Feature or Short: How to Decide

Never trust a clickbait headline like that from me. I never deliver.

Or, rather, I deliver differently and usually over more than one post.

Direct cinema — to at least some extent — is the commonality among my favorite feature documentaries. Let me watch a good story about people. Do that, and I’ll stick with you for however long.

Documentary films about issues are certainly important. I’ve made this kind of film myself. But I find that when the protagonist is the issue itself, these films can begin to drag after about 45 minutes.

Show, don’t tell.

If you can show people in human situations — e.g. overcoming adversity, achieving goals, mastering a skill, fighting the good fight — (instead of just talking about doing these things) then the length of your film doesn’t matter very much. As long as you’re otherwise doing a good job of filmmaking 😉

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Sometimes Stories Happen

The story of the story of Honeyland is interesting. The filmmakers were trying to film a documentary about the environment in North Macedonia when they discovered HatidĆŸe Muratova and her mother living alone in a small mountain village. The plot thickened when a nomadic family arrives in the village and upsets Muratova’s wild beekeeping.

Sometimes stories happen. You have to be ready. It means not being so focused on the thing you set out to do that you miss what’s really interesting or important.

Honeyland is another excellent example of direct cinema. I continue to learn its lessons.

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Blogging Then, Blogging Now

I know much abPenout then. I don’t know much about now. And I’m not sure I care. I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for me. I’ve just identified what should be the primary audience for all creative acts.

I don’t expect you to do what people used to do: visit their favorite blogs on the web regularly and engage in conversations in the comments. Nor do I expect you to subscribe via RSS. Does anyone under 60 do that anymore?

Newsletters are the thing now… until they aren’t. Remember to tag that onto the end of any statement about what’s hot in social media. So if you’re into newsletters, just fill out the form on the sidebar. Once per week you’ll get a list of what I’ve published.

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Watching and Listening and Letting it Happen

I got a video camera in the mid 90s to capture the usual home-movie shenanigans when my child was born. I was nearing the end of my decade as a freelance magazine writer and photographer. Up to that point — including when I first started making photographs in junior high school — I was largely uninterested (much to my mother’s chagrin) in documenting family life.

I rekindled my interest in photography (for my own purposes) at the dawn of the digital age. And I moved from tape to digital video as soon as the technology (and price) allowed. I recorded all kinds of things — much of it event-centered enough to qualify as proto-documentary. On a list of goals I made around that time, I wrote “learn to make documentary films.”

Seven plus years of grad school later in 2004 I got a job teaching journalism (print and internet, including photo, audio, and video) at Missouri State University in a department that included a film program. Ten years after that I began producing my first “real” documentary film — two actually. Shared Spaces was a short that I pulled from act 2 of Downtown: A New American Dream.

Rich Hillfirst on my list — struck me like a freight train. I hadn’t actually thought about how I wanted to make documentary films. The sprawling mess that is Downtown: A New American Dream demonstrates clearly what I was thinking: do journalism.

My previous post talks briefly about direct cinema. And I say that I am still on that journey. I have yet to produce my own Rich Hill. But I’m getting there step by step. You can see the progress in Witness at Tornillo and A Vietnam Peace Story.

What struck me about Rich Hill was how the filmmaker watched, listened, and let the story happen (setting aside for a moment how much a/the filmmaker’s choices in filming and editing create a/the story). No formal interviews on camera. Much of the audio is captured as life happens or in unobtrusive asides. Visual sequences are complete and telling without resorting to visual clichĂ©s. And the cinematographer does what I love best — she works closely and intimately with the subjects.

My plan is to deal with my list — and some other films — first, and then I will begin a short series of essays in which I work out my own documentary dogma.

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What Does My List of Films Mean?

The films listed in my last post generally have one thing in common:  Each is an example of direct cinema to varying degrees. The Wikipedia definition is as good as any:

Like the cinĂ©ma vĂ©rité genre, direct cinema was initially characterized by filmmakers’ desire to capture reality directly, to represent it truthfully, and to question the relationship between reality and cinema.

I was a journalist before I became an academic and teacher of print/internet journalism. Then I became a documentary filmmaker and a teacher of same. So the direct style has a natural appeal for me following from the journalistic imperative to truthfully represent reality. At some point soon I’ll begin to tackle some of the thornier questions about truth, reality, representation,  and relationships — reality to cinema, subject to cinema, subject to reality, filmmaker to cinema, subject, and reality. There’s much to unpack.

The point now is that each of these films inspires me as I walk a path along my own direct cinema journey. I have a long way yet to go. My first two films — Shared Spaces and Downtown: A New American Dream — were exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a former journalist and documentary noob using all that he already knew as a crutch. Interview heavy. Illustrative b-roll. The issue itself as protagonist. You get the idea.

I’ll deal with each of the films on the list, and others, in the coming days.

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