Short Formats: Documentaries

I got some spare time in my hands, so i declare this as double-post night! Don’t get used to it.

It’s really hard to define what a documentary is without stepping into a paradox, but i know what it is, you possibly do too, so let’s keep moving to what really matters. However, if you can’t recall what a documentary is, i believe it will be clearer by the end of this article.

Documentaries don’t get born from your imagination, their inspirations are nitid. The best gardens to bloom their concepts are newspapers and your neighborhood. Your surroundings. What you must look after when planning to make a documentary is that you’re picking an recurrent situation that is somewhat unusual among the society patterns. Unless it contrasts with the mediocre, it’s useless. So a documentary about your grandmother is no good unless she collects leather dominatrix tools. This is what distinguishes the documentary from the fiction, because the latter relies in the “Man had an ordinary life UNTIL…“. There’s no UNTIL in the documentary, whenever you introduce your characters you’re also establishing your concept. They come in the same package.

Due to that, documentaries are way ahead the best format to make a character-driven story, since they’re mostly about people.

Peter & Ben is a 10-minutes documentary about a relationship between a guy and his pet sheep. That’s your recurrent situation. When the film crew got at the farm, Peter already had his bond with Ben set up. There’s no way to predict that.

In the other hand, documentaries are allowed to have twists, in the former documentary, the covered window of action is that Peter is leaving Ben to live by himself in a sheep farm. That’s our notorious “why now?” and this is something else that you must look after when developing your doc idea, there must be a reason why are you to be doing this movie today and not tomorrow. It needs that urgency. So, even if your grandma stockpiles whips, you need something more. Let’s say that her granddaughter is expecting a child and doesn’t want to let her cherub play with dildos before thanksgiving, then grandma decides to make a garage sale of all her toys. THAT’s a documentary.

Most of the time the documentary holds itself in the recurrent situation and the punctual event can be discreet in the narrative. The doc endures on its characters, if you have a great character, you’re one step  from a good documentary. You can watch a great documentary with its strength on the main character in Sunshine, by Doug Nichol. Over and above the displacement of the character inside the japanese culture, what really ticks there is John Benet, the american advertising producer.

Documentaries are the portraits of the outsiders.

Even when your subject is an event, like a hurricane which destroyed several houses in a city, it’s part of your duty to find the unique point-of-view to tell your story, otherwise, the spectator won’t find the empathy to your film. It’s important for the public to have this figure to identify themselves, so it’s important to narrow your narrative to a singular perspective. For example, in this destroyed town, someone rebuilds his home using plastic bottles. You won’t be telling the story of this man only, but also of the effects of this major event, which is the hurricane. Say more than what your words actually say.

For example, you have an Intel documentary about this studio and their approach to wedding photographis, Kitty & Lala, 80’s Impression, but that also exposes part of the changes in the japanese culture on marriage the past years.

If you enjoyed Peter & Ben, you should also check Last Minutes with ODEN, by Eliot Rausch. Watching Born into Coal, by Catherine Spangler is also a good option if you have some spare time.

Don’t understimate documentaries. They can still give you the chills

This is the third article of the series Short Formats. You may check the others by clicking here.

Now i’ll get some sleep. See you next time.


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