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Story and Image Part 2
By Ron Steinman

 

If I were teaching a class in documentary filmmaking for beginners or conducting a seminar for those with experience, I would start by posing one question with two parts, or call it two questions, if you like. I would posit these questions based on the code or conventions, some would call them protocols of film. These come from shared knowledge of the form that we acquired by making our way through the maze of filmmaking. We observe and then we do. If we care, we then can transmit to each other -- meaning those of us engaged in trying to make films, whether documentary or narrative -- what we gathered on our journey.

Most films fail because they do not tell a good story. Some filmmakers do not know where to begin. Others think by the doing, the film’s essence will emerge as if divinely inspired.

Here is what I expect from any filmmaker. Tell me clearly the subject of the film you plan to make. Answer me in perhaps three lines or twenty-five words or less as they used to say on the backs of cereal boxes in the day of simple contests. Once you have clarified your aim or purpose, for the second part, tell me why you want to make your film. I can hear you scoffing about my proposal. I can hear you saying, he is wasting my time. Wait, though, because there is a link between the two parts, if you give them a chance, but they are also independent, as you should be in the world of film.
The answer to the first half of my inquiry that asks you to describe your story will tell me if you have done your homework. It is not enough to have a camera, lights and a microphone. It is not enough to have the will and desire. You had better know where you are heading that first day when you load in your film, videotape or digital disc. Homework means research into your subject. Despite what you may think, knowing the subject of your film will not provide you with enough ammunition to make the film. Describing is not the same as having a deep understanding of your story. That means research. Research means hours in the library going through newspapers and magazines, looking at history, and viewing stills, reviewing old film or any film and today, videotape. A detailed investigation means you should interview as many people as possible before you squeeze the start button on the camera and expose one frame. This discovery of facts will help you with proper casting. Picking the people you will interview and knowing something of what they will say, means your film will start to have the beginnings its character, of its personality. I want you to understand that along with the research, the choices you make for the film, and then the editing, will determine how the film will or will not resonate with the audience. Does it sound too simple? Do not be too sure. Ultimately, the film’s significance comes from the foundation created out of your research.

I know you are reading this and probably wondering why is all this necessary. It is simplistic, you say, but more documentary films fail because the story is amorphous. Many of these films are weak and have a soft center. Too often factual errors abound because the filmmaker goes on a journey inside his or her head where the personal argument overtakes good journalism, and becomes a polemic for the sake of wringing emotion from the audience. I have nothing against polemics but there is a difference between the polemic, often a perceived truth, and truth, something discovered through hard work and old-fashioned digging. Perceived truth may be more shocking, but truth, though often quieter, should last forever. The lazy need not apply.

I am concentrating on the independent documentary, the film with a mission, a purpose or message. Even the film, if one exists, which I hope it does, that provides enjoyment. As a filmmaker, if you want to change the world or even a few minds, if you want to fight injustice, you had better be on solid ground. Yes, you will attract an audience, albeit small, and often like-minded as yourself, but your work will quickly disappear and affect no one.

It strikes me that in making a polemic with a strong personal point of view, the more people you attract, the better your chance of changing the world, if that is what you are seeking. Whatever you do with a point of view piece, make sure you will not lose the audience with tricks, anger, or too much emotion.

Edge for the sake of edge often has nothing to do with changing how anyone thinks. Part of the problem is that distributors for theatrical films and programmers for television believe edge has a way of capturing the audience. Edge is easy and it usually has no lasting value. Edge is like a bad horror film. It briefly has an affect, and then it disappears down a gopher hole. Go back and screen a documentary film with edge, often forced, and not applicable to the essence of the film, and your emotions invariably will come up empty. At least mine do. As a note, I plan to write more about this in another essay.

Then there are those filmmakers who want to make money as much as they want to make their point. Some of these filmmakers have an innate understanding of which buttons to push to get their point across. If we know what they are doing and why, what they do is acceptable. Michael More comes to mind with all his films, some of which fit in the moving, emotional category, as does Morgan Spurlock, with his carefully calculated entries into theatrical and television documentaries.

I do not include the made for TV documentary such as found on cable, where there is an occasional meaningful piece, and PBS, including the strong pieces on Frontline, which abides by a formula as rigid as anything on A&E or Discovery. Those who deviate from the formula doom themselves to failure, unless they want to keep working. Some production houses make money because they turn out these hybrid documentaries as if they were sausages on a conveyor belt. They have their place as entrainment, of sorts, but they are not art. I plan to get into that part of the pseudo documentary world later.
By the way, this is a call for assistance. I am proposing a contest, if you will, that will have no prize other than your name or names in my column, and perhaps a chance at a column for yourself. I want, if possible to come up with a new description for the cable television “documentary.” I usually refer to it as a the “hybrid.” That is not good enough. Sometimes I think it is almost a form with no name, perhaps even best left without a name because a name would make what it is too significant.

These and many more subjects about the documentary film, including independent narrative films, and documentary photography, are what I plan to write about in more depth each month. If you respond, as I hope you will, I will address your questions as best as I can, as long as you do not ask me how to read a light meter.

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At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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