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The Elements of a Great Documentary Film

A documentary film is one of the most effective ways to explore a pressing issue, document an event, uncover a mystery, or educate the public. This medium of storytelling is so flexible that it can be used by any individual or organization to tell a story for whatever purpose.

While anyone can make a documentary, be it a high school student or a film production studio, not everyone can craft a non-fiction motion picture that hooks viewers and gets them talking. Like most cinematic traditions, there are foundational elements and tropes that make a documentary worth watching. Finding the perfect balance between these elements can help you achieve your intended outcome.

The narrative structure 

What makes documentaries unique is that the subjects are ordinary people or people we can relate to on many levels. The film takes fragments of life, from the most mundane to the extraordinary, and weaves them together to create context. Simply put, a good documentary is not about the subject, but how it impacts the bigger world it belongs to. It’s outside looking in and vice versa.

To achieve this, it’s important to incorporate all the elements of a story. Much like fictional films, there should be a conflict and an opponent (as in the film Free Solo, American climber Alex Honnold fulfills a dream of climbing El Capitan without ropes and harnesses). There should also be structure, or how the story unfolds into three acts. Act 1 is where you establish the premise and introduce the characters, their goals, and what stands between the two. Act 2 is where things get messy and complicated for your characters. Then Act 3 is the resolution where your characters achieve their goals (or don’t but have been changed or transformed in some way by the event).

A good documentary should have characters, which could be a mix of actors, interviewees, and real people on which your viewers will project their biases, as in the case of true crime films where viewers get to join the hunt for the perpetrator.

The best documentaries have all these elements, so it’s important that you familiarize yourself with these basics. These elements allow you to tell a cohesive story, even if your subject is a complex real-life event.

Authenticity is key 

A good documentary is anchored on a central conflict, and this is something that can’t be manufactured. If you don’t have a conflict that’s dramatic, interesting, or relevant enough, you don’t have a documentary. There are many places to look for conflict, however. It could be your characters’ inner conflict, a conflict between two people or groups, or a societal conflict. It can also be something external, like a mountain, a political system, or a pandemic. When it comes to human subjects, it is essential that you find the authentic core of your characters for you to make a documentary about them.

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Finding inspiration

It is true that the most memorable documentaries are personal one way or another. It’s either a story that has transformed the creator’s life or something they’ve poured their life into. Take the case of the award-winning art house film Nostalgia for the Light. The film follows the personal journey of Patricio Guzman, a political prisoner during the Pinochet regime in Chile.

And while that alone is tragic in itself, the film centers on two different searches conducted in the beautiful and storied Atacama Desert. One search is done by astronomers looking up the sky to study the history of the cosmos, and the other by women looking for the remains of sons and husbands killed during the regime. In the final act of the film, Guzman was able to bring two stories together by saying that his love for astronomy has helped him “give another dimension to pain and loss.”

You can also create a documentary about an event in history that hasn’t been explored in detail. It could even be a well-known event but viewed from a different angle no one’s heard of before. If you’re naturally curious and inquisitive, it won’t be hard for you to find a story worth telling.

A documentary can be a powerful tool to educate, entertain, and empower. Whatever cause or project you’re doing it for, make sure to include these elements so you can make the most impact. Before you get to shooting the interviews, cutaways, live action, and archive, it is crucial that you lay down these elements first. While it’s true that you can find stories in the edit, it’s never a good idea to venture into such a project without a plan and subject.

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