The bad news is there is no money or glamour in documentary filmmaking. The good news is, as a result, most of the people who make these films do it because they love them. Documentary filmmakers are passionate people, and I’ve found that their eagerness to share that passion makes them incredibly generous with their time and wisdom.
I feel like – rather than having had a single mentor – I have been ‘raised by a village,’ and here are a few of the lessons I’ve been taught:
Albert Maysles advised me to keep pointing the camera at my subjects at all times, even when I wasn’t actually shooting. He explained that if you relax during the boring parts and only raise the camera when things get interesting, the subjects will notice, and it’ll ruin the moment. But if you are always pointing the camera at them, eventually they’ll get tired and stop paying attention to you.
Mary Manhardt, Rachel Kittner, and a couple of other editors taught me two phrases that are written on a note card above my editing system. The first is ‘I didn’t know that’ and the second is ‘What happens next?’ Your goal as an editor, they said, is to make your audience repeat these two phrases to themselves over and over throughout the film. If you can repeatedly defy their expectations – zig when they think you are going to zag – and if you continue to build toward something, an audience will stick around and watch your film. If 10 minutes go by without prompting one of those phrases, you are going to lose them.
Cara Mertes of ‘POV’ taught me another storytelling trick: lots of films have a great first half and a strong ending, but they sag in that third quarter. She told me to think of my film as a circus tent that needs a second pole to hold it up – a plot twist, or a secondary theme that complicates or even calls into question what has come before.
Finally, Liz Garbus encouraged me to thicken my skin when the going gets tough. Being a documentary filmmaker requires an almost contradictory combination of sensitivity and toughness. (Or, to quote my favorite band, The National, ‘Be brave and be kind.’) It’s hard work; do it the best you can and move on.