Your Choice of Topic

The above may sound a bit arbitrary, but it hides a deeper process: With all the banter and the joking, Larry and I are moving toward a commitment to spend anywhere from a few months to a few years on making a film. And we have to answer one vital question before we do anything: Why do we really want to make this film? This question, above anything else, is what you really have to ask yourself before you start.

Often the answer is that you have no choice. The subject obsesses you. It has been haunting you for years. It appeals to you. It appeals to your imagination, to your emotions, to your political views. Your topic covers a range of human experience that you feel you have to talk about, an experience that you feel you can best deal with on film.

I feel, very strongly, that this is the way the best films arise. They are generated from a burning passion to say something interesting, vital, and moving about the human condition, as exemplified by Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk or Jonathan Stack's The Farm. Sometimes they want to raise and discuss an issue, as Marlon Riggs does very seriously in Color Adjustment or as Michael Moore does with a lighter hand in Roger and Me. Occasionally, films will want to celebrate a lifetime's musical achievement, as in The Buena Vista Social Club. Often, they are an appeal for social and political change, such as Barbara Kopple's Harlan County or Nettie Wild's A Place Called Chiapas. Sometimes they are a warning from the past that offers us a guide to the future, such as Claude Lanz-mann's Shoah, Peter Cohen's Homo Sapiens 1900 about Nazi eugenics, and the moving and heartrending Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.

Although you may be obsessed with a topic for years, that obsession is not enough. You also have to ask yourself the question, Is there a good story there? I really consider this question to be vital. If you merely have material for a discussion, then you should be making current affairs talk shows. To make good documentaries, you need a strong narrative thrust and a tale that can be recounted in the most compelling, dramatic way possible. And when you have a story as compelling as that told by Spike Lee in Four Little Girls, about the racist bombings in the South in 1963

and the death of four black children, then you begin to believe there is nothing quite as powerful in film as a well told documentary.

Now, obviously, I am aware that wonderful nonnarrative impressionist documentaries have been made. Bert Haanstra's Glass is a marvel by any standard. Ellen Bruno's Satya and Kris Samuelson's Empire of the Moon are superb recent examples of what can be done in the impressionist style. However, I would suggest that, in general, the strong story is a vital element of the successful documentary.

When you have a story that captures the imagination, then the film often passes from the interesting to the unforgettable. Ric Burns's documentary The Donner Party told the tragic story of the life and death of a few American pioneers in an absolutely riveting way. Hearts of Darkness told of the challenges and problems involved in the making of Apocalypse Now, and Hoop Dreams, about the hopes of two young boys to rise to basketball stardom, captured the aspirations of thousands of black youngsters everywhere.

Powerful narratives can also range far beyond the story of one individual. John Pett's Morning tells the story of the allied invasion of Normandy. Antony Thomas's Thy Kingdom Come .. . Thy Will be Done tells the compelling story of fundamentalist religion in Texas, and Ken Burns's Civil War series made documentary history.

And then there is documentary's capacity to embrace the weird, the wonderful, and the wacky. Who can forget Mark Lewis's Cane Toads, about the strange invasion of a small Australian town by thousands of plump squat gray toads, or the mating rituals of young females in the American South as wryly recounted in Sherman's March. Dennis O'Rourke's Cannibal Tours helped turn Western exotic tourism upside down, and, more recently, Roko and Adrina Belic's Genghis Blues told the story of Paul Pena, an American blues legend who travels to Siberia and Mongolia to compete in a "khoomei," or throat singing, competition.

So the starting point for me is to tell a story that fascinates me and that I also think is dramatic. But what then? Once we get an idea that seems worth spending a few months of our lives on, Larry and I begin to ask questions.

Is it practical? Is it feasible? Does it have strong and interesting characters who can carry the story? Would it be a high- or a low-budget documentary? Does it have broad or narrow audience appeal? What approach could we take to the subject? In this way, we are clearing the decks, seeing whether the first idea looks promising enough to develop. You could say that if the idea is fine, we should just go ahead, but we first ask one important question: Can we sell this brilliant idea? And if so, how?

It's all very well to be a writer, but usually the serious writer-director must also get involved in fund-raising from the beginning, particularly when the writer is also the producer. So the writer's job often becomes threefold. First, he or she writes a proposal—a document that presents the basic idea in an attempt to persuade some funding agency (sponsor, foundation, or television station) to back the film. Second, the writer writes the script. Finally, the writer often directs the film.

A good part of this book is devoted to the problems and questions surrounding the writing of the proposal. If you have the film given to you on a silver platter and don't have to worry about raising money or defining your ideas to anyone, then you may want to skip those pages. But you may also want to drop me a note and tell me how you did it so easily, because I'll be green with envy.

Why bother to make documentaries? The question has haunted me for years. Most of the time I don't think about it. I just go ahead and make films, but occasionally, in a quiet reflective mood, I return to this basic question: Why invest so much energy in a pursuit that is not particularly well paid, that can make you old before your time, that can separate you from your family, and that more often than not may hang on the screen for a mere fifty minutes before vanishing unmourned into eternity?

Part of the answer, of course, is that documentary filmmakers are mad. If they weren't, they would use their talents making a bundle in feature films and luxuriate in fame and fortune. And part of the answer can be found in that old cowboy cliché "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." In other words, we are compulsive, are driven, somehow believe in this crazy medium, and wouldn't swap it for any other kind of work or play.

However, as beginning filmmakers or even experienced veterans, it really is worthwhile to think seriously about why you make films. In 1998, various filmmakers tried to answer that question in a book called Imagining Reality, edited by Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins. Most of the filmmakers admitted that a demon possessed them; they then went on to say what personally drove them. Most admitted to curiosity, and a need to communicate. Ricky Leacock talked about a passion for experiences, both good and bad. Albert Maysles spoke about recording events so that they could be shared. Mike Grigsby talked about giving a voice to the voiceless. Others talked about providing a space where people could be themselves and express their deepest emotions. Most defined a concern for the world around them, though they expressed this concern very gently. All talked of vision, passion, and commitment. For myself, I live in Israel, where everything is in flux, in transition, and my own driving force is to both mirror that change as well as to try and help make Israel a better place in which to live, both now and in the future. As you can see, some of the answers are shared, and others are uniquely individual. Mainly, it is important to understand that there is a basic question that you must answer, sooner or later.

In Imagining Reality, many of the filmmakers interviewed were also asked about their favorite techniques. Many swore by cinema verite. Others talked of assimilating traditions from the past, from Humphrey Jennings and from Chris Marker, or noting the experimental traditions of South America. Often there was a scorn for heavily narrated films. Reflecting on form and style, Michael Jackson, a British producer, wrote: "The world is becoming more open, complex, more confusing, and more fragmented, and to reflect the many new realities new documentary forms may be necessary."

My own view of technique is relatively simple and was expressed very well by Nicholas Fraser, a BBC producer who put things this way: "Documentaries must surely be regarded like non-fiction books or journalism— anything should go in the matter of technique, and the only real criterion for a good film is whether it tells the truth or not." Here, I might add a second criterion—that the film works upon the audience.

In the end, I think one should avoid dogmas and straight jackets and stop thinking there is only one way to make documentaries. You are a filmmaker, you have a goal to reach, and you have a variety of techniques —cinema verite, narration, experimentation, graphics, music, verse, etc. —that will help you. Your techniques are like the colors on an artist's palette. They are the tools for the job. You simply choose the techniques most appropriate for the job in hand and go ahead. And that's all there is to it.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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