9 Reasons Why Documentary Filmmakers Are Heroes

Have you watched any documentaries lately? Have any of them changed your life or at least changed your perception?

Documentaries that come to mind for me include “An Inconvenient Truth”, “Food Inc” and “Why We Fight”. These films literally impacted my behavior, habits or shifted my world view. The explosion of fruits and vegetables in my kitchen in the hours and days after watching “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” is a testament to the power of documentaries!

In recent years, documentaries have skyrocketed in popularity and serve as a vital tool to both educate and inspire. If done well, they have the power to transform, move, and change the world.

Documentary filmmakers are pioneers going places that the average person would not go and doing things the average person would not do, sometimes even putting themselves in danger for us, the viewers. Here are some of the reasons these modern-day documentary filmmakers have earned the title “hero”.

Documentary Filmmakers

9 Surprising Reasons Why Documentary Filmmakers Are Heroes

1. So much time, so little glory – Making a documentary takes massive amounts of time and energy. Since most documentaries don’t make a profit, documentary filmmakers often pour their heart into a project never to reap any financial benefit.

2. Shining a light in dark places – Sometimes life can be ugly. And as long as ugliness is hidden from view, perpetrators can continue unchallenged. But if suddenly a bright light shines down on these heinous acts, the good people of this world can see it, examine it and hopefully do something to fix it. “The Cove” is a perfect example. The documentary filmmakers exposed the systematic slaughter of innocent dolphins in Japan which caused an outcry and reexamination of Japan’s fishing industry practices.

3. Dissipating hatred – Morgan Spurlock (“SuperSize Me”) became my hero with his “30 Days” TV Series on FX. He took people out of their comfort zone and put them into unfamiliar situations that conflict with their “upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession”. For example, a Christian living as a Muslim; a gun control advocate in the home of gun enthusiasts; a man opposed to illegal immigration sharing a home with Mexican immigrants. Would we have as much hatred or war in this world if we simply took the time to understand each other just a bit better?

4. Healing wounds – I would like to think that my documentary “Briars in the Cotton Patch” had a part in healing my local community after years of hatred and misunderstanding over events that took place in a small Georgia community in the 1950s. There was so much bitterness and shame from those days that I had trouble getting people to discuss the events 40 years later! More than 600 people attended the local film premiere and you could hear a pin drop in some sections during the film. It was a time in history that many did not want to discuss or remember, but it was a chance to revisit those painful memories, reflect and allow old wounds to heal. Myself included.

5. Exposing war and violence – There are many examples of documentary filmmakers (and journalists) risking their lives to expose a wrongdoing or dangerous event. For example filmmaker Shaul Schwarz faced numerous life threatening situations while documenting the Mexican drug culture for the documentary NARCO CULTURA. Pamela Yates exposed atrocities against the indigenous Mayans in Guatemala for the documentary “When The Mountains Tremble”. Tragically, documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who co-directed Academy nominated “Restrepo”, was killed in 2011 while covering the Lybian Civil War. These documentary filmmakers risk their lives to expose the horrors of war, systemic violence, corporate/government corruption, massive social upheavals and human rights injustices.

6. Protecting the innocent and giving a voice to the voiceless – This is perhaps the most noble of all the genres of documentary filmmaking: speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves; giving a voice to the most vulnerable in our society including children, the elderly, animals, the environment, the poor and disabled. The documentary “Not My Life” goes undercover to expose child trafficking and slavery. The BBC documentary ”Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed” documents shocking abuses of mentally disabled adults in a care home. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” casts a critical eye on the questionable treatment of Orcas in captivity.

7. Inspiring Innovation – By putting a spotlight on heroes such as social entrepreneurs and scientists who are dedicating their lives to improving the human condition, it serves as inspiration to us all to do more and be better. “The Stories of Change” documentary series from the Sundance Institute is one shining example. Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s “A Total Disruption” web series – soon to be documentary – is a fascinating exploration of innovators and entrepreneurs using cutting-edge technology to transform our lives.

8. Delighting us with unique characters, stories and fresh perspectives – The human experience is vast and each of us has a unique story that reveals an element of truth about life on planet earth and the universe around us. So many lovely documentaries come rushing to mind such as “I Am”, “Baraka”, “Waiting For Sugar Man”, “Waste Land” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop”.

9. Exploring solutions to big problems – Climate change, poverty, education, campaign finance laws, corrupt governments, nuclear war, health care, domestic abuse… you name it, these difficult issues need the spotlight. And these are not easy issues to tackle as a filmmaker. It takes guts and courage to jump in and try to make sense of it all and create a story that will not only engage and entertain, but also inspire action. Filmmaking, GOOD filmmaking, is hard. (The talented documentary filmmakers make it look easy).

Documentary filmmakers Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko”) and Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting For Superman”) are great examples in this area. Right now I am inspired by John Wellington Ennis and his “Pay2Play” documentary tackling the massive issue of campaign reform.

Opportunities To Help Documentary Filmmakers

Every year, 250,000+ people come to my documentary blog seeking guidance, tools and inspiration on how to make a documentary. One of the biggest challenges filmmakers face is finding funding. The fundraising process is enough to deter the most passionate and talented fimmakers from telling these important stories.

Documentary ToolsIn the old days of filmmaking, the only way documentary filmmakers could get funding was through the excruciating grant writing system, pitching their ideas to a competitive broadcasting market or hoping for angel investors. Today, we are blessed with the “crowd funding” system where filmmakers can take their ideas directly to their audience. It’s a chance for each of us to get in on the ground floor and partner with filmmakers to get these important stories told.

So do the world a favor. Right now, click over to one of the crowd funding platforms like IndieGoGo.com or KickStarter.com and browse the documentary projects. Pick one that resonates with you and make a donation. Even $1 helps!

There are too many documentary filmmakers to list them all in this article. What documentaries have changed your life? Who are YOUR documentary heroes?

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Faith Fuller is the founder and publisher of Desktop-Documentaries.com, an online resource helping filmmakers bring their dream documentary to life. Faith has been making films/videos/documentaries for 20+ years and won a regional Emmy and CINE for her PBS documentary “Briars in the Cotton Patch”. She loves inspiring filmmakers to reach their highest potential. To connect with Faith and learn the ins and outs of making a documentary, visit: www.desktop-documentaries.com

Making a Documentary

When it comes to making a documentary, many filmmakers have similar questions. And when it comes to getting answers to those questions, very few people are more qualified than Faith Fuller. She is a seasoned documentary producer and she stopped by filmmaking stuff to answer some frequent documentary questions.

Making a Documentary

Filmmaking Stuff Reader
How do you contact your Documentary subjects?

Making a Documentary

Doc Filmmaker, Faith Fuller

Faith Fuller
When and how you contact people to interview depends on the person, their interest in your project, your level of credibility and how much time you have to build up the relationship.

Are you trying to interview the President of the United States or a weaving expert? If it’s the President or a high-end celebrity, you will need to go through all kinds of “gatekeepers” and public relations people. It’s usually fairly easy to find contact information for your expert through a Google search.

Typically, the first step is to reach out to the person with a short letter/e-mail of introduction and request for the interview. Explain your project and make it as credible sounding as you can (list your partners, other people you’ve interviewed, etc). If they don’t reply, you may need to change your angle.

Try to understand who the person is and what they might respond to best. The key is that they need to feel some level of trust from you that you are worth their time. If the person is reluctant to be interviewed, this is where the relationship building must come in. Stay in touch with them. Take note of opportunities to reach out to them in a positive way. Send them a note of congratulations if you happen to see that they won an award.

Use those creative skills of yours to figure out what the person might respond to. Maybe it’s reaching out to them through Facebook or Twitter? A word of caution: never ever be a pest. Be courteous and respectful at all times. Even if they turn you down, kindly thank them for their consideration and, if appropriate, ask if they could recommend someone else you could interview.

Filmmaking Stuff Reader
How do you set up the interview?

Faith Fuller
Once your expert agrees to be interviewed, find out when and where is most convenient for them. This shoot is not about what’s convenient for you, it’s about making this process as easy and comfortable for your interviewee.

Ideally, you want to interview them in a place where they are most comfortable such as in their home or place of work. You also want the background of the interview to match the subject they are discussing. For example, if the interview is about solar power, set up in the interview with solar panels in the background.

Be respectful of the person’s time and set proper expectations. Make sure your expert understands that you will need 30-minutes to an hour to set up the shot so that they can plan their time accordingly. And even if you think the interview will only take 20-minutes, ask them to schedule an hour so that everyone can be relaxed throughout the process.

Filmmaking Stuff Reader
How do you let the subject know that you’re not paying them for their time?

Faith Fuller
In news gathering and documentary filmmaking that interview subjects are typically not paid. The idea is that as soon as someone is paid, they are saying whatever you want them to say so it muddies the waters in a journalistic endeavor.

Plus, the expert is often motivated to participate in a film in exchange for the publicity and the credibility it brings to them.

Or it may simply be an ego boost that you asked them for their opinion and they will be excited to sit down and share their information for the simple exchange that someone is listening to their opinion! With that said, some experts make their living as consultants/experts and they will expect to be paid for their time. This is where you need to do your research in advance and understand who you are dealing with before approaching them.

Filmmaking Stuff Reader
How do you get them to care about your project?

Faith Fuller
If you are Ken Burns, trust me, they will care about your project. The more credibility you can bring to your project, the better the chance you can get their attention. If you are a sixth grader making a documentary as a school project, perhaps you could get your teacher or school principle to reach out to your expert.

The key is to understand how the expert would benefit from being involved with your project and approach them from that angle.

If you want more information on how to make a documentary, you might want to check out the following tools:

1. Faith Fuller’s Documentary Proposal Template

2. Documentary Budget Template and Budgeting Guide

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Faith Fuller is the primary author of www.Desktop-Documentaries.com and the director of the award-winning documentary Briars in the Cotton Patch: The Story of Koinonia Farm which was broadcast nationally on PBS from 2005 – 2010.

What Screenwriters Can Learn From Documentary Filmmakers

Recently I taught a workshop to a group of documentary filmmakers, and I was reflecting on how much easier we screenwriters have it. The docu-makers may have a general story idea in mind, but often in the course of filming it turns out that reality doesn’t cooperate.

Sometimes one of the people they’re filming dies or decides to stop cooperating. Sometimes they’re following a process with an unknown ending–for instance, the life of a contender in the Olympics. If she wins gold , they have a great story. If she gets silver or bronze, it’s still a good story. If she comes in fourth, there’s the drama of such a near miss. But if she comes in sixth, or has to pull out because of an injury, the story line isn’t so clear.

Sometimes documentary makers end up with hundreds of hours of footage without a clear story spine. That’s when they have to dig deep and sometimes they find a story that’s much more interesting than the one they hoped to get. In the case of the Olympic athlete, for instance, it might be her relationship with her father, who is also her coach. Or it might be the aftermath–what does an athlete do when it’s clear she’s peaked?

I think what we can learn from documentary makers is to pause before we launch into the obvious story and dig deeper to see if there’s a more interesting, perhaps more subtle, one lurking underneath.

Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”