05 February 2010

15 Rules for Truth & Authenticity in Documentaries

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

A small caveat:   These “rules” apply to MY KIND of Filmmaking, not necessarily yours,  a polemic ala Michael Moore or Panama Deception, or a Nick Broomfield film.

1.) Gotta love people.  Be Curious.  

If you don't, you're probably in the wrong business. You've got to be endlessly fascinated, amused, and intrigued by people.

2.) "We're Having a Conversation Here."

Just relax, talk to me as if we're in a bar.

3.) Spend as Much Time as Possible With Them. 

Think 5:1 ratio - contact time: shooting time.  Calling, stopping by, visiting, going to social events…  Think of them as new friends.  Off-screen time = on-screen results.

4.) Know That Persona/Veneer/Defensiveness is Part of Their Story.

Used wisely, it can tell as much about a person as their deepest truth.  Defensiveness & guardedness might be the essence of their story.  Example: politicians, corporate PR people...

5.) Model the Behavior You Seek. 

If you want vulnerability, be vulnerable yourself.  Share yourself with them.  Example: "I just broke up with my girlfriend today." "I had a lot of struggles as a teen: drugs, sex, no sense of self, fights with parents..." 

6.) But...

Don't be afraid to challenge them.  Play devil's advocate.  Probe.
 7.) Listen Compassionately.

What is their POV?  Your job is to understand each person’s motivation as fully as possible. Be a “Compassionate Witness.”  Hold a space for people to unfold.  Don’t jump in and fix it!  Be comfortable with silence and feelings!  Listening deeply is an act of honoring.  (Buddhist meditation is a HUGE gift for practicing this.)
8.) Silence is Golden!

Let silence fall often after someone finishes speaking…  they’ll fill in with even more, and be even more revealing.

9.) Relationship & Trust Will Grow Over Time.

Longetivity = More authenticity and trust.  

10.) Ask "What," "How," and "Why" Questions.

 NOT questions that can be answered “yes-no.”

11.) Converse with People.  Don't Just Ask Questions.

Respond meaningfully to what they say.  Make it a Discussion, as if together you’re mutually exploring ideas.

12.) Know that Whatever You Shoot, It Will Take Time to Sort Out What is "True" & What is Not.   

 Returning again and again to subjects often over the same issues, you’ll get different answers.  Trust your gut.  And know that truth is often complex and often contradictory. 

 13.) Once You Have Permission, START SHOOTING RIGHT AWAY.

Get them used to the camera.  Tell them it'll take time. Not to worry.

14.) Play With Them!

(With long-term verite subjects, NOT interview subjects!)  Gently bump up against them, stick it in their face, make funny noises.  Make them laugh and feel comfortable.  Plant the idea: Shooting is Fun!

15.) "Forget the Camera." "Pretend It's Not There." NONSENSE.   

It’s there.  It’s realitySeek the alchemy: The camera = ME.  It’s not cold and impersonal; it’s the reminder that I’m there, and because I’m there, it’s SAFE! 

Your Ultimate Job:  Tell the deepest truths you know... 

...whatever they look like.  

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


Maria said...

Wow - great rules not just for documentary filmmaking - but for life. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I like Rule No. 15 best. I mean they're all pretty cool & spot-on, but Rule 15 rules. People always try to ignore the camera and so it becomes the pink elephant in the room and the more they ignore it the bigger it grows and so yeah, absolutely. Camera = you. Personally, I always try to picture the camera as a bar of chocolate so all I basically do in front of it is salivate and try not to eat it. Thanks for a great post.

Jessica said...

I agree with Maria that these are good rules for life... and for shooting fiction films as well. You have to treat your actors compassionately, play with them, and model the behavior that you seek.

Overall, good advice.

And per Karen - I'm definitely going to tell all my actors/subjects that the camera is a bar of chocolate - let the salivation begin!

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