Welcome to my website, thanks for visiting. Stay a while. Let’s talk about something that allllmost kept me from being a documentary filmmaker. Almost.
I’ll admit, I’m relatively new to this whole “documentary filmmaking” thing. I went into college actively not wanting to work in non-fiction. Growing up, the only documentaries I watched were Planet Earth, March of the Penguins, and PBS specials. I wanted to do something more glamorous, like work for NBC or Universal Studios. I always thought of documentaries as boring, slow, and stale (not that any of the documentaries I just mentioned are those things!). And I’m not going to lie, I still don’t like most documentaries. I can appreciate every documentary, because they all have to do with real life - and truth is stranger than fiction. And there are some gorgeous, wildly amazing documentaries. But when it comes to a documentary being interesting or entertaining, I find many to be inefficient and/or completely self-indulgent.
That’s a sentiment that may make many angry or defensive, but as I’ve been immersed in the doc filmmaking world the past two years, my feelings haven’t changed. I think the documentary community is awesome and, by far, the coolest people in the film industry. For the most part, every doc filmmaker I meet is a genuinely curious and kind person, and the good ones are really great listeners. A true doc filmmaker is a like an artistic journalist - so cool! But the work I have seen the doc community producing as a whole tends to be very homogenous.
At least here in the United States, it seems everywhere I look, it is politically liberal people making films about politically liberal topics for politically liberal audiences.
I can’t speak to the global documentary filmmaking community, because frankly, I know very little about it and I’m an American - so I can really speak to my own experiences. But in my experiences, I’ve seen it over and over, time and time again: documentaries about important topics getting funded and then being shown to audiences who already believe in those important topics.
Want to make a film about climate change to try and convince Americans that it’s an imminent threat that they need to believe in? Cool. Find out the demographics who don’t believe in climate change, listen to them, and design a film to address their doubts and concerns. When you’re done, go back to those communities and show them what you made. A film about climate change designed for people who already believe in climate change, won’t help stop climate change.
A film about climate change designed for people who already believe in climate change, won’t help stop climate change.
Documentary is a medium that caters to specific audiences - and I think that may be changing now with accessibility via online streaming sites like Netflix, but it’s still so limited. Think of the person in your life who is, like, really into documentaries. Are they a middle-aged, white, rural farmer from Mississippi? What about a 14-year-old African American kid living in the projects of Baltimore? No, of course not. Because documentaries cater to the civilized, the educated, “the woke”.
Documentary has SO much power. It’s the ability to take real life, real people, real experiences, and get them to people who may not otherwise encounter them. For example, in my documentary, This Little Land of Mines, I am literally bringing stories straight from Lao people’s mouths, back to the United States to people who will probably never visit Laos. I worked hard to utilize tools like score composition to help the average American relate to the Lao people in my film. I’m not exclusively showing this film to Lao people who will already have an interest in the subject matter. The purpose of my film is to spark true cross-cultural communication between two nations with a dark, dark history in order to move forward to a brighter future.
So why do I see, over and over again, films getting funded and produced that have no intention of reaching audiences who don’t already agree with their thesis? I understand it’s not every documentary’s mission to change the hearts of it’s viewers, but if it is, shouldn’t you try to make the film accessible to people who may be different that the obvious audience?
I applaud the doc community of fast-trackers, producers, and funders for their efforts to fund films from diverse voices. I see so much diversity in race, gender, and nationality in this community, which leads to some truly enriching experiences and films. But something I don’t see that much? A diversity of thought.
A CASE STUDY
There are several examples over the past few years that I could pull from, but I’m going to choose one film that we discussed this very topic about in my Social Documentary class at American University: 13th. OKAY - don’t hate me, I love Ava she has shattered so many glass ceilings for women, especially women of color. She is a freaking rockstar.
The issue we discussed in 13th has less to do with the thesis of the film, and more to do with how their goal, their mission, was approached.
We watched 13th in our class and I was blown away by it. It’s fascinating thesis gave me a lot to think about. It was about identity, being black in America, mass incarceration, black lives matter, systemic racism, present-day slavery, and so much more. It featured champions of the black community’s fights for equal rights and justice. It was gorgeously made with cinematic compositions, an awesome soundtrack, excellent storyboarding, and stunning animations. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and won many other prestigious awards. There’s just one problem: it catered to an audience that already agreed with what it was arguing. It preached to the choir.
This film was made in such a style that I would never show it to a friend or relative who wasn’t a democrat, liberal, or left-leaning - but those are the EXACT people who need to understand the content in this film. Before the movie even started, I already was open to receiving what it was going to tell me. But to someone who doesn’t care or is apathetic about the themes in this film, it was inaccessible. I remember our class came to the conclusion of: who knows? Maybe Ava and her team’s mission was just to argue a thesis. Maybe they weren’t trying to change hearts or reach distant audiences. Maybe they were just trying to reach people in the African American community - or people who were already allies in this fight for justice. Regardless, it was a pretty cool documentary. I’m just afraid that it didn’t make the impact that it potentially could’ve with people who really needed to see it.
They say “Hollywood loves films about Hollywood” and part of me is afraid that this sentiment of a cyclical, echo chamber of thoughts and ideas is affecting the documentary filmmaking industry as well. Not every documentary is a social documentary with a noble mission to change the world, I get that. Sometimes, they’re just movies - designed to entertain. All I ask is that the gatekeepers, festival programmers, grant funders, program managers, etc. consider funding those projects and stories that are truly representing people who aren’t represented in documentary - and maybe support film that will even draw in new audiences.
Not every film I’m talking about has to be an issue-driven social documentary. Minding the Gap I actually think is a solid example of not preaching to the choir. I’m sure a lot of skater bros and girls (who didn’t think they were into documentary) watched this film because they were interested in the skateboarding aspect. They probably has no idea they were really in for a story of generational trauma, domestic abuse, and toxic masculinity. If you told them “hey, watch this documentary film about generational trauma”, I bet half this film’s audience would have never given it a chance. But because this film was in the context of a “tale of three urban teens who just love to skateboard” (with some serious themes mixed in)”—this film was able to reach new audiences. I literally saw it happen. Not only did this film not preach to the choir, it didn’t preach at all. It softly whispered that audiences think about some topics that they may have never explored before.
It’s time to stop preaching to the choir. We need to walk outside the church, get in our cars, drive to the other side of town and start listening.
If you’re reading this, you probably love film. You probably understand the massive power this medium has to change the world. As I keep up with all the latest documentary news—newsletters, film festival slates, award nominations, projects chosen for funding—I’m getting tired of seeing such a lack of diversity in thought. We tend to categorize our society—smacking labels on ourselves and others, isolating ourselves from our neighbors. But documentaries are powerful—they are a piece of art that can bridge even the deepest of divides. And in such a divisive, polarized time in our nation, a little bridging goes a long way. It’s time to stop preaching to the choir. We need to walk outside the church, get in our cars, drive to the other side of town and start listening.
Until next time,