Should Documentary Filmmakers Have Experience?

It is often observed that documentaries are consistently produced and directed by one-time and first time independent filmmakers. A journalist may be willing to take his or her particular story with its many subjects from a TV or news media report into a full-fledged documentary. A student filmmaker may want to expand his or her film thesis or student film project assignment to the next level through the world of professional independent documentary filmmaking. Hungry film enthusiasts and budding directors who are seeking ways to crack into the film industry may get their start up opportunity in producing a documentary film or two. A nonfiction writer may collaborate with known producers and directors to help stir a documentary film project into fruition. Reality TV show producers and music video directors seek the genre of documentary film storytelling to expand their creative portfolio. Even a radio commentator may get behind the producing aspect of a documentary narrative just to tell the story and get it out. But when documentary films are, in fact, directed and produced by novice filmmakers, who may or may not even be willing to take on the title of “documentary filmmaker”, is it enough to conclude that documentary films in general especially when done well can be completed by those with little to no experience?

Since so much of documentary filmmaking falls away from the classical structure of filmmaking with the model of the pre-production, production, and post-production phases set in stone it may seem elusive to think that any Joe Schmoe off the street can partake in the endeavor of documentary film constructing. A narrative feature-length film in the genres of comedy, drama, sci fi, Western, action, thriller, horror, and even animated often goes into production once a script is completed and will only go into post-production once principal photography has concluded. Of course, like in all works of art exceptions are made based on budgets, director’s film style and vision, and, of course, clearance/legal rights issues. However, for the documentary film genre and all its sub genres of “docudrama”, “docutainment”, and “docufiction” pre-production, story development, and research may all continue through the production and even post-production phases. Most documentaries take 2-10 years to complete often due to following a story that fits the main narrative and thesis of a given film rather than the common challenges of budgets, clearance and copyright issues, and access to interviewees and important subject matter. But, the larger assessment to analyze here is whether experience is paramount for the director and producer of a documentary as he or she puts together such a film from beginning to end.

In a media-driven world where the lines of reality and fiction continue to be blurred and where Truth often takes a back seat to what’s new and hot and entertaining documentary films now fall into a murky, weary, and strange existence of video storytelling, film entertainment, journalism, news reporting and the disseminating of information. It is in these times that I believe documentary filmmakers must not only be on top of their game, per se, but must have the necessary experience and working knowledge that can take a documentary film to the next level. Strictly for conversation documentary filmmaking in this sense means award-winning caliber work where distribution will reach the levels of audience that can resonate and imbibe in its material. Art in this sense is taken in a different respect than the proverbial art house, experimental films that are shown in local venues and may not be good or strong enough or even willing enough to reach a mass audience.

It can also be argued that one’s passion and enthusiasm for a given documentary film thesis can be enough to drive a documentary film from development to ready-made distribution. This can be enough for that same Joe Schmoe to pick up a camera, garner a small team of other enthusiasts, roll video, ask questions to those who appear in front of the camera and perform all the other necessary aspects to the task of documentary filmmaking. Plus, the fact that documentary films are thought to be wholly about capturing reality with little to no manipulating (or editing) makes the novice filmmaker feel access and the inevitability of accomplishing the task at producing a documentary film easier than what one would initially think. I mean–what could be hard in capturing reality with a video camera?

Well, the simple answer to that is—if it were easy everybody would be doing it. Documentary filmmaking is one of the toughest, exhausting creative projects anyone can ever endeavor in. Not simply because of the time and patience required but the diligent focus necessary. Documentary filmmaking requires months if not years of focus on story content and story development. Documentary filmmakers whether they have little to no “skin in the game” has a monumental task in production of a given documentary—marrying information with entertainment and bridging the Truth of reality with an entertainment value for a mass audience to consume if not appreciate. Here’s where experience is fundamental to such a task. Through developing a clear storyline and researching the right material that can carry the flow of a documentary (especially if it’s an informative piece) the directors and producers must hone in and deliver the knowledge required to making real the pursuit of documentary film storytelling. A novice filmmaker whether he or she comes out of the world of film theory or not lacks the criteria of following a story for a long-term basis on camera and then rendering a concise story once he or she has entered post-production on the film. A novice filmmaker does not carry with him or her the vision of putting together material containing information, statistics, and more with alluring sentiment and market appeal which only an experienced documentary filmmaker has from years of work in this specific genre of the film industry. If documentary film producers and directors do not carry the “pain” and “pressure” that comes with producing and directing an important film the work will most likely suffer from lack of focus, lack of allure, lack of comprehension, and/or lack of thoroughness. At best, the novice filmmaker would complete a feature-length documentary film but so does every other indie filmmaker who has uploaded his or her work onto YouTube and Vimeo. The best thing that first-time and one-time “documentary filmmakers” do in regard to an award-winning caliber piece is to link up and collaborate with experienced producers, directors, and even writers who knows how to drive a given documentary film project to the highest potential for success.

The feeling and the enthusiasm to say that first-time and one-time filmmakers can complete an award-winning documentary film is usually carried over by the simplicity and rather easy (if not easier) task of documentary short films. Documentary shorts—even as they fall succinctly into the genre of documentary films—do not carry on that challenge of focus, diligence, deconstructing, and comprehensive thoroughness that feature-length documentary film necessitates. Feature-length documentaries is fundamentally infused to the engrossing, the probing, the educational, the didactic, and the thorough where short-length documentaries are not coerced and obligated to take on.

One thought on “Should Documentary Filmmakers Have Experience?

  1. Jason @ FilmmakingStuff

    I would love it if more documentary filmmakers had experience. But that isn’t the case. Documentaries are inexpensive to produce and require a lot smaller crew. However, working in distribution, I have seen a lot of great stories that could have been more effective with a greater production value.


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