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by Basil Tsiokos
June 11, 2009 4:02 AM
18 Comments
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Good Advice! 8 Documentary Dos & Don'ts From a Vet Programmer

Albert and David Maysles in production on "Salesman," 1968. Photo by Bruce Davidson.

In the past month, I finally joined Twitter (as 1basil1). One thing I began to do, as I screened documentary submissions, was write Tweets headed "Dear Documentary Filmmakers:" - a way to both gripe about (and occasionally even celebrate) things doc makers do in their films and how film programmers react to them. I meant these notes to be funny, in a curmudgeonly way, but also instructive, born out of 13 years of watching thousands of film festival submissions of all types and of all lengths. I purposely omitted any information that could be used to identify either the films or filmmakers, or even for what entity I was screening these docs for.

Editor's Note: Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival. He also screens for POV, has been a guest curator for the Jacob Burns Film Center, and regularly watches hundreds a film a year through programming or at film festivals. He was previously the Artistic Director for NewFest for 12 years.

Most people (often fellow programmers, but also many filmmakers and non-film people) responded to the notes favorably, more often on Facebook than on Twitter, but I also received some feedback indicating that I was coming off as obnoxious or uncaring about the time, money, and efforts filmmakers put into their work. This was the furthest thing from my intent. Recognizing that people were connecting in some way with these notes, and that other readers might find it illuminating to learn what film programmers are looking for when considering submissions, indieWIRE asked me to contribute this article.

So, just to be clear, the following notes (each 140 characters or less, per Twitter) are not presented with malice, and are, of course, entirely subjective. There will be exceptions to virtually everything I say. Some things will seem incredibly obvious or basic, but if I've included them below, it's because a lot of filmmakers (often new filmmakers, but it's not exclusive to them) continue to fall into these traps year after year, film after film.


- Talking Heads:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Sprinkling a dozen still photos amidst three dozen talking head shots does not make for an interesting film.

This is pretty self-explanatory - generally, programmers (and audiences) are looking for films with both visual and auditory interest. Your subjects may have interesting things to say, but never lose sight of the fact that film is also a visual medium. You could make a documentary by sitting someone down and turning a camera on, but it's not typically going to be a completely engaging one.

- Narration:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Your incessant narration is driving me to drink. Shut up already and let the images tell the story.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Having ponderous voiceover narration = bad idea. Having it delivered by inarticulate children = worse idea.

To echo the previous note - a good general rule is to show it rather than say it. Yes, narration can be and has been used effectively in many documentaries, and sometimes it's necessary to convey some information that otherwise would be difficult to impart to the audience - but it's best used sparingly. I've seen far too many films that are drowning in voiceover narration, often spelling out what is already being shown on the screen, or otherwise covering over huge holes in the filmmaking. I prefer judicious use of titles instead - they are less obtrusive. If you do use narration, though, make sure that it's a voice that your audience will want to listen to - clear and engaging vs inarticulate and sleep-inducing.

- Subtitles vs Dubbing:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Please use subtitles instead of dubbing foreign languages with fake accents and emphatic "acting." Please...

I know some audiences don't like to read subtitles, but don't let them be your target demographic. I also recognize that different cultures have different preferences for titles vs dubbing, but, in documentaries especially, dubbing is just simply distracting. Let your interview subjects tell their own stories in their own language and translate it with subtitles - this also of course allows audience members who know the original language the opportunity to hear what the subjects are saying, and it eliminates the problem of voice dubbers "performing" the dialogue. Also, you should consider subtitling inarticulate subjects for the sake of clarity even if they are speaking the same language as your subtitles.

- Technical Considerations:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Next time, hire a good sound person so that I won't have to hear background noise or dead air in every scene.

As I just said, we want to hear what your subjects are saying - so please, do yourself a favor, and, within your budget constraints, find someone who understands how to work with sound. Obviously, this goes beyond sound to other technical considerations like lighting and cinematography. Really interesting subjects can be completely undercut if the way you're filming and recording them ruins the film.

- Subject Selection:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Picking the right subjects to follow is so important. The ones in the film I'm watching are the right ones.

Documentarians find their interview subjects, and their topics, in many ways, but one stumbling block that often comes up is filmmakers spreading their topic too thin by featuring too many subjects all speaking about the same issue, leading to repetition and a lack of focus. Sometimes less is more, and one or two strong subjects will be much more effective than ten or twelve weaker voices. You need to ask yourself, "Does this subject offer something different or new that hasn't already been discussed or hasn't been said better by someone else?"

- Topic Selection:
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Two films in a row about the same exact topic? Really? sigh.
Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Next time, please try to have a point before making your film. Filming your search for one is not new or fun.

Before you ask yourself about what subjects to feature, you need to start by asking yourself, "Has anyone made a film about the same (or a similar) topic already?" If so, you need to bring something different to the topic. Each year, programmers at various festivals notice odd trends emerge - multiple films about the same topics, even incredibly esoteric ones. Sometimes they even feature the same interview subjects! Do your homework - find out if the film you're going to spend months, if not years, making isn't already being made by someone else. And if it is, and you still want to go forward, make sure yours will stand out. And yes, someone else has already made a documentary about the process of making a documentary or finding its topic. Meta-films like these are tough to pull off and make interesting - best to avoid the temptation altogether.

Finally, because the last Tweet above led to charges that I was being mean-spirited, I want to reiterate that I want these notes to help filmmakers. I love documentaries. I love that documentaries can offer new perspectives on the world. I love that, usually, even a “bad” doc can still teach me something. But wouldn’t it be preferable to make a more engaging, more watchable doc instead – and one that documentary film programmers feel that their audiences should see?

18 Comments

  • Noah | January 15, 2014 3:25 PMReply

    You dont have a C***

  • Sue | August 30, 2012 6:03 PMReply

    Some very helpful information. I intend to follow the advice you have given. Thanks

  • Eliza121 | January 29, 2012 5:24 PMReply

    "Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Next time, please try to have a point before making your film. Filming your search for one is not new or fun."

    This made me laugh. I worked on a film like this and we wasted so much time and so much footage. The directors spent a year trying to figure out their pov for the doc.

  • Spinucci | July 13, 2009 11:31 AMReply

    I don't understand the negative commments. Basil gives honest and thoughtful advice. Simply: shut up and listen to him. You might learn something. Some of the member comments are "punky" and shortsighted for sure. Read Barry Hampe's "Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos" it's arguably the best book on the subject and it confirms what Basil so courageously points out in this article. One of the most annoying trends in documentary is the producer/host; so ego driven and distracting. If you want your 15 minutes of fame or more screen time become a weatherperson or an actor or something.

  • cp16 | June 19, 2009 5:19 AMReply

    Fairly obvious points -- scary that they need to be made at all.

    However, why flip the photo of the Maysles brothers from left to right? Al's camera sat on his right shoulder, not his left. And there are better Davidson photos of the Maysles Brothers shooting Salesman.

  • basilnewfest | June 16, 2009 10:12 AMReply

    Re: comments.comments:
    1) I'm not defending my article, nor do I feel like I need to. It stands as is. Again, if you don't find it useful or instructive, that's up to you.
    2) Fine, make all the presumptions you want about me and my feelings towards my job, but that doesn't make them true.
    3) I know it's hard to make a film, and that's specifically why I'm offering some suggestions (suggestions, not demands, not directives) on what might make a filmmaker's project better/more watchable/more programmable, in my opinion. You don't agree, don't follow the suggestions. It's that simple.

  • jbear | June 16, 2009 6:02 AMReply

    As a past doc programmer, I agree with this article wholeheartedly. Unfortunately in filmmaking there exists a certain attitude of convention breaking by those who aren't aware of the conventions to begin with. And it occurs usually at the detriment to the film and those unfortunates who have to screen it.

    The only things I would add are:

    1. Have a transformative arc. Let's see someone or something change, the more drastic, the better. There was only one Grey Gardens. Otherwise, your film risks becoming surveillance footage.

    2. Musical bands typically make for some of the most unviewable docs. Yet they are incredibly popular. Three hours of raw footage of a garage band that plays the local bars in Lincoln, Nebraska isn't something that a large number of people will share your vision of. No offense to Lincoln.

    3. Making fun of someone's eccentricities never quite translates well to the big screen. If you can celebrate what makes them unique and different, all the while cataloging their passions and transformative arc, that makes for great doc filmmaking. Otherwise, your film will seem as if you are exploiting the mentally ill person, which is something that becomes mean spirited and won't convey any message that you may have had.

  • pegu | June 16, 2009 4:16 AMReply

    comments.comments: "I mean, I'm not gonna be ignored!" [rabbit is placed in boiling water]

    it makes no sense that you say "see how hard it is", when the author is in fact trying to help filmmakers create better work. of course it's hard, that's why there's a community of people trying to support each other.

    dude. chill. out.

  • comments.comments | June 16, 2009 3:57 AMReply

    making presumptions about you and your feelings towards your job are mine to make all i please. that's why al gore gave us the internet. i'm telling you these bits come across with exasperation, whether you know it or not. what's more, this isn't a democracy - i don't give a rat's butt about the "overwhelming majority" of anything. quit defending your piece, pull yourself away from your computer and go make a movie for once - see how hard it is. getting a thanks on cinemania isn't cutting it with the overwhelming majority here.

  • garymey | June 15, 2009 8:10 AMReply

    As a long time film programmer for many art houses and in more recent years, film festivals, I want to thank Basil and urge filmmakers to play close attention to his advice. And don't try to rationalize that your film is the exception. If it falls into these traps it doesn't matter how compelling your subject matter is if the audience is turned off to the experience of seeing the movie.

    I might add a couple more thoughts:

    1. Don't include stock footage that has been seen in many other films and/or TV shows. We want to learn something new.

    2. The filmmaker or other person connected with the movie needs to have a reason to be on screen. If I see another shot of the filmmaker wandering aimlessly through some city or location with no purpose, I am likely to stop watching the film. Unless the film has a compelling reason to be about you, don't waste our time and your film stock (maybe digital is a bad thing after all because it is too easy to shoot and shoot) following yourself. The same goes for other people we don;t know or care about.

    I just watched two docs about filmmakers. One was excellent but had an unnamed young woman looking lost several times throughout. I hope she wandered into the film by accident and can be left on the cutting room floor.. The other movie was much less successful for a number of reasons but even if it had been good the constant return to the wandering filmmaker drove me crazy.

  • basilnewfest | June 15, 2009 4:19 AMReply

    Gary - Thanks for your comments. Great additions - I agree completely.

  • basilnewfest | June 15, 2009 4:11 AMReply

    re: composite1
    I don't agree at all that programmers program based on a flavor of the month kind of sentiment - not in my case and not in the case of the many programmers I count as friends and colleagues. Of course, certain films may have more topicality than others, but it would be an incredibly boring film festival line up that only shows films on the same "timely" topics. There are a number of reasons why films don't make it into festival line-ups, even if an individual programmer might consider it well-made or compelling: other selection committee members may not like it, there might be a film that is considered better made or more compelling, there might be no room for it, etc etc.

    As for advice to filmmakers about dealing with a programmer's subjectivity, I really don't think they can. It's the nature of the beast - we all are subjective. What I like may not appeal to another programmer, and vice versa. And, as more eloquently stated by filmmaker AJ Schnack on his blog in a response to this article, filmmakers shouldn't be making their films just to appeal to programmers anyway. While I do hope that filmmakers read this article and take something away from it, ultimately, if they decide that it's in the best interest of their film to use narration or dubbing, etc, then that's their decision to make, and they might be right in their individual film's case. And I might even agree. I also might not.
    -Basil Tsiokos

  • pegu | June 15, 2009 4:08 AMReply

    basil, i found your words helpful, if not to me in particular, to the general audience. if some people find it "obvious", it's certainly not the majority as there are many docs made poorly (subjectively speaking) but presumably with a good heart. i don't know the reasoning behind comments.comments but seems like it's more of a lack thereof.

  • basilnewfest | June 15, 2009 3:58 AMReply

    re: comments.comments:
    Please don't presume you have any idea that I am "sick of my job." I never said that and never suggested it in any way. I love my job, I love documentaries, and I love watching and discovering hundreds of new films each year. I would just love more filmmakers, especially first-timers, to learn how to avoid what I see as pitfalls. These notes, as expressly stated in the article are 1) subjective and 2) meant to be instructive, and the overwhelming majority of responses I've had to the article have recognized this. If you disagree with the opinions I've included in the article, or don't find them helpful, that's fine, but don't make presumptions about me, my job, or my feelings about it.
    -Basil Tsiokos

  • comments.comments | June 15, 2009 3:24 AMReply

    re: filmhawk. what i mean to say is these are the ravings of someone sick of their job, not someone bent on helping others.

  • composite1 | June 15, 2009 2:45 AMReply

    I don't see why some got bent concerning your comments. Everything you said fell under 'Doc making 101'. However, I do wish you'd have mentioned how docmakers have to deal with programmer's 'subjectivity'. No matter how well made or compelling your doc may be, if it comes before a selection board and it's not the 'flavor of the month' they want to see (African Refugees/children, anything dealing with homosexuality, etc.) they aren't going to select it.

  • filmhawk | June 14, 2009 4:37 AMReply

    Re the convoluted post by comments.comments: I've re-read it several times and all I can say is -- HUH??? WHA???

  • comments.comments | June 14, 2009 1:58 AMReply

    nearly every one of these pieces of advice -- apart from the one about hiring a good sound person -- is useless in the instance of a good movie where the point becomes moot, and useless in the instance of an otherwise bad movie that never stood a chance, regardless of its offending bit. in other words, none of these objections made the movie bad. it was bad already.