CREATING WINNING DOCUMENTARY FILMS
By Joseph & Sandra Consentino & Elizabeth English
First, select an interesting subject for your documentary film! A subject that is of interest to a wide-ranging audience, and will be the kind of project many different types of film festivals will select for screening. A unique story, well-told is what gets selected and wins.
Write or have a screenwriter write a script for your film! Yes, documentary films need a script, a blueprint, a plan, an outline to follow during all phases of the production, from location scouting, interviews (if any), the shoot, the edit and adding the music background.
Avoid “talking heads”! Film is a visual medium, and must always be cinematic. Use voice-overs, instead. Dialog or interviews work best with perhaps a 10 to 30-second shot of the speaker, then segue to a visual to show what the speaker or narrator is saying or describing. As they say in Hollywood, “Show; don’t tell”.
Here’s an example of a winning short documentary film screened at the first Moondance in 2000: the “Beyond Words” short doc, directed by Linda Phelan McCoy and Andre Alosine, is a cinematic and visual expression, without words, of the truth, sorrow, hope, emotions and thoughts of breast cancer patients. As I remember it, from 13 years ago: it shows a dozen women & kids arriving at a barn on a lovely Rhode Island farm. They go in, take off their shirts & bras (if wearing one), and help each other put wet white plaster over the front tops of their bodies.
No introductions, no explanations, no captions, no dialog or talking heads, other than vague soft chattering in the background. Some women have already had a mastectomy, one needs second one, all will be having one. Some women who will lose a breast cut a hole in the cast where it will be removed. They let the plaster dry, then peel it off, everyone helping each other, kids included. By now, the film audience is starting to understand. Next, they all paint or draw something on the dry body casts. They paint rainbows, birds, red hearts, write poems, & etc. on the casts, then…this is the kicker, everyone carries the painted body casts outside and hangs them on the clothesline to dry, and stand back, smiling.
The camera now sees only the red barn, blue sky, green grass, the music rises, and we see these beautiful, sad, hopeful body casts waving in the breeze. Beyond words. Touching, heartfelt, passionate and real. The film evokes much emotion. See why it won?! The director got a standing ovation for 5 minutes, and half the audience had tears streaming down their faces. People started giving her money to continue her work with this marvelous program in RI.Finding Your Subject: Telling a Story: Cinematography: Sound & music: Editing: Budgeting: Some other good examples of winning documentaries:
PEACEABLE KINGDOM: THE JOURNEY HOME: feature documentary, Directed by: Jenny Stein (US). Combining the gripping testimony of farmers breaking a long-held code of silence, and with rare footage demonstrating the rich emotional lives of farm animals, this new documentary from the award-winning filmmakers of THE WITNESS invites viewers on an epic journey of awakening conscience. The farmers’ touching personal experiences with individual animals challenge what they’ve been taught since childhood, forcing them to acknowledge that these beings have greater mental and emotional depth than they were ever led to believe. A Moondance 2009 premiere & festival winner!
FAMILY VALUES: THE MOB AND THE MOVIES, feature documentary, directed by Joseph Consentino & Sandra Consentino (US). This film asks the question: who influenced who? Did the mob influence the movies, or did the movies influence the mob? They break arms, shoot off kneecaps. They leave the gun and take the cannoli. Sometimes they whack people. Stars from “The Sopranos” and other Mafia TV shows and films describe the broader issues of Italian-American identity and Hollywood’s fascination with the Mafia way of life.
BLUE VELVET IN THE SINAI, feature documentary, 52 minutes, directed by Gulrukh Kahn (UK).This lovely film is set in the exotic Sinai desert, Egypt. It focuses on the remarkable relationship between a wild female dolphin in the Red Sea, named Olin, and a hearing- and speech-impaired Bedouin fisherman. Olin gives birth to a male calf, who develops a remarkable bond with a Bedouin child, and the family of dolphins bring healing and prosperity to the village. Each part of this story relates to larger issues such as captivity, oceanic pollution and over-fishing. Ric O’Barry (Oscar-winner for THE COVE) relates stories and evidence relating to captivity and solutions for it, as well as dolphin healing with sonar and giving birth amongst dolphins.
ONE DEGREE MATTERS, feature documentary, directed by Eskil Hardt (Denmark). Now, even one degree matters! Travel to the Arctic to witness climate change at first hand, in this visually stunning travelog. An insider’s view on immediate and realistic solutions for tackling climate change. “It could be called An Inconvenient Truth, Part 2” – The New York Times film review
MISSION OF MERMAIDS, short documentary, directed by Susan Cohn Rockefeller, 15 minutes, (USA). Mission of Mermaids is about the current state of the ocean. Ms. Rockefeller takes a radically personal approach in the film, based on her deep love and concern for the seas. She invokes a mythical and spiritual connection, using the metaphor of the mermaid, as well as describing dire facts: ocean acidification, over-fishing, and pollution. This personal approach offers a powerful way to open a dialogue about changing the human relationship to the sea, knitting our past reverence for the natural world with our understanding of the urgent need to change course.
UNDER OUR SKIN, feature documentary film,directed by: Andy Abrahams Wilson (USA). It’s bigger than AIDS, West Nile Virus, and Avian Flu, combined, yet most physicians don’t recognize it or are afraid to report it. Insurance companies pay experts to say it’s all in your head. And the mainstream medical establishment won’t want you to see this film. Each year tens of thousands go undiagnosed or mis-diagnosed with such conditions as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and even autism, MS and Alzheimer’s. The shocking story of Lyme disease, what may be the fastest-growing infectious disease in the nation, and a hidden epidemic destroying untold numbers of lives.
- The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: A Guerilla Guide, by Genevieve Joliffe & Andrew Zinnes (www.amazon.com)
- Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films, by Sheila Curran Bernard (www.amazon.com)
- Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform The World, by Jon Fitzgerald (www.mwp.com)
- From Word to Image: Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process, by Marcie Begleiter (www.mwp.com)
- When The Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, by Ralph Rosenblum & Robert Karen (www.amazon.com)
ELIZABETH ENGLISH, founder, executive director & artistic director: Moondance International Film Festival, award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright, editor, producer