Many producers wonder why their projects weren’t selected for funding to help make their films. Allow us then, to give you some insight. In some cases declination of a project is because the producer didn’t satisfy a number of critical requirements needed for a documentary, such as an appropriate budget estimate, qualified personnel for the suggested project, or their project had inferior technical quality. But one requirement that is crucial of all documentaries seeking funding is the strength of the story. Let me state that again, the strength of the story.
Often we receive requests from media makers who want to make a documentary to address a particular issue. For example, so and so wants to make a film about education reform, or poverty in black America, or the injustice of the penal system, or single mothers, absentee fathers, or gun control, etc. The list of issues that affect the human plight is very, very, long. Add to that the many ways for people to inform others about an issue. Obviously the first way is to just talk about the issue amongst family, friends, or colleagues. You know those conversations:
Friend 1: Girl, you know the [Insert City’s Mayor’s administration or School Council here] decided to close that alternative high school that just opened two years ago in the depressed neighborhood in ____________.
Friend 2: What? You mean the one that finally had kids reading above grade level for the first time in like, 20 years? Now why would they do that?
Friend 1: I don’t know, but I think I’m going to start a petition to save the school. Will you be my first signature.
Friend 2: Of course I will and then let me know what else I can do.
We also learn about issues through media that present it to us in quick ingestible, noncommittal soundbytes. You know, a blog, newspaper article, or the daily, morning, or nightly newscast on whatever media platform you happen to engage with most.
These quick soundbytes take all of 3 to 5 minutes of our time and every once in awhile give us just enough information to have a basic understanding of a critical social issue. But if you are an emerging producer/director who wants to address an issue as a feature length film, then what you really need is a truly engaging story.
Huh? What was that you said Leslie? A story? What are you talking about?
This is what I’m talking about. Look at the list of documentaries below:
Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes/Byron Hurt – What’s the issue? Misogyny in Hip Hop. What’s the story? Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s exploration into why that is.
Race to Execution/Rachel Lyon – What’s the issue? The death penalty and its overuse on African American offenders. What’s the story? How the death penalty applied in two different criminal cases affected the offender, the families of both the accused and the victim, and our justice system.
More Than a Month/Shukree Hassan Tilghman – What’s the issue? Is Black History Month irrelevant. What’s the story? Filmmaker Shukree Tighman’s journey to understand the necessity of Black History month.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter/Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, and Sabrina Schmidt-Gordon – What’s the issue? The deportation of immigrant women and female genital mutilation (FGM). What’s the story? Mrs. Goundo’s quest for asylum in the US to protect her American-born 3 year old daughter from possibly undergoing FGM which is still practiced in Mrs. Goundo’s native country, Mali.
Fighting Spirit/George Amponsah – What’s the issue? Thwarting poverty. What’s the story? How three Ghanaians pulled themselves out of poverty by becoming professional boxers.
The Carrier/Maggie Betts – What’s the Issue? Fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. What’s the story? A Zimbabwean family’s journey to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS in order to protect their unborn child.
Super Size Me/Morgan Spurlock – What’s the issue? Fast food isn’t good for you. What’s the story? What happens when filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but fast food for 30 days?
Enron, The Smartest Guys in the RoomAlex Gibney – What’s the issue? Corporate greed. What’s the story? The rise and fall of Enron.
Now consider the importance of storytelling from another perspective; the audience. What do you think made them watch any of the above films? Was it the issue or the story? Perhaps the issue the film professed to address enticed them to watch it, but it was the story that kept them engaged for 60, 90, or 120 minutes.
The best documentary films are more than just the issues they are trying to address; documentary films are about storytelling. Such a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The characters/subjects are so interesting that we want to know what happens to them. Will they overcome the obstacle? “GASP!” It seems another obstacle has just been placed in our character/subjects way! What WILL they do?
Truly, the best documentary stories are those that leave us with something more than just the issue.
A few years ago I had a feedback session with a producer who made it to the final funding round, but didn’t quite get the golden egg. Why? Because she/he didn’t present a well-crafted story. Here’s my re-creation of that conversation:
Leslie: Well, the panel felt that your treatment lacked a story line. All of the key characters were there but they just didn’t know what story you were trying to tell.
Producer: I don’t understand, what do you mean there was no story? Did they look at the work sample?
Leslie: Yes, they did review the work sample, but what they watched were several “talking heads” explaining the issue. Neither the treatment nor the work sample suggested that there was a story to tell. For an hour long documentary you’ve got to have a story that will keep people entertained.
Producer: But I’m not trying to entertain anybody like a Hollywood movie, I’m trying to educate people about the issue.
Leslie: I know you’re not trying to make a Hollywood movie, but documentaries have to capture an audience’s attention for a significant amount of time, in essence they have to keep the audience “entertained” and the best way for them to do that is to tell a good story. You can still educate your audience about the issue, but you’ve gotta have a good story otherwise they won’t stay with you long enough for you to make them aware that there is an issue.
So the next time you read about a funding opportunity for documentary films and you decide that you want to apply because you think people should know about the [Insert Issue here] remember the phrase “We fund stories, not issues.”
Documentary Storytelling, Third Edition: Creative Nonfiction on Screen by Shelia Curran Bernard (Amazon)
Trailer Mechanics: How to Make Your Documentary Fundraising Demo by Fernanda Rossi (Documentary Doctor Website)
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, WATCH AS MANY DOCUMENTARY FILMS AS YOU CAN!
Here’s a small list of Black Public Media staff favorites in no particular order:
Eyes on the Prize 1 & 2 (Blackside Productions)
Fighting Spirit (George Amponsah)
NORA (Alla Kovgan, David Hinton, and Nora Chipaumire)
Four Little Girls (Spike Lee)
Jonestown (Stanley Nelson)
Flag Wars (Linda Good Bryant)
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
Senna (Asif Kapadia)
Hip Hop Revolution (Weaam Williams)
12 Disciples of Nelson Mandela (Thomas Allen Harris)
When We Were Kings (Leon Gast)
A Day Without Mines (Adisa Septuri)
Finding Christa (Camille Billops)
Black Power Mix Tape (Goran Hugo Olsson)
This post is part of a new series of monthly blog posts from BlackPublicMedia.org called “Tell Better Stories,” directly addressing themes relevant to producers working to bring more well-told stories about the African Diaspora into the main stream. Do you have an idea for an article in that vein? Some salient advice for emerging producers trying to crack that first big project? Tell us about it on Twitter (@BLKpublicMedia) or http://facebook.com/BlackPublicMedia, using the tag #TellBetterStories. Your idea or post could be featured in the series.