Mad about a thing? Want to make a documentary about it and upset a lot of other people too? In this article, I offer guidance to help you on your journey to becoming a rock star of PBS, a lead singer of troubling footage, a drummer of pie charts, a flutist of social engineering masquerading as conscience. The time has never been more totally nigh for Americans to learn the real truth about how things actually work behind the curtains, see how the sausage gets made. The truly beautiful thing about documentaries as beacons of social change is that nothing inspires a revolution so much as a bunch of people who will never meet each other to organize against a common enemy going to bed angry.
It doesn’t matter if you do an exposé, a biography, or a societal critique wherein you have a massive complaint that probably pertains to you and definitely has something to do with your daddy, there are some rules you need to abide.
1. In the beginning of your film, it’s imperative to show throngs of people walking down busy metropolitan streets. This conveys a few things. First, it lends credence to stories we tell ourselves about other people: that they really do walk around aimlessly, getting in our way when we have places to be. Second, people oblivious to the camera look like sheep too lost in the minutiae of their urban hustle-bustle lives to even notice there’s a creepy guy in the bushes filming them with a Panavision camera. Cutting to thousands of people also gives the illusion that your documentary involves not just you and your father, but all of humanity. This subliminal takeaway makes the viewer feel “in the know” and special when compared to the pedestrians out there interacting as mindless cogs in the machine we call society. “Society” – there’s a word you’ll be using a lot. If your topic is the impending scarcity of a natural resource, like oil, this particular shot also foreshadows the deaths of thousands. Of pedestrians.
2. Next, it would be sacrilege not to include interviews. But don’t just bounce from one long-winded interviewee to another. Trust me, you’re no Ken Burns and you can’t pull that off. It’s best to cut to many people – some of them famous – saying the same word, like “conspiracy” or “society” or “systematic decay,” over and over. The word has to be loaded and negative and must be repeated enough times that it begins to take on the tone of an actual nightmare, invading the viewer’s subconscious mind. Happy words like “love” or “puppies” won’t work unless you’re talking about the systematic degradation of love for all of society’s puppies.
Remember to show heavily edited snippets of that word being spoken by many people, giving it a sense of dramatic urgency. Back this up with an ominous piano choppily playing minor chords to show that if this problem doesn’t get solved, people will never stop saying this word and society will crumble. Then show real things crumbling, like walls or statues. This, of course, will be intercut with more shots of headless people walking on sidewalks.
3. When an interviewee says something obvious in its antithesis of the status quo but vague, like, “We can’t keep doing this forever. There’s a tipping point at which society will crumble,” follow it with a timpani drum solo. This puts a lot of weight on the crumbling aspect of what was just said, and with the visuals of things crumbling, you’ll be lucky if you don’t start some kind of social uprising in the minds of every person watching.
4. Of course, don’t forget to include THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF ANY DOCUMENTARY: old-timey 50s footage. Everybody loves a time-stamped, cartoony milepost that shows how much we’ve progressed, how far we’ve come, and how hilarious we used to be. Back in the olden times, things were simple. Everyone was part of a nuclear family, and all good citizens were pro-capitalist and anti-socialist, and it was a dominantly patriarchal culture. You know, because it’s different now. Okay, maybe not as different, but isn’t it hilarious that all the boys were named Timmy and Johnny? Hahahaha! We have really moved on since then.
5. The point of a documentary is to engage viewers in your cause, all while allowing them to feel like knowledgeable scientists who conducted the experiment of watching your film and then concluded, based on your conclusions, that they agreed. You can do this using diagrams, graphs, or charts. It’s best to show the data literally flying off the graph, like the problem is so staggering, it cannot stay on one reasonable graph. Remind people that all data that doesn’t portend an apocalypse will be found on a single graph. That’s how science works. Do not attempt to show data dribbling off a pie chart, though. It’s not as visually effective.
6. Convincing your audience isn’t easy, but it helps to give them raw, non-manipulated data to prove veracity. Like in “Moneyball.” Remember the montage of spreadsheets with bunches of numbers? There were lots of them. Some even had decimals, that’s how raw and lifelike they were. Since viewers got the gist of the plot, they didn’t need to do any crunching to understand that Jonah Hill was onto something big. Personally, I left the theatre feeling like a statistician. I also thought that I understood baseball. And physics. But what I actually understood was that when Brad Pitt makes a subtle frowny face and throws a chair in case anybody missed the subtle frowny face, it means his team is losing.
7. Finally, what do you do in the event that someone sees your documentary thing and makes an untoward comment about it? If a Netflix reviewer posts a scathing review about how your documentary appeared disorganized and disjointed, it’s best to fire back with, “You watch a series of points or examples on a given topic, and you can’t deduce cohesion? I understand wanting that quality in a book. But a documentary is only an hour and a half. How do you get thru life? That’s the biggest series of disjointed events and occurrences ever. If you want something with a beginning, middle and end, I suggest having an orgasm.”
I hope this was helpful. Or at the very least, unhelpful. If you want to know more about the seedy side of how documentaries are made, please keep an eye out for my documentary entitled: “The Real Story Behind the Making of Documentaries: a Documentary About Documentaries: a Documentary.”