Nearly 12 years ago, I haphazardly embarked on documentary filmmaking. At the time, my father, a Vietnam War combat veteran, was interested in sharing his stories before he was too old. It was the first time I had the opportunity to sit with my Dad and hear about his experience going into war. Despite being a personal film, the movie was nominated for an Emmy ® Award and aired on broadcast television for nearly a decade. What made the movie so popular was not its production value or editing but my Dad’s down-to-earth storytelling. In fact, my Dad was a great storyteller, and his humor and pain seemed to resonate with audiences.
One of the most exciting aspects of documentary filmmaking is knowing what story to follow. When you start a documentary project, you often have a general idea of where the film will take you. However, a new story will often emerge once you start moving through the material. A good documentary focuses more on the subject’s internal conflict than the circumstances or events they experienced. This is why knowing what path to follow is crucial when making your film. In today’s post, I want to share valuable insights on choosing the right subject for your documentary filmmaking project, drawing from my experiences and lessons.
Pick the Right Story to Chase
My journey into documentary filmmaking was fueled more by sentimental reasons. I wanted to capture my Dad’s stories before they were lost. As I began asking questions, it became clear focusing solely on my Dad’s war stories would be a missed opportunity. I realized it was more interesting to focus on how a war nearly 50 years ago still affects my family today.
The Essence of Internal Documentary Conflict
As I went deeper into documentary filmmaking, I realized that the essence of any good documentary lies in a person’s internal conflict. In my case, my Dad had been so traumatized by loss during those formidable years that he never allowed himself to get close to any of his family. This included his children. It became clear that the Vietnam War still raged inside my Dad’s mind, and he had built safeguards to keep him mentally stable. Those safeguards often kept his loved ones out.
In Documentary Filmmaking Research Matters
It goes without saying that documentary filmmaking requires a ton of research. To get things right, dive deep into your chosen subject, gather information, and explore every angle. Research provides the foundation for your story, helping you uncover unique perspectives and hidden narratives that make your documentary stand out.
Consider Your Audience
While your passion should guide your subject choice, it’s equally important to consider your audience. Consider who will connect with your documentary and what stories resonate with them. Balancing your passion with audience appeal can lead to a more prosperous and impactful film.
Through my research, I discovered hundreds of veteran groups had a void of content. Mostly, what was missing was perspective. Sure, there were tons of films discussing the war, but nothing ever focused on the families of veterans. This led me to design my story to reflect the broader struggle of veterans and how war affects families years after the event.
Resources and Accessibility for your Filmmaking
Assess the accessibility of your chosen subject and the resources required for your documentary. Can you access key locations, interview subjects, and source necessary materials? Evaluate your budget, equipment needs, and crew requirements. A subject that aligns with your available resources will streamline the filmmaking process.
In conclusion, choosing the right subject for your documentary is a journey of self-discovery and storytelling mastery. It’s about capturing the internal conflicts of individuals and their paths toward resolution through failures. Embrace your passion, conduct thorough research, consider your audience, assess resources, and remember the power of personalized storytelling.
As I reflect on my Dad’s doc, I’m reminded that the heart of documentary filmmaking is not just about the subjects we choose but the stories that make them human. After the release of my dad’s movie, I was contacted by multiple veterans groups. I later attended a reunion where my dad was re-connected with his fellow service members. In the end, let your human instincts drive your narrative. And always remember that in documentary filmmaking, the most significant conflict is being human.
Contact us here for more information on Kelly Schwarze and Indie Film Factory.