Skip to main content

Doc-Making as an Art: A Tool to Change the World

By Ray Zone

Directing the Documentary (Fourth Edition)
By Michael Rabiger
Focal Press
627 pps. (paperbound) $49.99
ISBN: 0-240-80608-5

In a greatly expanded Fourth Edition, Michael Rabiger's book is a massive omnibus that goes far beyond merely directing documentary film. With three previous editions, the book has proved useful in documentary classes in universities; with the new edition, it's more complete than ever. Besides a thorough discussion of documentary production, there are chapters on the history and theory of nonfiction film that are invaluable. If somebody was given a mandate to purchase only one volume on documentary film production, this book could fit the bill quite nicely.

The Fourth Edition includes new chapters on evidence and point of view in the documentary, critical writing, ethics and permissions, pre-production, sound and music.  Because film teachers require a more linear textbook, a section on aesthetics and authorship has been rewritten and placed ahead of the section on pre-production. Material is now more concise and proactive in its advice and more relevant to beginners.

The new edition also includes many recent films in a history section, updated equipment references, and outcome assessment forms to be used by both students and teachers and posted to the Focal Press website. Integrated with the pragmatic advice are techniques to liberate ideas and feelings and define points of view and style. The all-important interview techniques in documentary are thoroughly covered along with three-act structure, beats and dramatic units.   

Embedded values at the end of the research phase are considered. Rabiger defines embedded values as "the unquestioned assumptions that permit us to accept things as ‘just the way they are' when we should, in fact, be critical of them." Here is one of Rabiger's great strengths in writing this book. He affirms the efficacy of documentary as a tool to change the world.   

In a section titled "The Mission" Rabiger writes, "Documentary makers have an ardent respect for the integrity of the actual, for the primacy of truth in the lives of real people both great and small. The documentary makers' mission is not to change or evade destiny but rather to embrace it, to speak passionately of its presence in history, and to examine the choices available for making a more humane and generous society in the future." He also observes that "experimenting with, and learning about, this noble mission has never been so widely popular as now."   

The main strength of this fine book is the way that it integrates pragmatic tools with individual development, emphasizing at all times the importance of achieving a unique artistic identity within the compass of both life and documentary production. Chapter 10, for example, is an insightful discussion of goals and artistic progress. It engages the documentary film director to think about such questions as, "How should you use your developing skills in the world?" or, "Do you already have an artistic identity, and can you articulate it aloud?"   

There is a lot of coverage about the nuts and bolts of actual production and post-production. But Rabiger's writing, above all, is designed to engender cogent and incisive thinking about both the ends and means of nonfiction film direction. Numerous projects and strategies for the aspiring documentary film director are placed throughout the book, from research leading up to the shoot, to crew development and production, to editing and the sound mix.   

While there are many books about the technical basics of documentary film production, none of them integrate so thoroughly the artistic intention at the heart of great directing with the means of realization in pre-production, the field and the editing room. Closing out Rabiger's book are useful chapters on education, with lists of schools and approaches to developing a career in film, contact information, websites, funding, employment information and publications. The IDA itself (and Documentary magazine) is mentioned on page 533, with all pertinent contact information. Useful forms, a glossary and a definitive bibliography are also included.

Great directing is equally a matter of heart and soul as much as technical knowledge. This idea is prevalent throughout Rabiger's book.


Ray Zone can be contacted at