From Journalist to Documentarian – Five Tips for a Better Documentary
Think you’ve got an idea for a documentary? Before you shoot, hear how professional journalists turn good ideas into engaging nonfiction stories.January 4th, 2010 | Michael Grosse
Two-time Emmy Award winner June Cross has written, produced, or edited about a dozen documentaries in a career that spans more than three decades. She is also an associate professor of Journalism at Columbia University, where she teaches graduate-level courses in reporting and documentary film. “There’s this idea that you roll on anything that moves,” Cross says. “That somehow you’re going to get back into the editing room and figure out how to make a documentary...it really doesn’t work that way.”
So how does it work?
Tip 1: Know the difference between a story and an issue
Good journalists don’t just write about "issues." Issues are often too impersonal to engage audiences, especially if the issue is new to — or far removed from — the audience. Instead, journalists often focus on engaging audiences by telling the stories of people who are affected by these larger issues.
Cross explains using the example of discrimination of transgendered people: "Discrimination is an issue. Filming conferences and meetings about this discrimination might raise superficial awareness of the issue, but finding a person whose life hangs in the balance because of this discrimination could reveal a truly moving story, such as that in Southern Comfort," Cross says. "This 2001 documentary covers the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transgendered person who is dying of ovarian cancer because doctors refuse to treat him out of fear that doing so will damage their reputations. Eads’s story is one that immediately engages the audience regardless of how they might feel about the issue of transgender discrimination."
Tip 2: Commit to the story
“The last part of me that is female is killing me,” Eads says in Southern Comfort. The true weight of a statement such as that isn’t felt as a sound byte recorded at a conference. The audience must know Eads’s story, and for that to happen, the filmmaker must be committed to researching beyond the obvious, and sometimes — depending on the project — beyond what is comfortable.
But commitment to a story means more than just spending time filming a character, it means observing with a purpose, keeping the storyline in mind, and knowing which information is relevant to that story and which information should be left out of the final cut.
Tip 3: Let the character’s story dictate what makes the final piece
Currently making the rounds and winning awards on the film festival circuit, the documentary Shooting Beauty follows the lives of people with cerebral palsy as they use cheap cameras to document life from their own perspectives.
The film's director, George Kachadorian, says the film’s success is due largely to a decision to cut any footage that took the narrative away from the characters. This included several interviews with medical experts that were obtained at substantial cost to Kachadorian. “Instead of taking on…the whole thing, the experts and the policy…we focused on the characters and that’s made all the difference,” he says.
For Kachadorian, whose prior work as editor at the long-form unit of ABC News earned him an Emmy nomination, the decision to cut footage was made easier by his experience in the editing room at ABC. “I got a lot of experience…you can’t open the editing system or the camera and go out and do something without learning something,” he says. “It’s about being ruthless to that story, how quickly, efficiently and beautifully can you tell that story? As soon as it feels like its going on too long, you lose that allure.”
Tip 4: Explore beyond the surface
Cross’s most recent documentary, The Old Man and the Storm, began as an idea to follow an 82-year-old man as he rebuilt his home in post-Katrina New Orleans. The finished documentary aired on Frontline earlier this year.
“I had to use a lot of journalistic training in order to tell what came off at the end of the day as a simple story about an old man who was just trying to build his house and get his life back in the city," Cross says. "But, in fact, it was really about much more than that.”
To tell the story, Cross obtained information from a variety of sources. She even filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the government to find out who was buying and selling land in New Orleans, and how insurance companies were handling flood insurance programs. The end result was a documentary that went far beyond just filming local town meetings or talking to individuals on the street.
“I think now more than ever, information — accurate information — is very difficult to find," Cross says. "The training of a journalist is how to find the information that doesn’t want to be found and to reveal it in a way that provides a public service…you really don’t find it [by] Googling things.”
Tip 5: Consider the ethics of non-fiction storytelling
As a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival, Basil Tsiokos has the job of reviewing around 250 of the submissions for the documentary feature category each year. He has watched thousands of documentaries over the past few years and has come to recognize the common pitfalls that filmmakers fail to avoid. The paramount tip he has for aspiring documentarians doesn’t involve cinematography, lighting, sound, or editing. It is an ethical consideration: “Above all else, respect your subject.”
Kachadorian echoes this sentiment. “When you’re doing a documentary, somebody invited you into their house to look at something that’s very intimate and personal to them: their image, who they are, and what they do. That somehow you’re going to manipulate that in some form or other and put it out there…there’s a certain level of just human dignity that’s involved with that and you have to do the right thing," he says. "There’s room between what’s legal and what’s morally acceptable…there’s a lot of wiggle room.”
And while a documentarian might be on his or her own during production, for a documentary to air on television, Cross says there is a fairly intensive review process. Some broadcasters require that each line of narration be backed up by three sources. This not only protects the broadcaster from lawsuits, but also keeps poorly researched or manipulative documentaries from being aired.
It almost goes without saying: research before you shoot.
“The thing with filmmaking” Tsiokos says, “is there’s no license to make a film. You get a camera, buy a camera, find a camera, whatever. You can pick it up and start making a film, and that’s great. It’s not necessarily going to be a good film though," he says. "And that’s the thing…there is something to be said for working with people who have done it before.”
And who better to learn nonfiction storytelling from than a journalist? Documentarians don’t necessarily have to be trained as journalists, Cross says, in order to be fair in their approach to their subjects. “It’s long-form narrative storytelling," she says. "It’s figuring out what part of the story you’re telling, why its important, and telling it in a way that makes people want to go all the way to the end…and revealing something along the way.”