By its very nature, documentary filmmaking is tricky business. Directors are dependent on their subjects, they can’t control those subjects, chances are they aren’t being paid a living wage to follow around said subjects and, at the end of shooting, they have tens (sometimes hundreds) hours of footage and no script to guide them in editing a cohesive narrative about their subjects.
Yet, some of the most exciting and cinematic storytelling at this year’s Sundance is coming from the nonficiton categories, so we asked the documentarians in Park City how they overcame the biggest challenges they faced in making these remarkable films.
READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘Cameraperson’ is a Transcendent Documentary Experience
“My subject, a 13-year-old nomad girl, lives in the Altai Mountains of North West Mongolia, which is the most remote corner of the least populated country on Earth. At most my team numbered five people, but we still wanted to give the documentary a big, cinematic feel and that meant carting up to 700 kilos of gear across this vast expanse in small twin propeller planes and old Russian vans. We visited Aisholpan and her family six times, but it was on the last trip that distance really took a toll. We travelled further into the mountains than ever before. I had a freshly broken arm that was full of pins. There were no roads, so the jarring pain was pretty excruciating. When were finally arrived on the frozen steppe to film our final Act the temperature had dropped to minus fifty degrees. All the equipment promptly gave up the ghost. You couldn’t touch a metal tripod for fear it would freeze to you. We could only manage to film for a couple of hours a day. The whole shoot took four times longer than we planned. That said, I think the end result was worth it.” -Otto Bell, “The Eagle Huntress”
“It was surprisingly difficult to let go of my own preconceived notions of what it is like to be a person with autism. I saw autism strictly as a limiting condition, but found out that every person with autism has something unique to contribute to society. We are losing out if we leave them behind. Owen Suskind, the subject of our film, has taught me so much about life. Once I got past what I perceived as his disability I was able to see that this film is a classic coming of age story with valuable life lessons for everyone. It’s not a story about the struggle of autism, it’s a story about the journey we all take at one time or another in our lives in order to find our place in the world.” -Roger Ross Williams, “Life, Animated”
“We shot the film on a fiction-like, three week schedule, but it wouldn’t have succeeded unless we made the kinds of ‘documentary discoveries’ that bring nonfiction films to life. So we had the dual production issue of creating good scenes on a tight schedule, on location, while also doing the good journalistic work that would allow us to ‘find’ the film in the field. Managing these dual necessities was a challenge. I’m not experienced as a fiction director, so working with Kate as a performer didn’t come naturally. Meanwhile, we purposely gave ourselves limited time to do the necessary documentary work, so we had to be flexible and get innovative… and lucky.” -Robert Greene, “Kate Plays Christine”
“As a very untraditional documentary, doubling as a psychological horror film, it was a challenge to successfully blend these genres with the right mood and narrative drive. The film has to convey fear and terror, but also the genuine emotions the subjects are going through. It took time and a lot of editing but I think eventually we got it right.” -Rich Fox, “The Blackout Experiments”
“The biggest challenge with ‘Nuts!’ was that my entire approach to the film rested on one central gambit with an extremely high likelihood of failure. For many years, I had to continue toiling on the film with the constant nagging awareness that it just might not work. I’m happy to say now that it did, but it was a far from sure bet.” -Penny Lane, “Nuts!”
“Life stories are hard, especially when your subject is alive and is one of the biggest rock star celebrities in Japan. Yoshiki is in complete control of his creative world — from the songs he writes and produces, to every facet of his live show, his multiple side-projects and business endeavors, and of course his image. So the challenge was: how do I make a film in my voice and vision while honoring the vision of my subject? We were about 35 weeks into the edit before I showed him anything, so it was pretty nerve-wracking. I had to be able to stand behind the cut creatively and not feel compromised. The happy ending to all this is that he loved what he saw. His input and notes have been extremely constructive. I was not expecting that at all.” -Stephen Kijak, “We Are X”
“Navigating the intense sensitivities of a traumatized and socially fractured community — balancing the ethics and coming to terms with the fact that what was good for one group was not necessarily so for another. -Kim A. Snyder, “Newtown”
“Everything was a challenge. Folks who work in abortion care are understandably cautious — so access to clinics was always touch-and-go. Lawyers don’t like to talk about pending cases, so convincing them that this was a good idea was hard. Finding women who would speak on camera, even with obscured identities was difficult — and its always hard to live far away from your subjects. That said, the people who opened up did so generously and bravely.” -Dawn Porter, “Trapped”
“The boys who sexually assaulted Audrie Pott agreed to give interviews for the film. We knew their perspectives would be crucial to the story, but we were also committed to maintaining their anonymity as they were minors at the time of the assault. We took on the challenge to animate and treat their filmed images with a style that hides their identities, yet retains their body language, facial expression and overall humanity. As documentary filmmakers, we were not only faced with integrating animation into the film, but inventing a style based on real video interviews that required a great deal of handcraft to achieve the final images.” -Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, “Audrie & Daisy”
“I think the biggest challenge was finding a way to whittle down the material. [We were] handed over 1,300 hours of footage last March and it was full of heart wrenching, inspiring, hilarious, and beautiful moments. On top of that, while we were trying to structure the film before starting to piece together a rough cut, we realized that ALS is an extremely linear degenerative disease — and therefore we would be boxed in to using a fairly chronological approach to our sequencing. These two factors loomed large over the project and made chopping it down, while maintaining everyone’s story arc, a real challenge.” -Clay Tweel, “Gleason”
“There were huge challenges in the editing of the film, considering we had almost 150 hours of footage shot over four years. It was hard to get closure, to leave the beautiful stories of the individuals in the film. I could easily continue to make films with these people for the next 30 years. That said, we felt that it was the right time to end when we did.” -Sara Jordenö, “Kiki”
“Normally with a documentary that takes two years to shoot, one would say that surviving one’s self-effacing ‘fly-on-the-wallness’ can be the greatest challenge; though in this case we found it a pleasure to be absorbed into the familial fabric of Black Rock High. But our challenges were twofold. On the one hand, it was really hard to maintain belief in a project that we were initially self-financing. We hadn’t worked this way in some time, and there was no one but ourselves to give us confidence that we were making something worthwhile. While this was creatively liberating, it was also rife with anxiety.” -Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, “The Bad Kids”
“We had to track down and gather up all the material my uncle had created. This was extremely hard because the material was scattered all over the world. It became a sort of scavenger hunt where we would follow leads that were never straightforward. Fighting to get into [William S.] Burroughs’s bunker for a year, where the largest cache of Howard’s archive had been stashed, was a big hurdle. Having to fundraise every step of the way just to be able to see what was inside of the cans was difficult. And then digitizing all the different formats was no picnic. In the case of the 30-something hours of 16mm and magnetic sound rolls we got out of the bunker, we had to sync all of it manually by ourselves with no camera log and very few slates.” -Aaron Brookner, “Uncle Howard”
“Getting the footage out of China was one of the biggest challenges. Because we were constantly on the run, I couldn’t leave my hard drives anywhere. I carried all of my footage with me everywhere I went. I always was afraid that my footage would be seized and destroyed, or that it would be seen by the authorities and used against my subjects. At one point, I tried to ship a drive to the U.S., but I realized I was followed on the way to the shipping office, and I was afraid that my drive would be taken. I rushed back to the office and retrieved my drive. Luckily, I had a few friends who were traveling to the U.S. who were willing to bring the drive back in person.” -Nanfu Wang, “Hooligan Sparrow”
“Dealing with a lot of people who were absolutely terrified of talking. Being from New Zealand, I was just a strange voice suddenly getting in contact with them — hoping they would be kind enough to open up and share for this film. For many that came totally out of the blue. Trust was a huge issue. Finally gaining it was a huge reward. -David Farrier, “Tickled”
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.