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Old September 14th, 2008, 02:31 PM   #1
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what makes a good vs bad documentary subject

I'm trying to understand the differences between a good documentary subject/story, and a bad subject/story. Does a documentary need to have moral behind it. I am thinking about doing a documentary on a Pumpkin Patch, including the preparation and planning of the corn maze, decoration, ways to market and attract customers, growing of the pumpkins, and cleanup after Halloween is over.

This concept would not so much have any moral lessons, it's more I just thought it would be interesting, and very filmable. So my question would be, would a topic like this be good or bad and why
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Old September 14th, 2008, 02:52 PM   #2
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I think you might be confusing the subjective with the objective.

For me a 'good documentary' is one that holds my attention and "Entertains" "Informs" and "Persuades" - That could be on virtually any topic.

Might be some sort of political issue. Could be a cultural or moral topic. But it also might be on some sort of sport, alternative lifestyle, travelogue or artistic endeavor.

I could easily see an 'good' documentary being made on a pumpkin patch -as well as a 'bad' one. The subject isn't as important as the approach. The 'message' of the pumpkin story, could be a number of things - This is harder than it looks, this is a labor of love that brings happiness to thousands, this is great fun for the entire family and worth spending time with, this is a terrible waste of cropland, this is a satanic effort that should be shut down immediately - you see how YOUR take on the subject can inform the final product? In the most general terms, a documentarian wants his audience to see WHY he is interested in this subject - perhaps they will share his views, perhaps not - but he wants them to SEE his/her views on this topic.

So understand for yourself, WHY you think its an interesting story worth telling - and you'll ave your 'theme'.

Again, are you entertaining, persuading, informing your audience? (Not necessarily in equal ammounts)

A 'bad' documentary has poor technical values, bad aesthetics, rambles, is confusing and cannot hold my attention. Like 'art ' - I know it when I see it. Very subjective of course.
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Old September 14th, 2008, 05:05 PM   #3
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It's a really good question but there probably isn't a definitive answer.
Here's my attempt anyway.
A good documentary is based on two things: a good subject and a good story.
They are distinct.
The subject should have some quality about it that makes the audience think about the world in a different way.
There are many ways to tell a story. Some people claim to know a formula. I like to think that there isn't one.
Having a good subject is not enough. It won't work if you can't find a story in it that you can tell in film.

For example. I once made a proposal to a major UK network to make a film based upon a very interesting book by an architect. The network agreed and put up USD 3,000 to develop it. I worked on it together with three directors in succession. In the end we all gave up. It was a great book full of interesting ideas but we couldn't see how to make a good film out of it. It was probably best left as a great book. That was a very useful lesson.

To answer your question about whether a documentary _has_ to have a moral in it. If it's a sermon, yes. If it's a story, no.

Your pumpkin patch sounds like a fine subject for a documentary.
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Old September 15th, 2008, 09:22 AM   #4
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I'm firmly of the belief that if you approach any subject with passion, patience and an open mind, you'll find that reality is more complicated than anyone imagines it is. For me, that's what makes for a compelling documentary, the feeling that I am learning something I couldn't learn in any other way.

We are so used to things being presented to us in dichotomies: black vs. white, good vs. evil, Democrat vs. Republican, Coke vs. Pepsi, that when we see things in the shades of grey that they really are, we are taken aback. Good documentaries surprise us by setting up a set of expectations based on these dichotomies, and then knocking them down by presenting the full spectrum of what's really going on.

Take your Pumpkin Patch. Think about how the local TV news might do a superficial 30-second "fluff" piece about "fun for the kids." Then ask yourself, what's missing from that portrayal? What is it about this place, and the people who work there, that makes you, as a filmmaker, want to find out more about it? Give your subjects enough space in your interviews to ramble a bit about why they are devoting their time and effort to setting up a corn maze, for example. (How DO they translate a drawing of the maze into actual paths on the ground? GPS? It always feels to me like the same kind of voodoo that helped build Stonehenge, or crop circles, or the Indian effigy mounds.) If you're patient and make your interview subjects comfortable, you may find they naturally venture into moral, philosophical or even spiritual territory without any prompting by you. You may find a "message" in the material itself, even if you didn't intend to impart one.

Lots of potential there, just don't overplan it. If you approach it with a natural sense of curiosity and a willingness to follow the story into unexpected places, your audience will too.
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Old September 15th, 2008, 11:15 AM   #5
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There are no "good" or "bad" documentary subjects.
Obviously, some are (in a way) "better" than others, because they
have a more immediate appeal, they stick out, they're "in the news", or whatever.
And you can "sell" them easier.
But what makes the difference is the storytelling.

If you ever have a chance, screen "Lettre de Sibérie" by Chris Marker
(year of production: 1957!!!). In a nutshell: Marker goes to Siberia,
the Soviets don't let him film basically anything worth filming, people don't talk -
and the guy manages to come up with one of the most interesting, entertaining
and funny documentaries I've ever seen (while, in the process, teaching us
a few lessons about storytelling we haven't learned yet...).
A must-see. And remember: Marker did it in '57!

I've shot a doc. in Albania in January 1992, in the middle of their big "regime change":
impressive footage, impressive stories, very good stuff. But it was the easiest thing I've ever done in 25 years: the reality was so overwhelming, that all you needed to do was turn the camera on and roll. Easy to shoot, easy to edit. But in a way (to the documentary filmmaker) not very challenging. A story that had to be told, yes, for sure. But that was also very easy to tell. So: nothing to really brag about.

"Smaller" stories are more challenging. That's when you discover whether you have it in you, or you don't.

Just my two cents, of course

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Old September 15th, 2008, 11:21 AM   #6
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Word of advice: a "good" documentary has characters. Develop characters as opposed to just having talking heads and shots of the pumpkin patch and your documentary gains a little more "interest factor"

For example: follow the folks planting and setting up the patch through a "typical" day tending to the patch, getting ready for the "grand unveiling"; kids lining up to go play, etc. Unless the "thing" is REALLY freaking interesting, people are almost ALWAYS easier to relate to than things. Good luck and have fun.
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Old September 15th, 2008, 02:51 PM   #7
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I think that all docs need like fiction a good conflict or problemsituation going on. that makes the dynamics in your story. what is there to tell if everything is okay and chill? guess things will get very bored soon..
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Old September 15th, 2008, 03:16 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Vasco Dones View Post
If you ever have a chance, screen "Lettre de Sibérie" by Chris Marker
Not to hijack this thread, but Vasco, do you know of a DVD or other print source for this film? I'd love to see it, but can't seem to find a version of it commercially available. Thanks in advance.
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Old September 15th, 2008, 05:23 PM   #9
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Marker's "Lettre de Sibérie"

Quote:
Originally Posted by Brian Standing View Post
Not to hijack this thread, but Vasco, do you know of a DVD or other print source for this film? I'd love to see it, but can't seem to find a version of it commercially available. Thanks in advance.
Brian,

maybe here?
LETTER FROM SIBERIA DVD 1958 rare chris marker film For Sale
(at RTSI - Swiss TV, my former boss and mentor
always had a VHS ready to be shown to rookies:
we watched it, and we immediately had the feeling that Marker
had already "discovered" or "invented" everything.
Quite depressing, in a way... But what an experience!)
Good luck!

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Old September 16th, 2008, 04:06 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Vasco Dones View Post
Brian,

maybe here?
LETTER FROM SIBERIA DVD 1958 rare chris marker film For Sale
(at RTSI - Swiss TV, my former boss and mentor
always had a VHS ready to be shown to rookies:
we watched it, and we immediately had the feeling that Marker
had already "discovered" or "invented" everything.
Quite depressing, in a way... But what an experience!)
Good luck!

Vasco
I've wanted to buy this too and as it was still for sale I went ahead.
Brian, I'm happy to pass it on to you after I have watched it and if anyone else on DV Info would like to see it I suggest that you let me know and that we post it on. Nobody to keep it for longer than a week. This seems to be the last copy and I couldn't find it anywhere else.
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Old September 16th, 2008, 05:00 PM   #11
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Sounds like a plan, Richard. I'll e-mail you my mailing address. Glad you picked it up, and thanks for the offer to send it on.

Wow! Could we expand this idea to some kind of online lending library of rare DVDs? If we limit it to docs, could we set up a sticky on this forum? An online database or something? Could be a really cool idea!
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Old September 17th, 2008, 02:37 AM   #12
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Looking forward to hearing from you. It sounds as though the DVD could take up to two weeks to reach me. Anyone else interested? Email me directly please.
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Old September 21st, 2008, 12:21 PM   #13
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thanks for the replies guys, they are helping a lot. one problem i'm expecting to encounter is when I film the school trips to this pumpkin patch. There will be grade 1,2, and 3 classes there, and I would like to interview some of them. However, how do I ever get release forms for people that young. Since they are coming onto private property, do I have the rights to use them in my film without release forms. The owners (farmer) are ok with me using interviews from the students. Thanks
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Old September 21st, 2008, 03:47 PM   #14
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I don't know about the rules in Canada, I expect they're somewhat different than those in the U.S., so check with some local sources. At a minimum, I would expect you should probably send out some kind of a release to the parents of all the kids you intend to interview.

Mention that you are shooting a documentary, and give the parents two check boxes, one to participate, and one if they don't want to participate, and a signature line. You can probably coordinate with either the school, or the Pumpkin Patch owners, since either or both will probably be sending out releases or field trip permission slips of their own.
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Old September 23rd, 2008, 12:55 PM   #15
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A documentary about senior citizens in a small, NYC community group staging a play won an Oscar a few years ago. Anything, everything, is a good subject for a documentary. Some stories are easier to tell because both the subjects and the filmmaker have to do less soul searching to find their honesty, such as Vasco referenced about about his Albania doc. The stakes and the motivations are obvious there. And that's not to diminish the complexity of the work at all because I've made enough features to know it's always a monster to tackle - especially when there isn't a script to guide the way.

What you're thinking about doing is smaller and gentler but every bit as much about the human experience as what Vasco produced. And that's the trick - getting beyond the Hallmark imagery we've all consumed, and get to the real story of how this pumpkin patch drives and impacts people. That's where the magic of story telling lies.

I think it sounds like a fantastic idea. I'd love to see it. Good luck.
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