What I’m Looking For In A Documentary

If you love movies, there is a podcast I’d point you to. It’s the TRN Podcast by J.B. Waggoner and Eddie Ferguson. I met JB back in January when we brought Ragamuffin to Topeka. He worked on that film and we hit it off immediately. Just a great guy with great eye for filmmaking. He has a blog and a podcast so you need to go follow him. It will be fun. I promise. And his mom will thank you.

All of that to say that JB and I got into a conversation about what the limits of documentaries are. Are they “truth” tellers or entertainers?

JB says:

In a documentary, what is manipulation and what is just choosing to tell a given perspective? Movies don’t act like scientific research, at the end of the day you have to decide what the story will be about and you can’t play equally to both sides.

He’s absolutely right – every story is told from some kind of perspective – literally and figuratively. There is never a truly “objective” story-teller. It’s interesting that both politics and religion walk this line as well – what is manipulation and what is “research/truth?”

Aside – The Art of Killing comes pretty close to getting this tension right. You definitely need to add this film to your Netflix queue.

What I look for in a documentary are three things:

Tell me the story.
Be creative, fun, insightful but at the end of the day you have to let the truth/facts drive the story AND you have to be able to put that story inside a LARGER HUMAN STORY. Show me why this story matters. Why should I care? What is going to change my story because of this story you are telling me? Give me a chance to connect the smaller story with my story.

Let me see ‘out of frame.’
Tip your hand and let me know from what perspective you are telling this story. I want to hear your voice in the story but I also want to see where your shooting from – literally and figuratively.

Be true to the absent.
Give me a fair angle on the opposite side. Don’t sell me a straw man. Give me the tension and the best from the other side as well. I don’t need you to solve the conflict/problem for me. That’s what the “real” movies do. Documentaries are supposed to create tension and put the viewer in the middle of it.

What do you look for in a documentary?


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