The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: A Guerilla Guide *****
Directly transpose their tried and true formula for movie-making guides to the world of non-fiction films. Packing in everything you could want to know about setting up, shooting and distributing your work, this is the last word on its subject.
Review By George Lawrence
Whether you're an utter novice or a seasoned veteran of the nonfiction film genre, this massive compendium on the nuts and bolts of documentary filmmaking offers a wealth of information and insights. What's more, it's a lively and engaging read, owing to the dozens of interviews with documentary filmmakers—including more than a few giants in the field—who provide real-world war stories and inside dope.
For the longest time, it seemed documentary filmmakers took more risks and received less notoriety than their peers in any other film genre. They put their lives, careers, and personal finances on the line to bring stories to the screen that inform, challenge, and entertain the masses, but other than a few minutes on the Oscars telecast each year, documentaries went mostly unnoticed by the unwashed masses. The Werner Herzogs and D.A. Pennebakers and Errol Morrises of the world were doing amazing work, yet reaching only a select and selective audience.
But with the mega-success at the mainstream multiplexes of recent docs like An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, and Michael Moore's works, suddenly nonfiction film looks like not only a vital calling, but perhaps also a viable one. Still, making documentaries is not something anyone should jump into without thorough preparation and planning, but where can an aspiring filmmaker turn for sage advice? Fortunately, Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew Zinnes' The Documentary Film Makers Handbook has arrived at precisely the right moment, when the genre is growing in recognition and interest in the field is growing fast.
This 560-page volume, which is really more of a bible than a handbook (it barely fits in your hand anyway, and it's damned heavy), is jam-packed with information and real-world stories that illuminate the long, hard-fought process of getting a film made. Every step is covered, from finding a topic and choosing a documentary sub-genre, to raising money, creating a budget, pitching to broadcasters, assembling a crew, interviewing techniques, docu-drama versus straight documentary, film festivals and distribution, music rights, stock footage, the IMAX format, shooting overseas, and the ethics of documentary filmmaking. There's even information on what to do if you're arrested while shooting in a foreign country (as happened to co-writer Jolliffe when she was directing the feature film Urban Ghost Story). No stone is apparently left unturned, and for producers, directors, writers, directors of photography, and on down the line, this is a definitive compendium that will benefit novices and experienced pros alike.
"Long gone is the notion that docs can only be stuffy and boring," Jolliffe and Zinnes proclaim in their introduction. That theme permeates the entire book, the bulk of which is composed of more than 100 interviews with filmmakers and others in all facets of documentary filmmaking. Some of the genre's heaviest hitters are here, including Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney), Michael Apted (14 Up, etc.) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.). The interviews are presented in the question-and-answer format, and are deceptively informative; many begin with a simple question such as, "What does documentary filmmaking mean to you?" and quickly segue into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, instructive anecdotes, practical how-to information, and big-picture discussions about the role of the documentary filmmaker in the media and society. Many of the hurdles faced by documentarians, who often must shoot at a moment's notice, are world's away from the bloated-budget world of their mainstream Hollywood counterparts; and some are quite similar, such as the struggle between art and commerce—or, in this case, between the filmmaker's passion for the material and the marketplace's willingness to fund certain projects but not others.
"The reality is you choose the subject that you think you can get done next," says Eugene Jarecki, director of Why We Fight. "And that's a tragic thing to say. There are other things that I was dying to do, but this was the one in an increasingly complicated world of national security and international relations, that was a natural to pitch to the world community. It's also something that I really cared about."
THE WRAP UP
It's been 30 years since movies like Hearts and Minds, the unflinching examination of the Vietnam War, raised expectations about what documentaries can accomplish. A book like The Documentary Film Makers Handbook is long overdue, and an essential tool to help new and future generations of filmmakers continue to raise expectations and challenge audiences to reconsider the world around them.