Tommy Flavin shares his thoughts and ideas about documentary filmmaking.
In a previous article, I wrote about how you don’t need to know anything to shoot a documentary. I’m going to continue in that vein here by discussing a few things to keep in mind if you should ever be so unlucky as to find yourself directing a documentary. As before, I’m not going to talk about gear, compression, bitrates, or the like – there’s enough of that talk out there already, and it breaks my heart that I know the difference between CBR and VBR or between Flat S-Logs and CameraRAW (though I’m proud to say I still don’t quite know what a T-stop is).
A word of warning: because I have notions of myself, I’m not going to give any straight advice or explicit dos and don’ts. As we go on, you’ll see that I’m big on questions, not answers. So, in honour of that theme, I’m going to be offering you my thoughts and ideas about documentary filmmaking in the hope that you’ll start a debate with yourself about directing documentaries and develop your own ideas and opinions on the matter.
With that in mind, I’m going to start with my most important tip.
Develop a philosophy of directing: Spend a lot of time thinking about life, the nature of truth, of documentary and of filmmaking and whatever else takes your fancy. Think about how you feel about these things, but don’t feel under pressure to be able to sum anything up or to have a definite stance on any of these issues. Develop opinions, ideas and questions.
Directing is all about decision making. Essentially, you’re curating reality. So when you’re faced with the question of whether or not you should film a dying man, a crying mother or a heinous crime, all the knowledge of T-stops and bitrates in the world won’t help you. But a philosophy of directing will.
Facts are for nerds: Forget research. Forget facts. Look for the Truth. Truth is chaotic, inscrutable and anarchic; you never know where you’ll find it or in what form. It could be in the way somebody says something, the shoes they’re wearing or something that happens in the background. You never know. But when it happens, it’ll light up your subject so perfectly that you’ll feel like you’ve had a religious experience. A moment of sublimely perfect life says a lot more than an hour of thoroughly-researched documentary ever could.
Look beyond the facts and the obvious story and keep your eyes, ears, mind and (yes, I’m really saying this) heart open.
Read about history, politics, art, culture, cooking, anything. All of these will help you develop your philosophy of directing, give you a better handle on life and will look classier on your bookshelf than all those Dan Brown books you have.
But most importantly, read philosophy and some basic media studies. Realise that the truth is elusive (and possibly even irrelevant) and that there are no answers, only questions. Learn to see and think beyond the obvious, to discern people’s agendas and what they’re really saying when they say what they say. Understand the power of the media, words and images.
You’re not a journalist: If you want to make a movie exposing the truth about the diet industry, or capitalism or whatever, then go away. If you’re making a movie that weighs up facts and arguments before presenting a conclusion, then go away – I don’t want you reading my article. Don’t look for answers in your filmmaking, because there are none. And if you do find an answer, then it’s wrong. Instead, look for questions. An audience should come away from your film thinking about what they’ve seen. Make art, not essays.
Where’s the beef? Find out what your film is really about and where the real story lies. Then edit your film so that everything relates back to that. And that shouldn’t be the “what happened”, but rather the “why”. Nobody cares who did what, said what and where or when. What matters is why they did those things. My favourite documentary is The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog. He doesn’t bother asking what the caves are and what the cavemen painted in them or how they did it. What he asks is why they painted. By the end of the film, you’re wondering yourself what went on in a caveman’s head, why humans even make art in the first place and what it actually means to be human. If you can get a viewer to ask questions and to see the world with fresh eyes, then you’re making art for the ages.
Questions, questions, questions. Question everything you do. Think twice about every decision – where you put the camera, what questions you ask (Sebald says the only way to get to the truth is to skirt around it continuously and never to confront it directly. In other words, “hard-hitting” interviewing doesn’t work). Similarly, question what your interviewee tells you. Question the facts, the appearance of things, question the colour of the sky. Toddlers ask an average of 400 questions a day. Toddlers are good documentary makers.
Actually, that makes more sense than I realised…
Be a toddler: Ask questions. Know nothing. Be innocent.
Be naïve to the grown-ups around you who “know” better. Ignore the established rules of understanding the world and societies. Don’t just break the rules, forget there ever were any. Look at everything with fresh, curious eyes. The world is your sandbox and the camera is your spade.
Tommy Flavin is the director of Where There’s A Well, a documentary following the journey of a water pump from factory to village in Malawi, Africa, exploring the impact clean water has on communities and individuals as they work to improve their lives.