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3 Tips for Picking Your Documentary Subject

Jourdan Aldredge

Here’s everything you need to consider when deciding the subject of your next documentary.

Top image via Shutterstock

So you’ve decided you’re a documentary filmmaker. You’ve gone to film school (or just as good, you dropped out). You’ve studied the classics, from Flaherty to Pennebaker to Moore. You’ve watched every Vice Guide, Independent Lens and 30 for 30 feature ever shot. You’ve gone out in the field and you’ve honed your chops.

Now, you’re ready to make your own path and shoot your documentary film.

Question is: who or what is your film going to be about? And better yet — why?

1. What Are Your Interests?

The best place to start is by looking at yourself. Making a documentary is a very long process that sometimes takes years to complete. From research, to filming out in the field, to editing through hard drives of footage, you’ll need to pick a subject that won’t wear thin on your interest and focus.

Here’s documentary filmmaker Kevin Lindenmuth talking more in-depth on the importance of your interests.

2. What Is Available to You?

If your first step involves looking existentially, the second step would be to look practically at what is available to you to shoot. Take a hard look at your resources and your flexibility to decide what subjects are available to you. If you live in Alaska and have a limited budget, it might be hard to follow an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea.

That being said, as long as you keep a creative mindset, practicality is subjective to your ability to solve problems and adapt.  For inspiration, here’s a terrific mini-doc shot on a Canon T3i 600D.

3. What Is the Most Visually Interesting?

The final question you should ask yourself deals with the superficial. What will the documentary look like, and why will people be interested to see it? It’s not always the case that what you’re interested in and have available to you, will be visually interesting to audiences. This is where you must look outside yourself, to friends, family or mentors to decide what makes your documentary interesting.

When going through lists of the most financially successful (Really IMDb? Jackass 3D?) and critically praised documentaries, the subjects tend to be all over the map — but all seem to be attuned to interests and issues of their time.

Perhaps one of the most definitive guides for the current climate of documentary filmmaking might be Michael Moore’s 13-point manifesto from his 2014 keynote speech at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While you are filming a scene for your documentary, are you getting mad at what you are seeing? Are you crying? Are you cracking up so much that you are afraid that the microphone is going to pick it up? If that is happening while you are filming it, then there is a very good chance that’s how the audience is going to respond too. Trust that. You are the audience, too.

Trust that. And get to shooting.

How do you pick your documentary subjects? Have any other advice on how to choose? Let us know in the comments below!