December 31, 2003

Why Do You Want to Make This Documentary? The Answer is Within

In the journey from idea to premiere screening or airing, a lot happens to both the filmmaker and the film. Regardless of the combination of talent, money, time or quality/importance of the documentary, some filmmakers weather the trek with grace, while some question its very worth. Others simply give up.

As a story consultant, I am fascinated with this phenomenon. And it all comes down to a deceptively simple question: "Why do you want to make this documentary?" It may stem from a personal fascination for a subject; it may be out of a need to share an issue of urgency. Your answer may help you through the labyrinth of challenges that are part of the process of making a film.

The "Cool" Documentary

You're interested in making a film about a topic or person because you're fascinated. But it takes more than that initial infatuation to stick with the project over the long haul—and win over grant-makers and investors. Fascination can work on its own, but only if your story rediscovers this fascination over and over again, in different ways. 

 Fascination can also be the starting point. A topic or character can interest you, and that interest can propel you into action. You start researching, shooting some footage, but eventually the initial interest will wear off and you will have to rely on deeper motivations to continue your film. Academy Award-nominated Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin), for example, lends itself to endless fascination. Each shot is a rediscovery, and the viewer never tires of the film's beauty.

The Activist Documentary-A Moral Obligation

You're making a documentary out of a sense of duty. You experienced something that needs society's attention: child labor, teenage pregnancy, crossed-eye koalas' extinction. The activist in you was called to action, and the artist in you couldn't be left behind.

Before the filmmaker/activist in you gets too involved, remember that there are over 100 television and cable channels that keep people informed of the miseries of the world. There are also hundreds of nonprofit organizations addressing those needs at a fraction of the cost of your film. That said, now that six or seven conglomerates own all the media outlets in the world, your unique perspective on an issue is desperately needed. But if a sense of duty is your only motivation, when you realize that your contribution is not as significant as you thought it would be, you'll grow resentful towards the very same topic that once made you compassionate.

My own brutal awakening to the pitfalls of moral obligation as motivation came after I had finished my short documentary on tourism for the blind, called On the Edge. It won an award and gained a lot of attention in Buenos Aires. I felt the topic could be explored further, and I approached the director of the nonprofit organization, who had advised me on the making of the short. If we worked together to raise a mere $20,000, I could make a feature-length documentary that would bring social awareness to avoid discrimination of blind people in public places, and inspire an endless line of contributors to her organization.

After perusing the budget, the director looked up at me without a trace of enthusiasm. "If I could raise $20,000 right now, I could pay more instructors to teach the kids how to read Braille," she said. "With $20,000, I could print thousands and thousands of brochures, as well as organize workshops and discussion groups that would both increase public awareness and bring contributors. With $20,000 I would most definitely not make a film."

I was dumbfounded—and I was also very young. She cut the tense silence with a polite "I'm sorry," to which I replied with an equally polite "I understand." She certainly had her priorities in place; I was the one who wasn't clear about mine. She clearly didn't need this film. I was the one who needed to make it, and I failed to convey the true reasons and personal values that were inspiring me.

As with The "Cool" Documentary, moral obligation can be a good starting point. It is more persuasive than fascination to grant-makers, networks and investors. Ultimately, we all want to be part of changing the world into a better place. But don't let your sense of duty cloud your filmmaking vision. Once again, use moral obligation to discover the personal values that will keep you committed to the project.

Your Own Documentary—The Value of Values

Hopefully it's obvious by now that all the options above lead you to you and your values—the only reason why you should be making a film, and why you should be embarking on this long, costly adventure. No amount of fascination or moral obligation will come through at the 11th hour to finish the film. You will be there all along—you and your convictions.

Aligning your values to the theme of your film is not as difficult as you might think. A quick inventory of yourself can do the trick.

§  What are the recurring themes in your life?

§  What do you value most in life? 

§  How do your friends and relatives describe you? Would they agree with your assessments of the aforementioned questions?

§  What would you do if you only had 24 hours to live? How about six months or one year?

§  What would you do with a million dollars? What would you do with five million dollars if you had to spend it in less than a year?

Address those questions until you have a list that represents you and the things you care about. Then go over your list and highlight those values or themes that might also be represented in your future documentary. Basically, what do you and your documentary have in common

When your values are clearly related to the theme of the film, you will know exactly why you are making your film. Then finding a way to make it won't seem so daunting, and the story will flow naturally.

This is true also for personal documentaries. Aligning your own values to a film about yourself might seem redundant. Nonetheless you need to know what part of yourself you will be exposing and why. Instead of looking for something in your documentary that resonates within you, look for the part of you and your documentary that resonates with the rest of the world. In essence, what aspect of your personal story is universal?

Knowing the values you share with your documentary can enable story development and facilitate the production and post-production processes. And in the end, you have the satisfaction that you made a film that speaks your own voice.

Animator and documentarian Doug Ing is a case in point. He told me he was done with his film. More precisely, he wanted to believe he was done. The reason being, he had spent six months editing and animating his documentary and didn't know how to turn it around.

As it was, Ing was under the spell of fascination. His film is about a Chinese man who in 1963 created a calendar with pin-up girls, coupled with a joke a day. Thirty years later he is still figuring out marketing gimmicks to sell the 200,000 calendars he had ordered.

Not surprisingly, lacking a core connection to his film, Ing ran out of ways to solve structural problems. I could have given him a list of quick fixes, but that would have made it my film, not his. It also would have been a short-term solution. Instead I asked him, "Why do you want to make this film?" He replied, "I like quirky people."

"Quirky" doesn't keep you glued to a monitor for six months animating calendar photos. So I said, "What will happen if you don't finish the film?" He immediately answered, "That's not possible. I will do anything it takes to get this film done."

An interesting response for someone whose sole motivation was to portray quirky people. As it turned out, all his previous documentaries were about quirky people who persevered against all odds to achieve their very quirky dreams. Ing discovered in our consultation that he shared many values with the characters he filmed. His style might not be quirky, but it is certainly different—and filled with unexpected images. Needless to say, he is very persistent and doesn't give up easily, just like the Chinese man who is still trying to sell his 30-year-old calendar.

We restructured the story based on these new discoveries. Despite the fact that previously he was convinced not much else needed to be done for his film, he was very happy when I suggested some more animation. He only wished he had considered his connection to his documentary when he started it.

For filmmakers who are eager to run with a camera, spending time thinking about what motivates themselves might seem a waste of time. However, the more you know about you and your film, the easier it will be to make it.


Fernanda Rossi  is a writer, filmmaker and script/documentary doctor. She doctored over 30 documentaries and fiction scripts and has been featured in publications such as Filmmaker Magazine. Besides her private practice, she gives lectures and seminars nationwide. She can be reached at or visit

© 2003 Fernanda Rossi