I’ve seen quite a few social documentaries in my time. We show awareness raising films in Transition Towns, and there are some really great, thought-provoking, well crafted documentaries out there. And then there are some very bad ones. Digital video production has made film-making possible (if not advisable, or profitable) for almost anyone. But making a film is one thing. Making a good film, that people want to see and tell their friends about, and that inspires them to live differently – well, that’s another thing altogether.
So here are some social documentary tropes and how to overcome them, written in a spirit of affection, and also of hope:
1. The newsreader montage
We already know that the topic of your documentary is important or we wouldn’t be watching the film. There’s no need for the rapid fire montage of newsreaders and their graphs telling us about ‘panic on Wall Street’ or whatever. It’s okay if you’re trying to raise awareness of something people generally haven’t noticed, but often it’s a lazy way of trying to introduce some drama into what’s otherwise going to be a boring movie.
How to do it differently: Make the headlines yourself, like The Yes Men Fix the World.
2. Time lapse photography
There’s nothing you can do in time lapse that Koyaanisqatsi didn’t already do better in 1982, and you don’t have a Philip Glass soundtrack. So ditch the speeded up traffic, sunsets, and pedestrians on escalators.
How to do it differently: Find somewhere intriguing and atmospheric, shoot it with flair, and set it to a Kraftwerk track – like Into Eternity:
3. 1950s cartoon clips
In 195os, film-maker John Eliot Sutherland made industrialist propaganda films for whoever was paying. The American Petroleum Institute commissioned Destination Earth, in which martians are introduced to the glories of fossil fuels and free market capitalism. Then there’s Make Mine Freedom, A is for Atom, or The Spray’s the Thing, made for Dupont. Documentary makers just can’t resist the triumphalist, oil-addicted jingoism, and clips turn up all over the place. We’ve seen it now, thanks.
How to do it differently: Make your own graphics, like the ingenious little illustrated interludes in The Age of Stupid:
4. The narrator
You’ve got no actors in your documentary, and therefore no star names to put on the poster. What do you do? You get Glenn Close in to do a voiceover. That’s fine if you use your narrator sparingly, but the first rule of working in a visual medium is ‘show, don’t tell’. If the imagery isn’t working for you, you might as well have made a radio documentary and saved yourself a fortune.
How to do it differently: Our Daily Bread is all the more powerful for having no voiceover and no music:
5. Serious films for serious times
Social documentaries are often made because the general public aren’t taking an issue seriously enough. They’re not supposed to be entertained, dammit, they’re supposed to be shocked, horrified, and shaken out of their complacency. But then, you do actually want people to watch the movie, right?
How to do it differently: You don’t have to make a comedy, but a little irreverence helps the medicine go down, like Dave Gardner in his Growthbusters outfit, or the Reverend Billy in What Would Jesus Buy?:
6. Talking heads
To make your point with some scholarship, it’s wise to have some bearded men in front of their bookshelves. You put soundbites from them at the beginning saying pithy or incriminating things, and then use the full interview later. It’s important to find at least one woman and one non-white face too.
How to do it differently: Intersperse your experts with ordinary people telling their stories in their own context. And get your experts doing something, like in The End of the Line.
7. Stock footage
I know it’s cheaper than going and filming stuff yourself, but we’ve seen the billowing smokestacks and the iceberg falling into the water. What it says to me is that you wrote the script without knowing what you were going to film, and now you need to fill some space.
How to do it differently: If you’re basically going to give people a presentation with some pictures, then why not actually give them a presentation with some pictures, like Manufactured Landscapes:
8. The happy chapter
We all know how this goes. After an hour and quarter of doom, the violins come in, and we see springtime and children skipping. If we all pull together, we might find it’s not too late to build utopia after all. This five minutes of forced optimism probably isn’t enough, not after you gave your audience so many reasons to shoot themselves in the parking lot on the way out of your movie.
9. Charts and graphs
You’ve got professors in your movie, and the professors have got graphs. They go downwards, and should be animated in red to emphasize the precise degree to which we are screwed. Who needs human interest when you’ve got statistics?
How to do it differently: The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan has profound things to say about poverty, development, and the war in Afghanistan, but all through the life of a young Afghan refugee living in a cave with his Grandfather:
10. It’s all your fault
You know who’s responsible for the overfishing, the debt, climate change, oil depletion and sweatshop labour? Yes, it’s you, for failing to rise up and cut the strings of your corporate puppetmasters. And you probably watched the movie while drinking a Coke too, didn’t you? Shame on you.
How to do it differently: Acknowledge our complicity, and be content to live intelligently and humanely in a world that isn’t black and white, like Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.