Another documentary. Another love-hate relationship begins.
What I love about documentary filmmaking is the act itself. I love discovering images, capturing sound, exploring new worlds; I love being surprised by the people and places we encounter; I love the risk of a creative idea, whether it is a single image revealed in a bold new way or an entire film crafted with a distinct, offbeat point-of-view. I love finding new ways to tell old stories; I love taking chances; I love the independence of working fast and light and close to the ground. And when it comes time to edit the film weeks or months later, I love the electric jolt that comes with trusting my instincts, the flash of the perfect transition, the sweet music of ambient sound breathing life into a series of pictures. I love seeing our characters and their stories honored. I love the feeling of accomplishment, of handmaking a work–hopefully one with some artistic value–that resonates, that invites people to share in the world we brought to them. These are the intangibles, and the reason we are making our latest documentary, Zona Intangible, set in an asentimiento humano, or human settlement, on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, with an intricate personal angle.
This is our first full-length documentary in 8 years (I work with my wife, Ann Hedreen). In that time, the number of film festivals has ballooned (75% of all festivals were created in the last ten years; according to a survey by film fest blogger Stephen Follows), distribution options have exploded (You Tube didn’t exist until 2007), Kickstarter was launched (in 2009), and there are thousands of new documentary filmmakers making thousands of new films. Joe Berlinger, director of Crude and Brothers Keeper told Indiewire, “There are too many filmmakers, too much competition, too many stories being told in order to make a living.”
It’s true. Many of those filmmakers wrestle over a dwindling supply of funding dollars, turning to crowdfunding to finance their movies, and submitting to numerous film festivals with a thin chance of getting in. In the 2015 edition of Hot Docs, less than 10% of the nearly 2500 films submitted were accepted. The pressure to network, pitch, promote and compete is enormous.
This is the part of the documentary filmmaking process I hate. And I hate it because it turns the act of creating a film into a laborious marathon of prodding, cajoling and begging that can sometimes drag on for years. Your personal vision is warped by the specific demands of festival programmers and funders (“impact” seems to be the favorite word these days; your film must demonstrate “social impact” in order to even be considered for foundation dollars; there is even a funding org called Impact Partners); your confidence is continually shaken; you recruit more and more people onto your “team” or “board of advisors,” all with their own idea of what your film should be. It’s a demoralizing, exhausting grind with paltry financial rewards at the finish line (the royalty figures for Internet streaming and VOD are notoriously mysterious).
Because I hate the process, I have mostly avoided it. All of our feature length documentaries (we’ve made four in the last 15 years) have played in film festivals and have aired on local and regional PBS stations; some you can check-out of your local library; three are distributed to universities; and some are on VOD sites (iTunes, Hulu, Amazon, and others I don’t even know exist); all have been reviewed (back when there were people paid to write film reviews); and I’m immensely proud of each of them.
But even in the last eight years, the times have changed. I realize that in order for Zona Intangible to find its way out to the world, I’ll have to work harder; I’ll have to network, pitch, promote and compete; I’ll have to prod, cajole and beg. But what I won’t do is compromise the vision Ann and I have for the film in order to satisfy the demands of funders, festivals, publicists or distributors.
We must continue to remind ourselves of this. We must remind ourselves that if the other part of making a documentary–the hate part–begins to overwhelm the love part, then it’s time to pull back, readjust our expectations and be willing to accept a smaller reward.
Here is an example of what I mean. One of our favorite documentary memories came after we finished our 2007 film, The Church on Dauphine Street, about the rebuilding of lives and communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We called WYES, the PBS affiliate in New Orleans, and offered our film to them. The storm had damaged the station and left their programming roster in disarray. They gladly accepted our movie and begin running it, over and over and over again. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reviewer said our movie “took the time to get the city right.” We felt we had done our job well. And that, as it turns out, was enough for us.
(This blog first appeared on the SeaDocs website).