Documentary Filmmaking is not for control freaks or cripples

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Last week I went up to Powell River, where I was supposed to film some things. Communication was sketchy that first week and I didn’t fully understand what I’d be doing until the end of the weekend — namely, a ten-minute documentary — but regardless, I got some good shots.

A new camera was in order, as the one I was using was 12 years old and guess what — they don’t make tape for it anymore. (We do have access to a firewire to grab the two hours of tape I did manage to shoot, so that’s all good.) As was a new tripod, because when you take long sabbaticals from filmmaking and move a bunch things go missing.

I had to film in an elementary school where Margriet Ruurs was doing workshops on poetry as part of the International Peace Poem Walkers’ Association’s Youth Peace Poem Competition and literacy initiative. The documentary itself is about the Youth Peace Poem Competition and how it — and the workshops funded by it — have positive impacts on the kids and the community.

[The showing of the documentary will be on May 31st, during the awards ceremony. For pretty much every weekend in May I’ll be in Powell River filming and editing, and I have class from 9-4 on Mondays and Wednesdays in Nanaimo (my final class before graduation with my BA).]

First lesson about documentaries: they are organic creatures. You can set out with an idea of what you want to say, and how you want to say it, but you won’t actually know for sure how it’ll play out until you’ve started filming. Buy enough film (or memory, I guess, is how they do it on the new future cameras they got) to canvas an entire continent, every day, all day for several months. And about ten extra batteries.

Second lesson:  you have to be ready for action. That means you must be able to catch things on the spur of the moment; have to be able to drive anywhere, get into any sort of position, run with your camera.

Third lesson: it is like herding cats. Especially when you’re filming in an elementary school, just saying.

Things you should know about me:

  • I am a control freak the likes of which would scare Monica Gellar.
  • I am crippled. Or, you know, disabled, non-able-bodied, whatever is the most acceptable term. I prefer the term cripple, because it’s how I feel. (Also it creates a bit of an alliteration in the title of this blog post, which is important to me.) I also have a lot of chronic health issues, which adds to the feeling. Regardless, the point is I cannot run with a camera; I walk with a cane; I am not able-bodied enough to really be ready for action. I am also a dense thicket in marshy land.

It’s been so many years since I’ve worked on a documentary that I’d forgotten all these things — all these things that are so much more important when you don’t have a camera crew. Ie, when your camera crew…is you.

Which isn’t to say documentary filmmaking isn’t fun. It is. It’s a lot of fun. And in some ways it allows more creative freedom than filming a scripted story (“drama”).

It’s also very hard. Because on top of all these points, you must make your documentary interesting. It must have a story to it — you must take a bunch of bits of film and put it together in a cohesive story with a smooth flow. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of random thoughts with no overarching theme or message, and that gets boring quick.

(I have watched some boring documentaries, let me tell you. One I don’t even remember the name of, but I know it was about Jamaica — interesting, sure, for the first half hour. After that my brain leaked out my ears and eventually I had to turn it off. Why? Because there was no story. There was too much repetition. And it was too long without having a clear progression from beginning to middle to end.)

So my challenge for this month — challenge for the control freak cripple — is to create a documentary that shows the positive impact literacy and peace initiatives such as the Youth Peace Poem Competition and the workshops they fund have on Powell River community and kids. I have 12 more days in which to film, and after that I have four days in which to edit.

I’ve worked with far tighter deadlines before. I can probably do this. However, it’ll still be difficult: as I said, documentary filmmaking is tough work. Rewarding, but very difficult. I’m rusty and not as able as I used to be.

Onwards and ever upwards, I suppose. Tomorrow I go off to film some more. This weekend, I think, will really give me the spine of my story.

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