New to Film? Do a Documentary.


pic3 the thirteenth
Ava Duvernay and her crew on the set of The Thirteenth


Cinema Bandit is devoted to supplying young and new filmmakers with resources, articles, and interviews to help artists develop themselves creatively and professionally.

If you’re a new filmmaker diving into making your first film can be daunting.  People hear you are interested in film and immediately attach that to “Hollywood” and “movie stars” which are far and distant things when maybe you haven’t studied film production or aren’t exactly sure what aspects of filmmaking you are interested in.

If you haven’t gone to film school you might even be thinking, “How can I do this on my own?”, when you don’t have a huge network of people to make up a crew but you still want to make something.  When it comes down to it, filmmaking is a lot more than “Hollywood” and what most people traditionally think of as movies or narrative fiction meant solely for entertainment, but you probably know that already.  But why make a documentary rather than a narrative short or feature film?

For someone at this stage, working on a documentary is a great place to start and, in my opinion, is something that all filmmakers should experiment with at some point. Even if you aspire to make fiction films, documentary can help you understand filmmaking as a whole.

pic1 horse

Looking back at film history, documentaries were really the first films ever made.  After all, the development of the moving image began as a scientific pursuit and was meant to record and document real life for scientific inquiry. Whether it is Edwaerd Muybridge taking serial photographs to better understand the way a horse runs, or the Lumière Brothers recording workers leaving a factory, the earliest examples of the moving image are non-fiction! So the tradition of documentary is a great one that is, at its heart, reliant on the moving image as its medium and that is really special.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty; there are a lot of practical reasons that make docs a great starting point for young filmmakers.  A big reason is that beginner docs can be made on a small scale and don’t necessarily require a huge budget, and in some cases might require none at all. If you own DSLR or have access to a DSLR camera and a laptop with simple editing software you can make a great doc! You could even take one step further a get yourself a lavalier mic (a wireless mic that attaches to your collar) for interviews and a scanner for archival photos and documents. This kind of equipment is easy enough to handle solo, so you can dip your toe in all of these areas making one film!

pic2 doc

And besides working with a small crew or no crew at all is often helpful in making docs since subjects are often not used to being on camera and might be more comfortable being with one or two people rather than observed by a large crew.  You don’t have to hire actors, or costume and production designers; obviously this depends on what kind of film you are setting out to make, but great docs can be made without any of these things!

Maybe you’re still learning and don’t have enough confidence in your own screenwriting abilities yet, yet with a doc, the pressure isn’t on you to come up with an amazing story from scratch.   The real challenge is to be able to recognize a great story and bring it to life.  If you think about it, you might be living amidst a person or place right now that is unique and interesting in its specificity or maybe you know someone or something ordinary that is representative of a larger story.

Documentary is all about framing and how you want to tell a story; something may not appear to be inherently interesting but through the power of storytelling, you can bring these aspects to light.  In this sense, documentary is a great exercise in writing.  Although you may not be writing out a script formally, you are shaping a narrative that in some form already exists and it is up to you to bring together these parts into a whole.

Documentary is a great way to make a film about something you care about greatly or have an interest in.  Whether this is a historical or social justice issue or a hobby or something in nature a great story can be found ANYWHERE.


pic4 my scientology movie
Louis Theroux on the set of his film My Scientology Movie


A lot of people think about documentary as a form that is investigative and created to expose something; though that is a common kind of doc its definitely not the only kind of doc.  Documentaries are also super easy to learn about since they are really present everywhere in some form: you can see long and short form docs on television, old and new docs are available on streaming services, often those little videos you see on Facebook are essentially documentaries. Consuming all these different forms of non-fiction filmmaking will help you understand the countless different ways filmmakers can piece together stories.

Whether you’re making a doc because you have a particular story you want to tell or just experiment with shaping a story documentary will help you learn about your strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker and may even reveal a new interest.  Plus, adding a doc to your reel can add some variety and highlight your abilities as a director.

Since docs are such a continue to be such a prevailing form, so many media outlets look for people who can contribute to projects that revolve around non-fiction.  Or you can consider submitting to documentary film festival! Tons of these exist and can help you meet other filmmakers who have an interest in non-fiction and grow your network, or at least allow you exhibit your work and have your story heard.

Marissa Caico is a recent grad in Film Studies (CUNY Queens College, 2018) and is interested in all aspects of the craft. She loves food, art, and traveling. Some of her favorite movies include Napoleon DynamiteThe Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Stranger Than Paradise, and Paris Is Burning.

Follow Marissa on Twitter and on Instagram.

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