Recently The Irish times carried an article by film-maker Alan Gilsenan, director of ‘The Asylum’ and ‘The Hospice’.
In the article Alan listed the 10 most important rules he adheres to when making documentaries.
1. OPEN YOUR EYES AND EARS
Call me old-fashioned, but you don’t make documentaries sitting at your desk. You’ve really got to get out of the house or the office or the pub. But once you manage to finally shrug off your inherent apathy and venture out into the wild blue yonder, you need to look and listen.
Really look and really listen. Listen to people. To their stories. To what is said and what remains unsaid. Listen to the sounds of the wilderness and the hum of the city. See what is actually there before your eyes, not what you imagined was there or what you had hoped would be there. See the beauty in the ugliness and the ugliness in the beauty.
Then ask yourself what is all this really telling me? What is this not telling me? And when you realise that you don’t understand any of it, that none of this makes any sense at all, but yet you still instinctively feel that it may have some inherent importance, then record it.
Document it. Preserve it. You can sort it out later and maybe even begin to understand it (this is called editing and it is a dark and secret art).
2. THE GREATEST STORIES ARE NOT IN TASMANIA OR IN THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS (ALTHOUGH THEY MAY BE)
Great documentaries are not necessarily made from the most exotic or freakish subjects. It is not always essential to go in search of the one-legged, autistic transsexual high-wire artist currently detained in Guantánamo – with an Irish mother who is an ex-nun, of course – when the genuinely interesting story may actually be next door or down the road or in your Auntie Peggy’s attic. The greatest stories are often right there in front of your eyes.
3. NEVER PUT WORDS IN PEOPLE’S MOUTHS
Never ask people to say something that they have not said, even if it makes your life easier or your pathetic film more interesting. In particular, never ask people to put the question in the answer (think about it for a moment). This is one of the easy DIY tips that they will tell you in film school. (Important additional rule: strenuously avoid film schools, media courses and film-types in general). Don’t inflate or hype up the story. The real truth is never simple and always more fascinating.
If someone is good enough to share their life with you, their sole responsibility is to tell you the story as they see fit. The rest is up to you. (And trust your audience). Furthermore, don’t use charm or lies or bribery to ingratiate yourself in to any situation. Be honest with your subjects about what you all are embarking upon. Trust and honesty are essential to a good documentary, but this works both ways.
4. SOCIAL WORKERS ARE THE ENEMY (UNLESS THEY’RE THE NICE ONES)
Social workers have all sorts of notions about “managing the media” (much of which is well-intentioned and understandable, as mostly the “media” are mean-spirited and exploitative of the vulnerable people in their care). However, if you’re trying to make a decent documentary, truth and honesty are your only tools, and participants in that documentary are best served by being honest and true to themselves rather than spinning some politically correct platitude dreamt up by the dreaded social worker. (Other key enemies in this vein are PR consultants, media managers, spin doctors and other fraudulent professions.) And, while we’re on the subject, remember that documentary-makers are not social workers either. Their films may shine a light on an important area or even, occasionally, effect some social change, but documentary-making is not social work.
5. SOME THINGS DESERVE TO REMAIN PRIVATE
6. WORK WITH GREAT PEOPLE
Despite beliefs to the contrary, directing is not about getting what you want. It is, however, about focusing the considerable talents of a diverse group of people in a meaningful direction. You need great people around you because their talents enhance and enlighten your own. In short, they make you look good. The production people and the film crew hugely affect the mood of a shoot and a good team can create the essential atmosphere of trust in which others feel happy to share their lives. Also, if you’re going to be delayed for 12 hours in Jakarta airport with them, then you’ve got to love these people. And I do.
7. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU (UNLESS, OF COURSE, IT IS ABOUT YOU)
Making a documentary can be a hugely privileged and engrossing experience. But that experience is not the film. Keep that to bore your friends and family with. It’s not about you, it’s about the tale that you are documenting. You may become a small part of that story by dint of simply being there but, really, we aren’t that interested in you at the moment.
Be honoured that you have been allowed to go along for the ride but never forget that you aren’t the main event. Except, of course, when you really have a story to tell. Then tell it with honesty, integrity and with joyful abandon of all other considerations.
8. LISTEN TO EVERYONE BUT TRUST YOURSELF
Everyone has an opinion (particularly sad television executives), and some of their views may actually be – surprise, surprise – valid and perceptive. The good director knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff. In sensitive issues, remember your legal and ethical obligations. Listen to the lawyers but always trust your own moral compass. There is no glory in making a legally watertight film if it transgresses the boundaries of decency. Ignore critics, especially Irish Times reviewers, particularly when they love you. Be your own best and sternest critic. Your finest film is always your next.
9. IT’S A CLICHE, UNDOUBTEDLY, BUT THERE ARE NO RULES
Fact and fiction are shifting sands. The dividing line is uncertain. Documentary is a very uncertain discipline. Remain open to new ideas. Think freely and creatively. Read WG Sebald. Read a lot of books. Watch other people’s films. Watch the films of John T Davis. Be generous in your criticisms and respect your peers. Slag off Michael Moore, in particular. Above all, remember that you’re supposed to be a film-maker. Once again, always keep your eyes and ears open.
10. BE TENDER, BE KIND
Someone once said to me in a homeless shelter in Drogheda (oh dear, I think it may have been a social worker): “Always remember that we are all very vulnerable.”
It struck me as simple but very profound advice. Respect people and their experience of life. Do not be judgmental or dismissive. Remember, to use the beautiful phrase of the English poet and biographer Andrew Motion, to “honour the miraculousness of the ordinary”.
It is a profound privilege to enter into someone’s life, to intimately share their most intense experiences and their most heartfelt emotions. Honour that privilege and then simply pass it on to your audience.
Oh, and get a real job. And then, maybe even your own life.
Categories: Film and TV