Producing a film can be one of the most effective ways of striking a chord with audience, starting a social change. This is because films can uniquely, as an art form, evoke emotions from the audience, whilst educating and persuading, and all at a mass scale – which speaks volumes of the importance of documentary films.
As two academics, a filmmaking career may seem like a strange direction for P.J. Marcellino (Canada) and Hermon Farahi (US) to go in. However, this is exactly what they decided to use to amplify their voice and present an emerging cultural context through indigenous musical storytellers and culture keepers across Canada.
In an interview Marcellino, speaks of 3 links between documentary filmmaking and social impact, as well as on how films can be used to gain a greater audience and evoke a response in a more profound way:
- People need to see your message for it to stimulate change,
The exposure one can get through film and digital media – whether at a film festival, local cinema screening, online or through education – is magnified compared to many traditional ways we try to incite change, such as street campaigns, protests, and petitions.
Festival exposure and awards often attract press attention, which is the best way of increasing your exposure, next to exploding on social media feeds.
As two forward-thinking researchers and policy analysts, most of Marcellino and Farahi’s usual academic/policy work never get the public and government exposure their documentary has achieved. Marcellino commented:
“My role was to provide policy-makers with information to allow them to make decisions in an informed manner. I often wondered if they ever read what me and my colleagues wrote – or if our reports ever got to the desks that mattered.”
- People need to feel your story for it to inspire change
Data drives decisions every day in what we do, but data alone doesn’t resonate in the part of our brains that can fathom complex issues, and hence move one to action through the emotional brain.
Put simply, data might tell us what to do but story tells us why we should do it.
“As a field researcher, I felt like I had a grasp of the human scale that was being missed by so many conference presenters, and when addressing a room of policy makers, I made an impassionate appeal to remember that when they’re distilling 100 stories into one spreadsheet, the human level of those stories is being lost in translation. That was the first time I remember feeling that film may well be a better tool to bring these dramatic stories to a broader audience.”
- You need to actually make something (and release it into the world) to inspire people:
In our world, the role of filmmakers is more than simply a creative one. We also need to share ideas and information – the beginnings of all change.
Whilst there are reliable and traditional channels of change, there are also channels that cut more directly into the core of who we are in this evolving society.
Marcellino comments: “Documentary film is perhaps the most ‘edited’ form of film there is. Of course we are filming reality, but how the director chooses to present it, how the narrative is crafted, shapes a new reality. So, the fine balance then becomes how to represent the ‘real reality’ truthfully, while also creating an engaging narrative with a story arc, that audiences can engage with.”
“If done right, film can be one of the most powerful tools to convey strong feelings to an audience. You can see faces, you can look in the eyes of characters, you can feel their emotions (which, of course, a filmmaker can enhance through colour and music). All this offers up a dimension that is unachievable even in the best reports packed with lively interviews. Sometimes you find similarly impactful pieces written by frontline journalists (think New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair), but film certainly has a power that is unmatched today.”
There weren’t relatively nearly as many documentaries before 1980, but over the last 4 decades the “genre” has rapidly risen to become one of the most popular forms of filmmaking. The criteria for a good documentary film is subject, just as it is for any other art form, however that doesn’t mean you should just charge head-first into it, following these key documentary filmmaking techniques will greatly benefit your film and yourself – regardless of your unique vision for the film.
6 universal tips for great documentary filmmaking:
- Choose an interesting subject:
This should be the first and most important thing you do, as you don’t want a 2 month filming process to conclude with the realisation that the finished documentary will be boring (even to you!). This is difficult; as of course everyone will find different things interesting. So the best way of approaching will be to strip all façade from the subject matter and consider whether there is a genuine and compelling human story to be told. If so then regardless of the eventual subject matter your documentary will most crucially tell a compelling story.
- Get the right crew:
Documentary filming schedules can be unstructured, so get a crew that is flexible, open to work in a moments notice, and passionate – you don’t want someone complaining and asking when lunch will be.
- Go to documentary film festivals!
This can be before filming, during, or in post-production. You can meet some of the best, most well respected documentary filmmakers currently working. In doing so, you can learn about their filmmaking process and get first-hand tips from them. Admission is normally fairly affordable (students can usually get discounts), and it is certainly worthwhile to be inspired if you’re interested in documentary filmmaking.
- Get the right support around you and have patience:
Documentary is a long-form process; meaning you will end up reels and reels (or hard drives and hard drives) of footage, which you will need to whittle down in the editing stage. This can be very hard at points, ending a day and realising none of the footage from that day is useful – you need perseverance and the right support around you to keep filming usually on a hectic, ever-changing schedule.
- Consider your equipment:
Not everyone will have access to huge, professional cameras that probably cost more than most people’s car, but that doesn’t matter, if your subject matter requires a fast moving crew and lots of travel, you don’t want to be carrying round heavy equipment with you, in fact that’ll make your footage worse as you can’t capture quick authentic moments. You can even shoot on a smart-phone now, most have a great camera set up and with the right app you tailor it to you (companies like Olloclip and iOgrapher even produce equipment just for this). If something between the two extremes sounds better, then a quality DSLR, a few lenses, a tripod and an audio set up will also need to be very adaptable to the variety of footage you’ll end up shooting.
- Watch the right kinds of documentaries:
Depending on the style of documentary you want to emulate, you will want to educate and inspire yourself with those films; whether that be crime re-enactment documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, long-form character pieces like Hoop Dreams, or more grounded investigative pieces like many of Louis Theroux’s documentaries. Watch the best films there are to watch, get ideas from them, and hope some of the greatness rubs off on you!
Documentary filmmaking is a tough passion to pursue; however it is also very rewarding. We hope these tips for documentary filmmaking help minimise the toughness and maximise the rewards – now get out there and shoot!