Independent Film Week is currently underway in New York City, and the “Filmmaking in Conflict” panel discussion held Thursday incited an engaging conversation about the trials of documentary filmmaking in the modern age. From conflicts with subjects to dealing with lawsuits, the discussion’s panelists provided insight into the process of getting a documentary made and navigating the roadblocks along the way. The talk was led by Heather Croall, the festival director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, and the three panelists were Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost”), Doug Block (“The Kids Grow Up”) and Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”).
In an attempt to make the most of the 60-minute time frame, Croall broke down the conflicts into seven categories: Subject, Team, Government, Corporations, Family, Other Filmmakers and Funders. Of course, any filmmaker could attest to the fact that there are countless complexities and unforeseen conflicts involved in the process of making a film, and that there are no simple solutions. Block aptly pointed out that he and each of his co-panelists would be better fit to describe their filmmaking conflicts if each was allotted a five-hour window. By the end of the hour, and after dozens of conflicts had been dissected, one audience member posed the question: “How do you keep going?”
Block, Klayman and Berlinger proved that documentary filmmaking is full of serious occupational hazards. As Berlinger said, with corporate ownership of broadcast companies polluting mainstream media, independent documentarians are perhaps the final bastion of contemporary, objective reporting. And in the end, being a filmmaker is ultimately about telling a story.
Despite the discussion’s brevity, the panelists managed to produce a plethora of tips for aspiring documentary filmmakers. Below are the top 7:
1. Patience and persistence are invaluable. If there is footage crucial to portraying your artistic vision, hold out. In Klayman’s case, it took her a year and a half of persuasion and patience to capture the most important scenes in her documentary “Ai Weiwei.”
2. Maintain your subjects’ trust. Don’t present a false agenda to a subject in order to elicit an interview, and be careful about the bonds you forge.
3. Have a written and formalized agreement with subjects. Should the film generate profits that need dividing up, or a participant needs to back out of the project for personal reasons, a written agreement will help prevent further conflicts.
4. Expect government interference when dealing with a controversial subject, and be prepared for it. Think things through — know when to hold back, don’t put your subjects in danger and be careful what you put into writing. Klayman shared an ingenious tip for dealing with the risk of having your footage confiscated by police: constantly change the tapes you use for filming.
5. Even when dealing with subjects that are friends or relatives, be as objective as possible. As a filmmaker, taking sides and only showing subjects in a positive light will be a detriment to your vision and the quality of the final product.
6. At the same time, don’t put the film before your family. Navigate the tensions between your role as filmmaker and your personal roles, and deal with the conflicts as they arise.
7. Don’t monopolize someone’s tragedy. If another filmmaker is documenting the same story, cooperate with each other in order to avoid conflicts that might prevent your access to information or subjects.