Strengthen Your Documentary by Questioning…Yourself


Documentary storytelling

Photo by Foxymoron

In my first post, I examined what I believe to be the most important question you can ask an interviewee, “is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to talk about?” Questions are the bread and butter of documentary film – without questions, a documentary is simply a soapbox for your views. This works wonderfully if that’s what you’re aiming for (though all too often a compelling story is sacrificed), but when your aim is to create a timeless work that will have the same potency twenty years from now as it does twenty seconds after release, the right questions are essential.

Stepping back from the interview for a brief post, let’s look at the very gestation of your project. Every project (documentary, narrative, music video, etc.) I’ve taken on revolves around a question and the production of that work is the gradual discovery of answers, or at the very least, a better sense of the answers.

These questions may be a challenge to yourself – in the case of my first historical documentary, The Fourteen Minute Gap, it was “can I make an engaging visual story about tape hiss?” For my music documentary, Gather ‘Round the Mic, it was “how I can use one camera with one take only to tell the story of 15 musicians from around the world in three days?”

Deeper than a simple (or not so simple) technical challenge, we must examine the themes we wish to explore, and never forget that every exploration begins with a question that we push ourselves to answer. For a documentary that never made it through pre-production, a look at the JFK-LBJ presidential transition and its effect on the Vietnam War, that question was “Why do we look at things as simply black and white while every decision is shrouded in shades of gray?” Looking deeper at the subject matter, the question was “was JFK going to withdraw from Vietnam before he was assassinated?” (This debate has been raging in the 48 years since the tragic day in Dallas).

Questions imply interest and passion. Questions are the setups; the finished product and ensuing dialogue, the payoffs. No project can survive or hope to inspire passion in the audience without a deep-rooted passion for the project one undertakes.

Our jobs as storytellers – be it documentarian, filmmaker, author, musician, or any legion of creative fields – is to explore and present our findings in an arresting and engaging manner, answering our own questions about the material we’ve chosen to dedicate years of our lives to, and inviting our audiences to disseminate, discuss, and be infected by our own enthusiasm for our projects so that they may explore their own questions. By doing so, we create an ongoing series of questions, that thrives and expands long after our two hours before their eyes are over.

What question are you trying to answer in your documentary?

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