There is no mistake, that being able to capture the moment for your documentary film can make the difference between a good film, and a GREAT film. If catching a pivotal or historic moment is your key, that means being at the right place at the right time, lots of planning/preparation, strategy, and sometimes a little luck… ok, a lot of luck. Sometimes it means getting great, extensive coverage of a subject. Traveling whenever and wherever you need to go to make your film.
But for those who aren’t able to secure travel or gain access, how can you expect to make stories that are just as exciting and enticing as those with the resources to be anywhere and everywhere?
The key is in differentiating documentation and documentary.
I think of documentation as complete event coverage, or interviews of people for the sake of capturing footage for whatever special occasion it was, weddings, celebrations, protests, world events, inaugurations maybe. Documentation is very important in its own right, but when we talk of artistry and films, documentation and documentary are not one and the same. Traditionally, the conventions of Cinema Verité call for the “fly on the wall”, D.A. Pennebaker films like Crisis and The War Room lead to hours upon hours of dailies to sort through and that is what we think of as documentaries, the hours spent stalking African lions for Nat Geo… the hours spent tracking down the cast members of the Real World.
Yet as filmmakers we often have finite resources, whether those resources were once film reels, batteries or memory, travel/money, the ability to hire personnel, or even if you have all that, time is always against us. To build a career is to continue to create/produce/be remembered and known for our films preferably during our lifetimes.
And what if you *GASP* … MISS A SHOT?!!! As a
documentarian historian, you failed your mission. You didn’t cover the crucial moments. As a filmmaker, while you just disadvantaged, yourself, all is not lost. If you get at the HEART of the story you can make your film interesting and perhaps find creative ways to save your film. That is not to mean you should ever be lazy about shooting, and getting the best film you can. The GREAT filmmakers always get the shot… but sometimes in order to get that great shot, you’ll probably miss a few on the way.
But really knowing your story allows you to strategize, allocate your time and resources, and even be creative in finding ways to communicate aspects of your story. What if you can’t be at an event? What if a character dies without you being able to get that key interview? And how do you keep yourself from endlessly filmmaking in the name of documenting someone/something interesting? The key is to know your story, know the angle you wish to tell it, and really find a way to give it a beginning and an end.
My current project, The Life and Times of hELLA HUNG I have a subject whose nature it is to move and move and create and keep on pushing whatever he’s doing, whether successful or not. And it’s all interesting, but I need to finish the film sometime. Often life goes on and our film keeps going. What prevents us from really feeling like we have to keep filming to capture the next great chapter is knowing our story and what the chapters are… and knowing where it ends is the best way to future proof our storytelling.