Research

Good documentary storytelling, with few exceptions, depends on good research. You need to find a subject, understand your story, and be sure you're presenting a balanced and accurate point of view—at least, you do if you want to get the program to a general audience. Remember that balance and accuracy do not mean that you can't, as the filmmaker, take a particular position, or that your subjects can't take one. But if you expect the audience to take you seriously, you must allow them to weigh the evidence for themselves, which means that you need to research and present that evidence. This is true for what may seem like a surprising range of filmmaking styles. In an interview by Jason Silverman, filmmaker Alan Berliner describes working on his personal documentary, The Sweetest Sound. "I began where I always begin, with a tremendous amount of research, with a passion to understand the total landscape of whatever subject I'm entering."

Susan Froemke and assistants at Maysles Films, the noted vérité company, spent about six months researching poverty and looking for potential stories in several states, including Wisconsin, Maine, Iowa, and Missouri, before they settled on the stories and characters of Lalee's Kin, filmed in the Mississippi Delta (see Chapter 21). Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt creates unusual documentary stories from bits of old films and "found footage." In press material submitted to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Rosenblatt says that it took about eight months to do the research for Human Remains, a half-hour film about the banality of evil. In it, he presents black-and-white footage of five of the 20th century's most notorious leaders—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao—over reminiscences voiced by actors but scripted from actual quotes and/or factual biographical information. "One of the challenges," Rosenblatt notes, "was to find images of the dictators that didn't include hats or uniforms, since they had to look . .. like the guy next door."

Do all documentaries require research? No. Liane Brandon's memorable and deceptively simple film, Betty Tells Her Story, while evoking powerful themes, began when the filmmaker heard something of interest in a colleague's story and asked her to tell it on camera (see Chapter 13). Not everything has to involve experts and advisors and location scouting. But many films, if not most, do involve research to some degree. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions.

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