The job of a documentary is to reveal a world to the audience that they were previously unaware of. It reveals this world by capturing the experiences of the people who are living within it. What your audience wants is to go inside of an experience, of a life that is not their own. It allows people to learn, explore and witness without going anywhere. Documentary is that rare medium in which the common person takes on a large important issues and shakes up society.
Documentary film is not objective. Every angle, every cut, and every time you ask a question you are putting your filter on the information and crafting a story. This does not give you license to lie or make things up, but embracing this fact of the medium frees the filmmaker to take risks.
Story matters. A narrative is simply a telling of an event or a series of events in a way that interests the audience. The difference between chronicling what happens and telling a story is the critical difference between an amateur and professional. It is not enough to know who, what, when and where, you have to understand what it means and why it matters. You can show why it matters through story, through drama. The difference between information and a story is the five dramatic elements.
There are five things that every good story must have. Character – who or what the story is about. Conflict – what that character wants and why it is difficult to get. Stakes – ways that the meaning of the goal is elevated or the tension increases. Arc – a change or growth over the course of the story. Resolution – an answer to the big question, does the character get what they want. The first goal during the research process to determine your five dramatic elements.Comment
Who is your audience? What is the message? What is your call to action?
Before beginning any documentary work – any creative work, really – you should be able to answer these questions. Don’t run the risk of making a film that is too broad, with no guts, and doesn’t say anything. You can avoid countless problems with your subject, story and structure when you define your purpose early on.
Who is your audience? Although you hope that audiences of all demographics will be interested in your film, it just be made with one specific audience in mind. What is the choir that you are preaching to that will then become your evangelists?
What is the message? If the audience is to believe one thing after watching your film, what would that be? Remember, if you say three things, you are saying too much and you may as well say nothing. Know what you are trying to say.
What is your call to action? There should be goal in mind of what action you want your audience to take after watching your film. It can be lofty or it can be simple, but if you don’t know what you want, you will never achieve it.
Together, your answers make up your purpose. What you are really answering is ‘why are you making this film.’ Start making decisions as early as possible. It gets easier the more practice you get. Don’t worry, your purpose can evolve. As you learn more about the story you are really telling, make changes. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind, but you can’t make changes if you don’t know where you were to begin with.Comment