This is a special article written for us by James N. Weber. He has worked on Socially Aware Media, especially documentaries, in South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Mexico, and is currently working on a project on food security in Guatemala. His work and more info can be found at his homepage.
On the video shelf where the Dewey Decimal starts with a number, there is an odd conglomeration of videos: a man gorging himself on fries, some guy living with grizzlies, and a bunch of slide shows of old wars. It’s the documentary shelf, a mix of the sensational, humorous, serious, and (supposedly) true videos.
So let’s say you want to get your work on that shelf. Maybe you know this awesome woman down the street who invents things. Or maybe you’re interested in the affects of high fructose corn syrup on your body. Here’s how you can do it, and really, you can.
Throughout my experience with documentaries, I’ve developed what I call Socially Aware Media. In other words, I try to make sure that my projects are dedicated to making life better for people, or at the very least, trying not to hurt people. A key issue for me is how people are portrayed, as many of the people I interview or film are oppressed in some way. I do my best to treat them with respect, and try to convey their own words, instead of shaping it into the message that I (or the intended audience) would like to hear.
To give you an idea on what it takes to make a documentary yourself, I’ll use my biggest documentary, Fuerza, as an example. Fuerza is a 30 minute documentary on immigration from Apan, Hidalgo, Mexico, to Goshen, Indiana, U.S.A. I and three others started pre-production in November of 2005, and then put together a short proposal (video and written), which we submitted for a grant in spring 2006. The grant was a meager $5,000 (mostly for travel) plus access to equipment and editing space.
Through the summer of 2006, we conducted interviews and taping, making sure we got some major events such as protests and important local meetings. In late August, we spent a week in Apan, where we interviewed tons of people who had lived in Goshen or had family in Goshen, as well as city officials. Then we spent three days at the border, interviewing the border patrol and attending a press conference for Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.
After the trip, we tracked down some pivotal interviews, and interviewed local politicians, and started transcribing, translating, and writing the script. Finally, we started with the actual edit. By this time, I was spending 40 hours a week on the video, on top of my college classes, in order to have it ready by our premiere date in November 2006.
We premiered it a year after we started preproduction, on November 9, 2006, to a packed theater in downtown Goshen. Since then, we’ve sold hundreds of DVDs and been invited to show the film and speak at universities like Notre Dame, churches, schools, and homes.
One of the biggest challenges to making a documentary is finding the money. You’ll want about $1000 per minute of final product. At least. And if you’re wanting to make money, find another career (or more likely, hobby). There is very little money to be made, and very few documentaries actually become profitable. On the projects I’ve completed so far, I stand to actually make about $200 total (plus a lot of travel). So I do this because I love it.
In Fuerza, we had a lot of difficulty knowing how to apply some of the ideas of Socially Aware Media to a scene where a Mexican mother breaks down and cries over her son who had emigrated to the U.S. It’s a highly emotional scene, with footage of the son watching the video of his mother cry, followed by a heartfelt directive from mother to son to “Work hard so you can return home.”
We ended up cutting time the mother cries in half, and then probably half again, until we reached a point that did not gloss over the pain she felt, but also didn’t exploit either the mother or the audience.
So if you have an idea for a documentary, do it! Go find the money, and if you can’t, there are ways of doing it dirt cheap.