How To Make A Documentary Even If You’re Poor And Stupid

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Tommy Flavin explains how he made a totally independent feature documentary with no prior experience of documentary-making.

STOP PRESS. An indie filmmaker has made a low budget documentary using newly-affordable tools made available to him by the revolution in digital technology.

Who cares? Nobody! Nobody except me, the filmmaker. Which is the point that I’m going to be making over the course of this article; that if you can muster the determination to care about your film and the endurance to continue caring about it in the face of a world that really couldn’t care less, then that’s essentially all it takes to get it made. Even if you’re poor and stupid. For a better example of this, turn off your internet now and go watch Bowfinger. I learned everything I need to know about indie producing from watching that film and everything I say here will only be a less-funny echo of Steve Martin’s character.

OK, first things first. Who am I and why are you reading my article? I’m a twenty year-old D.I.T. Film student from Wexford. I’ve made a good few short films, some of which have been shown and won awards internationally as well as at home. I’ve just finished my first feature-length documentary, Where There’s A Well…, which is premiering this July, a year and a half after I first began making it. It’s set in Malawi, Africa and follows the journey of a water pump from factory to village, showing that, while the health benefits of clean drinking water are immense, it is the hope that these wells bring to a community that really makes the difference. So, if I, an idiot student with no money and no experience of documentary making can get a feature-length film made, then imagine what you can do!

Down to business. Let’s take it you’ve got that aformentioned blind determination to see your film through to the end. That’s great, I hear you say, but I’m still poor and stupid! Let’s deal with the poor part first, then we’ll get onto the stupid. All in, I made Where There’s A Well… for about €2500, including €1000 for flights, vaccines and the like. Any filmmaking website or guide out there these days will talk about the digital revolution, about how the cost-factor has been obliterated as an entry barrier into film production, while simultaneously touting the benefits of cameras and obscure (and unnecessary, though attractive) pieces of gear that cost more than my entire production budget did. Ironically, we’re more obsessed now with expensive gear that lives up to the imaginary “industry standard” than we were before the digital revolution.

The industry standard is total bull. And it’s elusive- as soon as you’ve caught up with it, it’s changed again. I started this film with only €600, which was all the money I had in the world at the time. I took this money- which I’d gotten for my communion and saved in my Post Office account all these years- and used it to buy the best camera I could afford. One that had all the features I felt were most necessary for the style of filmmaking we’d be utilising and had an acceptable image quality. I later saw a man using this very same camera to make a home movie of his family’s trip to a museum.

The important thing when sourcing your gear is to have no shame. If you can’t afford a camera, shoot on your iPhone (it worked just fine for parts of Searching For Sugar Man). If you can’t afford a good mic, make a silent documentary. If you can’t stretch to buying a boom pole then make one out of a painter’s pole. Stop worrying about how your gear looks behind the camera and focus instead on how everything in front of the lens looks.

Now that you’ve got your kit together, you’re ready to roll! Except, you’re still stupid. Let’s fix that. Actually, we’ll go one better- let’s turn that into an advantage. When I started my film, I knew nothing at all about documentary making. A year and a half later, and I’m none the wiser. I deliberately decided not to learn the “code” of doc making, not to learn how to guide an interview or construct a story (side note: how can one ‘construct’ a true story? That’s one for the semanticians!). Perhaps somewhat naively, I decided to make an “original” documentary- one that wasn’t over-precious towards the “issue”-ridden poor protagonists of the film, one that wasn’t too serious, one free of omnipotent voiceovers and all those hallmarks of the classical documentary. I wrote a list in my notebook:

This film is not an issue movie.

This film is not going to celebrate the perceived nobility of the “simple” poor.

This film is not a film of dry facts and factual arguments.

This film is not educational.

This film is not boring.

This film is not “good for you”.

This film is not journalism.

A word of warning- it’s much easier to say what your film won’t be than to say what it is. So I wrote another list:

This film is a film of faith. (not necessarily a religious faith)

This film has a higher truth.

This film is funny.

This film is mysterious.

This film is full of awe-some imagery.

This is a film of lyricism.

We- myself and a crew of fellow film students- arrived in Malawi with a suitcase full of cheap camera equipment and anti-Malaria tablets. A 5 hour van-ride later and we were in our lodge in Mzuzu, our base of operations for the next 3 weeks. Finally, it was go time! And suddenly I realised that I had absolutely no idea what to do next.  It was terrifying. It had taken me so much effort just to get this far and now I wasn’t going to have anything to show for it. But again, this proved to be an advantage. We had the weekend to relax before we were to start shooting on Monday so we brainstormed a few rough ideas, a few interesting possibilities to look out for. And, when Monday morning came, we simply walked out the door into the heat of the Malawian unknown with no real plan except to see what the country might show us.

We set about capturing life as it passed in front of the camera lens and decided to worry about story arcs, characters, conflicts, resolutions and all that story crap later. Every evening, I would transfer the footage from the camera onto the hard drives, but never watch it. Every day, we’d head off, following faint whiffs of stories or chasing up snippets of characters from the days before. And what we found was an Ali Baba’s cave of story: feature films’ worth of characters, themes, conflict, minor struggles and triumphs. I could still be there today searching this unrefined ore of story and not have run out of glittering material.

Sometimes, these stories were easy to find- they simply stampeded out from the heat, demanding to be told. Other times, they hid themselves. I remember one day in particular where we headed out with less of a plan than usual. We were wandering around Salisbury Line, a slum and one of the poorest places in Malawi, which is saying a lot. We wandered for hours in the hot sun without so much as a whiff of a story. I was getting annoyed. Nobody cares about this film, they’re happy just to sit around wasting the day! I thought, looking at the crew as they wilted in the heat. Then on the side of one of the shacks lining the road, I saw someone had painted: “Relax, God is in control”. So, I relaxed and decided to let God, or Providence, or luck, or whoever-you’re-having-yourself guide my lens.

And lo! A story! A few minutes later, we got talking to a young man on the side of the road who invited us into his home to talk about his life. Then, as we left, we met a group of young men in suits standing around. They were pastors and one of them was- get this- a Christian DJing pastor who comes from a long line of Christian DJs! It is these moments of sublime perfection that make the rush of documentary-making addictive.

And a good thing, too. Because that’s the easy part. Editing is a whole different story and, without a doubt, the hardest part of the whole process- a never-ending drudge of banal challenges. In the year it took me to hack these hours of footage into a coherent and compelling story, my faith was challenged repeatedly- my faith in myself, in the film, in filmmaking itself. Any poor and stupid idiot can make a film. But not many poor and stupid idiots finish one. It is in editing that your own determination really comes into play and where it becomes brutally clear that nobody cares about your film except you. Consequently, this is where your film will live or die. I wasted a lot of time waiting for other people to care about this film so that I could finish it. Don’t make this mistake- only you can finish your film.

And, I’m proud to say, I did finish it. Despite being poor and stupid. Or rather, because I was poor and stupid. So now I can sit back, crack open a can and play some Playstation. If only! Now comes the time to sell the film, which, I’m terrified will turn out to be the real challenge of making the film, as if I hadn’t enough of them already. But I have to get an audience to see it, because a film probably isn’t really finished until it’s been seen by, and engaged, an audience. Hopefully, this part will go so well that I won’t have to come back here and write another of these thinly-veiled promotional pieces. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back in about a year telling you how not to sell your documentary when you’re poor and stupid. Until then, good reader.


Where There’s A Well… premieres on the 4th of July in The Sugarclub, Dublin as part of the 10 Days in Dublin Festival. For more info on the film, to buy tickets ( €6 ) and to watch previews, visit:

To get up-to-the-minute news on Where There’s A Well…  follow Ted’s Beard! Productions on Facebook:


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