About the uncertainty

    FILMMAKING / Controlling the uncertainty of the character driven narrative.

    The Uncertainty
    Author: Mikael Opstrup

    «Character-driven documentary is the only art form beyond the control of the creators» – thus opens the freshly published book of Mikael Opstrup, the renowned documentary developer and consultant. With a background in producing and working as head of the European Documentary Network, Mikael has been supporting filmmakers across Europe to develop their film ideas for many years. He consults hundreds of projects each year. Along with a few others, he has been the key figure in showing emerging filmmakers the way through the industry jungle.

    Mikael Opstrup gathers his expertise in mentoring and developing films in the book entitled The Uncertainty – A book about Developing Character-driven Documentary. The book was presented at IDFA 2021, making me realize how little contemporary literature there is about documentary filmmaking. It came out alongside Niels Pagh Andersen’s Order in Chaos, focusing on editing. Both of the books are self-published, equivalent to independent filmmaking.

    «How do you create a narrative when the building blocks of the story are beyond your control? How do you identify a potential story that has not yet happened? How do you present a film that does not exist? How do you budget and finance a product loaded with these uncertainties?» – these are some of the core questions the book tries to answer in witty, clearly defined chapters elaborating on all aspects of filmmaking, from creativity to financing.

    «Character-driven documentary is the only art form beyond the control of the creators»

    Let’s take the most challenging question for filmmakers: What is the story of the film? This question often confuses us, filmmakers, or makes us talk endlessly about the actions of the main protagonist. Story – this term – seems undefined or, rather, can have multiple definitions, multiple meanings. Mikael Opstrup puts it briefly in his book in a kind of revelatory phrase: «Events happen. Stories are created. Events take place in the real world, stories take place in art. And yet, we very often mix them up».

    The value of this book very much lies in sharp quotes, which seem to answer complex questions in filmmaking.

    But mind, the particular focus of the book lies on character-driven documentaries, where a character, as the author puts it, is a person on the screen that comes with past, present, and future and where the future is represented by overcoming an obstacle, the driving force of a film. Mikael stressed out that in the definition of the character, he does not include an object or a space. Still, a lot in this book can be applied to other types of creative documentary, not just (human) character-driven.

    The book results from thoughts, talks, and discussions with filmmakers throughout the author’s professional life, and as he was putting it together, the title came the last. When asked at IDFA, where Mikael spoke about his writing – why uncertainty – he emphasized how unavoidable and even crucial uncertainty is in the journey of documentary filmmaking. He embraces uncertainty and doubt as the driving forces of creativity. «The uncertainty is an imperative for the outcome. It’s not a problem», he says. In his words, «curiosity and doubt are like monozygotic twins».

    Those who have at least once made a film know very well how bumpy a road that is, hanging on a cliff, panicking stuck in a maze, and in this process trying to appear confident to finance the film, convince funds and broadcasters that we know what we are doing. Mikael Opstrup suggests an idea to review the format of film proposals, to reconsider the way of writing and reading them. He comes up with this term – The Documentary Potential as a suggested replacement for Script, which would accentuate the filmmaker’s handwriting, rather than mainly the possible chain of events: «It is what makes your film differ from a film with the same story by another director».

    The value of this book very much lies in sharp quotes, which seem to answer complex questions in filmmaking.

    While the book encourages filmmakers’ creative freedom and the uncertainty of this creative process, it also shares some insides from the financiers and project selectors. I asked Mikael how much this part of the industry, these institutions – broadcasters, funding bodies – influence what films we make today. The answer was quite brief and obvious, that yes, they do.

    All in all, The Uncertainty, this very handy book, a kind of a tool book written as a personal essay, can be quite useful and inspiring for all filmmakers, especially those who are stepping into this industry and looking for solid ground.

    If you are interested in buying the book, you can write directly to the author at It costs 10 Euros + 11 Euros shipping.

    Salome Jashi
    Salome Jashi
    Salomé Jashi [Tbilisi, 1981] is a documentary filmmaker and producer from Georgia. Her Taming the Garden [2021] premiered at Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition and Berlinale Forum and was nominated for European Film Awards. Her previous film The Dazzling Light of Sunset [2016] has been awarded the Main Prize at Visions du Réel’s Regard Neuf Competition as well as at ZagrebDox, Jihlava IDFF, FIC Valdivia and several other festivals. Her earlier work Bakhmaro [2011] has been nominated for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. All three films were produced in collaboration with Arte's La Lucarne.Salomé Jashi holds an MA in documentary filmmaking from Royal Holloway, University of London [2006] as well as an MA in journalism from Georgian Institute of Public Affairs [2003]. She was a fellow of Nipkow Scholarship in 2017 and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program in 2020.

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