Mistakes Made by Documentary Filmmakers

By John S, posted 10 January 2008

I just finished working on a set of a documentary about poverty and developmental politics in Latin America. This documentary led our team through villas in Buenos Aires and slums in Brazil. The amount of knowledge acquired is, beyond debate, more than I received in an equivalent amount of time in my University Classes.

However, as we started filming I noticed we had a few people on our team who could have used some more experience with documentary filmmaking. I'm going to outline one of the biggest problems I found on set and then outline ways to go about overcoming those obstacles.

Directing 'non actors' is much more difficult than it sounds

In theory people should act no different in front of a camera than they do off camera. However, this is simply not the case. We were just outside the capital city of Buenos Aires, Argentina when we were making our way to an interview we had lined up that day with a 13 year old boy who was raising and taking care of himself. His mother was a drug addict and his father was nowhere to be found. He was living in a small room with 6 other boys and they were all responsible for their own upbringings.

We were on such a tight schedule this day so we only had about 1 hour with this interview. However, as we started talking to this kid he seized up. There were 4 crew members setting up in his bedroom, lights on him, cameras and microphones in his face, and it was a bit too much for him. We realized that we needed to get him to open up. One of the producers quickly made friends with one of the child's older peers and had that person come in the room and ask questions to get dialogue flowing. We also got rid of our lighting technician and just used natural light. We needed to think quickly but soon we got the room down to 3 people sitting around having an open and informal interview. This is exactly what we needed.

As a documentary filmmaker you'll need to be able to quickly review your situation and make changes without making anyone fell uncomfortable. You have to turn the 'interview' into a 'conversation'. And you need to do this quickly.

Before turning on the camera, sit down and talk with the person being interviewed. Get them engaging in a conversation and not just answering questions. Tell jokes and let them know there is no pressure on them. Walk them through a few sample questions to get them thinking.

Remember, you're not working with actors. You're working with real people who are likely not comfortable in front of a camera and will act differently when placed in front of one. As a documentary filmmaker your job is to make the camera 'disappear'. The less the person being interviewed thinks about the camera, the better.

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