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5 Questions to Ask Before Making a Documentary

5 Questions to Ask Before Making a Documentary

1. Why should this be a movie, and not, say, a podcast, or an article?

Several years ago we started talking about collaborating on a long form documentary together and were looking for the right project. There are lots of good stories out there, lots of important issues and lots of compelling people. But not all of these issues, stories and people will necessarily lend themselves to the screen. So when we were considering ideas, we asked ourselves: would this make a good movie? Which really means asking: What’s going to transpire in front of the camera that’s going to be worth watching? Because it’s a lot of sound and images to fill 90 minutes and if you don’t have good material for all those minutes, then maybe the story isn’t so well suited for a movie. In the case of E-TEAM, once we spent some time with Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter, who were all members of Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team, we knew we had some characters that could fill up a screen and capture your attention. So that was a start in the right direction. But it wasn’t until we filmed with them at home and in the field doing their investigative work that we were convinced that we had a movie to make.

READ MORE: Here’s Why We Need More Women and Minority Filmmakers

2. Do we really want to spend the next few years with these people?

Long form documentary is a commitment. Maybe it’s overstating it to call it a marriage, but it’s certainly a long-term relationship. So we needed to ask ourselves not only do we find these characters interesting, but will we be able to trust each other, communicate and work in a situation of mutual respect for a extended period of time? This can be a tough question. With E-TEAM, we had four characters with whom we had to make this unspoken agreement. We found them all fascinating as well as professional and that helped to make the film doable. And often, it made it fun.

3. What’s going to be different, challenging and interesting about making this movie?

You don’t want to be tackling the same set of cinema problems again and again. So let’s say your last film had a lot of talking heads and finding a way to make that interesting was a challenge. Then in your next film it can be refreshing if you have zero talking heads and you have to find other ways to get that kind of information across. For E-TEAM, we had a few brain-twisters that left us scratching our heads in the edit room. Fortunately, our editor David Teague and our associate editor Jamie Boyle were scratching their heads with us. How do we include a storyline from the conflict in Syria and intercut it with investigative work in Libya? Can we find a way to weave in the seminal work that the E-Team did in Kosovo over 20 years ago? How can we come up with a structure that will allow us space to explore these different aspects of our characters? This was all new to us and fun to try to figure out.

4. How do we know when to stop filming?

With cinema verite films like E-TEAM, we as filmmakers are following our characters as they do their work and live their life as human rights investigators. There isn’t a clear beginning, middle and end. It is our job, with the editor, to find that story in the editing room. On the other hand, you’ve got to stop shooting sometime or you’ll never finish your movie (and moreover, you’ll go broke and lose your mind, most likely.) So when do you stop? In our case, we were lucky to have a talented and disciplined producer, Marilyn Ness, who forced us to ask ourselves tough questions while we were filming and editing. Are there certain storylines that are coming to a natural end that we should film as they come to a close? Should we spend time with our characters as they complete a task and film them reflecting on that work? What’s the best way to do that and when? With a good film team, you can have these discussions while you’re still in production and certainly also while you’re editing and then you can anticipate some shoots you’ll need to make the film come together as a whole.

5. What can we do to make this movie something that people will want to see, out of a sense of curiosity or desire, not out of a sense of obligation?

From the outset, our goal was to make an entertaining movie, not a “social issue film” per se. What motivated us was the desire to make a movie with great characters and stories that viewers would find compelling. When we first met the E-Team, we knew we would be looking at some very important, with a capital “I” issues: Human Rights. War Crimes. International Justice. But in our opinion, it’s not enough for the issues to be important. You’re not going to preach beyond the choir unless the film is also compellingly watchable. Even if your subject matter is very worthy, we as filmmakers are still responsible to the age-old laws of storytelling and character. We want and need the viewer to be drawn in, to be glued to their seat because they want to see what happens next. Maybe some people will come to see the film out of obligation, and that’s okay if your film is about something important with a capital “I,” but you want them to stay because they can’t stop watching the film. It’s still a movie at the end of the day, whether it’s “Important” or not.

Opening at the IFC Center today and available through Netflix Streaming starting Friday, Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman‘s
 “E-TEAM” follows the high-stakes investigative work of four intrepid human-rights workers. The film was a recipient of the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund. This story was originally published at The Tribeca Film Institute web site.

READ MORE: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

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