The magic of documentary filmmaking

CINEMA: Some of the most talented documentary directors from around the world offer perspective on their approach to filmmaking.

In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1
Author: Alex Heeney Elena Lazic Brett Pardy
Publisher: Seventh Row,

In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 by Alex Heeney, Elena Lazic and Brett Pardy is a compilation of interviews with some of the most acknowledged documentary filmmakers of our time. The documentarians talk in detail about the methods they employ to create innovative, engaging, and fascinating non-fictional works of art. Each of the discussed films is a magical world inspired by real-life events.

Switching the point of view

«I wanted to switch the point of view,» says Gianfranco Rosi, whose Fire at Sea (2016) won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. At that time, European media was overloaded with news and photos about the refugee crisis, offering a one-sided story of immigration. In his film, Rosi observes people living on Lampedusa Island and tells the story of migration from their perspective. He argues that the Italian island is a microcosmic model of Europe. The inhabitants of Lampedusa and the immigrants co-exist but mostly don’t interact with each other. «These two parallel worlds never meet and never interact, but there’s an emotional mood that creates a link between the two of them.»

Gianfranco Rosi-documentary filmmaking-MTR-post1
Fire at Sea, a film by Gianfranco Rosi

In his, We Come as Friends (2014), Hubert Sauper also criticizes a one-sided perspective. Inspired by post-colonial tradition, he searches for a more open approach while exploring the difficult history of South Sudan. Sauper uses voice-over to emphasize how the artificial borders drawn by European colonists have created wars in the African continent. He recognizes his own role as an outsider but tries to avoid the mistakes made by other Europeans.

Documentary master Joshua Oppenheimer demonstrates that one can have a different perspective of his own film. The Look of Silence (2014) counterpoints his masterpiece The Act of Killing (2012). In the first film about the Indonesian genocide (1965–1966), Oppenheimer’s chief protagonists were the murderers. The second time time around, the director explores the victims’ point of view. He follows Adi, a man whose brother was brutally killed in the Indonesian mass slaughters.

Another surprising angle is offered by documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Their engaging film Unlocking the Cage (2016) focuses on the animal rights activist Steven Wise. The lawyer is initiating the first lawsuit protecting the rights of chimpanzees. Steven claims that intelligent animals like chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins should be guaranteed more «human-like» rights. After this film, one may never be able to see a chimpanzee the same way as before. That is the magical power of documentaries – they can transform the way one looks at familiar things forever.

«These two parallel worlds never meet and never interact, but there’s an emotional mood that creates a link between the two of them.»

Gaining trust

Most of the documentarians interviewed in the book create character-driven documentaries. Some of the portraits are so intimate that a question appears: how do the filmmakers manage to get so close to their protagonists? Alanis Obomsawin, who made a close portrait of a Canadian indigenous community Our People Will Be Healed (2017), reveals that at the beginning of the filmmaking process she merely recorded the sound. Only after understanding the community, she brought in the filming crew. Similarly, Nicolas Rosi emphasizes the need to gain the characters’ trust. He approaches the people alone and works without a crew. Rosi explains that he spends most of the time getting to know his characters. It’s a sensitive moment when you take out the camera and start filming. He also underlines the significance of the camera: «It’s a very important element for me: the distance between the camera and the subject, the right angle, the right height, the right point of view, the emotional point of view of the character. It’s not a rational thing, but it’s something you have to discover every time.»

On the other hand, not all films are character-driven stories. The legendary American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is known for his fascinating portrayal of various institutions. He shows well-known places like the National Gallery in London, the New York Public Library, the Paris Opera and Berkeley University as living organisms and protagonists in their own right. Wiseman’s working method is to spend four to six weeks in every institution and shoot loads of footage. Only later, in the editing room, he understands the way the story will be constructed.

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The Look of Silence, a film by Joshua Oppenheimer

Showing the invisible

Often documentary filmmakers are unable to film all the material needed and have to get creative in the way they approach the invisible parts. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016, dir. Steve James) tells the story of a small Chinese family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown. It was the only American bank that faced criminal charges following the financial crisis of 2008–2009. The filming crew followed the family during the time of the trial but they couldn’t shoot in the courtroom. Instead, the director decided to collaborate with courtroom illustrators to capture the process.

In her documentary Nuts! (2016), director Penny Lane also needed to find an innovative method. The film tells a funny and eccentric story about a fascinating charlatan and radio magnate John R. Brinkley, who died in 1942. She uses animated re-enactments to construct the narrative. Lane admits that finding the right approach to the film could take time: «I probably spent two years on an idea that didn’t work.»

Another female director, Sophie Fiennes, experiments with performativity in her film about the Jamaican-American singer Grace Jones. In Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017), Fiennes mixes fiction and non-fiction. She created a special performance just for the film and deliberately plays with the performative nature of her protagonist.

The importance of post-production

Most documentaries don’t have detailed scripts like feature films do and are born in the editing room. Gianfranco Rosi had shot 80–90 hours of material for his nearly two-hour-long Fire at Sea. Frederick Wiseman had 170 hours of material for his three-hour National Gallery. However, the approach to editing that each filmmaker uses is quite different. Rosi tries not to overintellectualize the process and relies on his intuition. He doesn’t even watch all his footage but instead asks the assistant to categorize it. Later, the filmmaker edits by memory – he recalls what was working while he was capturing the real-life events. Frederick Wiseman has a more analytical and organized method. He carefully watches all the rushes and makes notes. Afterward, he edits separate sequences and then starts to work on the structure. Once he has finished the editing process, he reviews all the material again – just to make sure that nothing important has been left out.

An additional tool that shapes the film in post-production is sound. Rosi and Oppenheimer both experiment with sound design, which adds an additional layer to the non-fictional filmic material. In Fire at Sea, Rosi creates a parallel narrative of the film in order to underline the subconscious. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer experiments by removing ambient sounds or bringing them down. By means of the subtle sound design, both works gain something magical and dreamy.

And that’s what the real art of non-fiction filmmaking is about – seeing the magic and finding the best methods to translate the specific vision in an audiovisual creation.

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