the talking heads, too often founding their arguments in conjecture rather than authority. It’s ‘Fuck Sea World’ message is certainly driven home, and the horrific (often crowd-shot) incident footage is unbearably tense, but much like the animals on screen, you’re jumping through the filmmaker’s hoops.


7. Inspire, don’t lecture

No one likes being talked down to. No one likes being talked ‘at’ either. There’s a certain type of documentary, more often than not made for television, that not only hopes to bring awareness to a given issue but to change the viewer’s mindset by its end, if they’ve lasted that long. It’s a particularly tricky balance to strike, to both engage and persuade from the very off. Project Wild Thing had pretty much everything going against it, covering as it did one man’s crusade to get his children to spend more time outside. This guy’s kids could probably do with some fresh air, but do we really want to watch a feature-length documentary about it? Well, maybe it was all the films about death, genocide and Uri Geller we’d been watching, but David Bond’s film proved a welcome breath of fresh air.

Bond casts himself in the lead role as the new marketing director for nature, aiming to commodify and brand the outdoors itself as a product he can sell to kids, his own included, who he feels are spending too much time glued to their tablets and televisions. As much an investigation into the machinations of the worlds of marketing and PR as it is one man’s crusade for more grass stains, it’s a bright, persuasive exercise full of warmth and humour, entirely powered by Bond’s almost limitless enthusiasm for his task. You still may not care by the end how much TV his kids watch, but it’s brimming with an infectious energy that engages throughout.


8. Form matters

One of the most infuriating documentaries we caught over the five days proved to be Jessie Versluys’ The Murder Workers. It also proved to be the most upsetting viewing experience of the festival too. It infuriated for none of the reasons we’ve talked about so far, but because it represented the biggest wasted opportunity of the films we saw. Versluys had gained incredible access to a team of victim support workers set up by the National Homicide Service, those who worked on a one-to-one basis with the families of victims of murder in the UK.

The heart-wrenching accounts of the recently bereaved were at times almost too painful to watch, particularly when the film focussed on three young children who’d witnessed their abusive father murder their mother in front of them. Formally, however, the film was shot, structured and narrated like any terrestrial TV doc. A deeply harrowing experience it may well have been, but so devoid of originality in terms of construction or assemblage, this despite its sensitive portrayal of its subjects, that it frustrated as much as it moved.

It seems a little unfair to compare The Murder Workers to this next film, but if there was one alone at Doc/Fest this year which refused to rest simply on its access or its subject matter, but chose to craft not only an astonishing documentary, but a stunningly original piece of cinema, it was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing. Currently on a short tour of the UK in its 159 minute director’s cut ahead of the release of the slightly truncated theatrical version next Friday, The Act Of Killing is a filmmaking tour de force, rightly taking home Doc/Fest’s top prize.

Continuing the themes explored in his 2003 film The Globalisation Tapes, Oppenheimer follows members of the militia responsible for the 1965 genocide of over two million Indonesian ‘communists’. Still in power and unrepentant, he gives them the opportunity to make a film of their own devising, based on tropes of old Hollywood cinema as a means of making them confront their atrocities. Brutal, unflinching and directly confrontational, Oppenheimer takes every rule in the documentary handbook and throws them out the window, one hand dragging an internationally ignored piece of history into the spotlight while the other reflexively examines our relationship with cinema from both sides of the lens.

If the line where documentary meets fiction at times appears blurred and procedural context often appears elusive, they remain questions rather than reservations in the face of such extraordinary formal confidence and originality. If you can, see it in its extended cut – but most importantly, just see it.


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