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Hot Docs: Advice from the Masters on Finding Your Documentary Voice

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire April 30, 2014 at 4:45PM

How do filmmakers express and evolve their creative vision in a film or through a body of work? At Hot Docs 2014, Margaret Brown, Barbara Kopple and John Zaritsky explore what it takes to create a distinct cinematic voice that speaks through the work itself.
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"Harlan County, USA"
Criterion Collection "Harlan County, USA"

How do filmmakers express their creative vision in a film or throughout their career? Today on a panel at Hot Docs, documentarians Margaret Brown, Barbara Kopple and John Zaritsky discussed what it takes to create a distinct cinematic voice and, ultimately, build an identity and a reputation through a body of works.

"As documentarians, we're trying to elevate the voice of our subjects, but also to express ourselves," said Sean Flynn, the director of Points North Documentary Forum at the Camden International Film Festival, who moderated the panel.

While Academy-Award winning documentary director John Zaritsky said he was driven to make documentaries out of anger and joked about his nickname, "Dr. Death" because his films inevitably deal with death, fellow Academy-Award winning documentary director Barbara Kopple said she was motivated by love.

Read More: 9 Tips on How to Make Your First Documentary

"I do films because it's love and I believe in people so much. Sometimes people are stereotyped or put into certain boxes and for me, when I see somebody stand up - whether it's in Eastern Kentucky or anywhere - and take charge of their lives, I feel so happy. I like to do films that allow the characters to bloom and to go places they've never gone. I feel so privileged to go with them," said Kopple, whose Oscar-winning "Harlan County, U.S.A." is screening at Hot Docs tomorrow.

The three directors discussed their motivations, their stylistic techniques and their relationship to the subjects of their films.

Here are some other highlights from the talk:

On the importance of collaboration:

REVIEW | Carnival of Old Souls: Margaret Brown's "The Order of Myths"
Image courtesy of The Cinema Guild. A scene from Margaret Brown's "The Order of Myths."

"Filmmaking is not an individual sport. It's a team sport...I regard my editor as my wife. I spent as much time in the dark with my editors as my wife." -- John Zaritsky ("Just Another Missing Kid")

"I work with the best people I can find -- the best cinematographers, the best editors. You don't make films on your own. You make it with a team of incredible people really working together to make things happen." -- Barbara Kopple

On the key personality traits of a documentary director:

"I basically do whatever I have to do, whatever a particular film requires. I'm quite ruthless about that. A shrink once said 'You're a classic case of oppositional defiance disorder.' But I think many of us making documentary films have oppositional defiance disorder." -- John Zaritsky

"I have incredible patience and perseverance. I guess that's what's most important for me. If the industry says 'okay, you have to start this film in January and finish it in six months, I'm going to make what I do in those six months hopefully so good that they'll give me another six months because I feel I owe it to the character. I owe it to the film - even if I have to go out and raise money myself. The thing that's important for me is telling the best story. I don't care what it takes to tell the best story and give these people (documentary subjects) the time to have their stories unfold." -- Barbara Kopple

Read More: The Keys to a Successful Documentary Pitch at Hot Docs Forum 2014

On being a female director:

"My first couple of films were the hardest to make. People would say, 'Why does a little girl like you want to do a film like this?'" -- Barbara Kopple

On their relationship with the subjects of their films:

"I love all of my film subjects deeply. I think it's very important to love them. I totally disagree that you're supposed to stay objective. Many of my film subjects have become best friends." -- John Zaritsky

"I want you (my subjects) to feel comfortable when you're with me and know I'm going to do everything I possibly can to make sure you're heard." -- Barbara Kopple

"I don't think you can stay objective. It's impossible." -- Margaret Brown (whose latest film,"The Great Invisible" is screening at Hot Docs on Saturday, May 3).

On the thrill of being a documentary director:

"I keep thinking I'm going to do a narrative film, but documentaries are so seductive because you're going to go down this road and you don't know what's going to happen. It's awesome." -- Margaret Brown 

On stylistic choices:

"I never use narration in my films. Sometimes my voice is there, but I try not to let it be there. What's important to me is that you experience as audience what's happening in a scene. The cameras, the director, the producer, shouldn't be there -- the extraneous people seem to disappear and you're getting a look deep down into a soul of somebody who is talking about something or making a certain choice." -- Barbara Kopple

"I've changed quite a bit over the years...early on, I had narration and talking heads. I did that, more or less, that style of classical documentary filmmaking, for 30 years. Then I reached a stage where I decided I wanted to do a number of other films that were quite different stylistically so I did it my own way trying to do films like Barbara's, no narration, just observation." -- John Zaritsky

This article is related to: Hot Docs, Hot Docs , Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Barbara Kopple, Margaret Brown