Lessons Learned in Making Long-Term Documentary Projects (A #docchat Recap)

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Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation) and Michèle Stephenson (the upcoming American Promise) have both filmed documentaries that spanned more than 10 years. They joined #docchat on October 15, 2013, to share their lessons from producing long-term documentary projects. Here’s our recap:

On Finding the Dramatic Arc

Long-term documentaries have a lot going for them because seeing people change over long periods of time is inherently dramatic — time provides a narrative arc.

From the start, Stephenson and her husband and co-director Joe Brewster were aware of this potential when they set out to document their African-American son and his best friend over 12 years, from kindergarten in a prestigious private school through high school.

For My Reincarnation, there was no arc until many years of filming. Fox started filming high Tibetan master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and his Italian born son because of her proximity to them — Rinpoche was her Buddhist teacher — and the filmmaker in her compelled her to document him. It wasn’t until the 17th year of filming My Reincarnation that she found the narrative arc of the film, when the son’s story changed course.

As Fox notes, “There’s a tragedy that we have to have narrative, meaning drama, conflict and a beginning, middle and end, for stories that can become universal. Life is not always narrative, but we have to make it to succeed as documentary filmmakers.”

On Fundraising

Stephenson and Fox recommended starting filming without being too concerned where the money will come from. If you believe in something, go forward and start filming. Even with robust track records, both found it difficult to raise money from paper proposals without footage.

During the first half of production on American Promise, Stephenson and her filmmaking partner relied on their own resources and cinematographer friends. The film’s first funding came from people who were closest to the project and who could take the leap of faith.

For My Reincarnation, it wasn’t until 12 years into the filming process that Fox was able to get funding. Once she was ready to have the film released, one of Fox’s co-production partners defaulted on $100,000 she had already spent. Fox then turned to Kickstarter, raising a record-breaking $150,000, at the time the most ever for a finished film and the second highest ever raised for a documentary.

Every documentary is distinct for the type of support it will attract. For filmmakers embarking on long-term projects, it’s essential to have the willingness to think outside of the box and be flexible in the narrative you seek, because it may not be what you were initially looking for.

On Outside Support

Around the time that Stephenson’s son entered middle school, the issue of black male achievement was coming up in the media and this lead to new opportunities for funding and partnerships. American Promise found an advocate in funder and fellow filmmaker Orlando Bagwell, who helped contextualize the film to other foundations and supporters.

Filmmakers have the potential to invest in something before the market proves that it’s valuable. It’s difficult to raise money, but people who initially said no might say yes once the material or context has developed.

On the Filmmaking Process

Fox had completed long-term films before My Reincarnation: An American Love Story and Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. From the start, she told herself if she kept filming, it would work and something would happen.

She recommends having faith and trust in the process. If you’re there on a regular basis, the story will come. But, “if you can walk away from your film, then walk,” Fox says. “It should burn in you so much you that you’re willing to get there or die trying. And that’s what makes a good film. That kind of energy can be charismatic, it will make people interested, want to help you and come on board. It’s the fuel that gets you through the fire.”

On Relationships with Subjects

Both films originated with the filmmakers’ close relationship with their subjects. They positioned their personal relationships to get access that others could not. Stephenson and Fox agreed that the personal access was both the value of their films, but also their source of trepidation.

Fox’s close access to her Buddhist teacher scared her to no end. In a religious community, to criticize one’s spiritual leader is discouraged. She didn’t want to criticize her teacher, yet she realized that drama and narrative arc are based on conflict. She spent 20 anxious years wondering how her film might ruin her relationship with her teacher and community. During the edit and launch of the film, she was careful — she didn’t take the film to the Buddhist community until it garnered external approval in the film world first.

For Stephenson, the greatest obstacle was less the longitudinal aspect of the film, but being a parent and filmmaker at the same time. On a daily basis, she questioned whether what she was doing was the right thing for her son. Ultimately, she felt that it was a therapeutic process for her family. They went places with the camera they wouldn’t have otherwise that pushed her to continue. Negotiating her dual roles, she worked hard to build trust with her son’s school that the film would not be an indictment of their community, but present a complicated reality.

On the Film’s Future Life

Successful long-term projects have the potential to be “evergreen” and have continued significance for years. But it also means that when you’ve finished filming, you’re only halfway done.

Filmmakers embark on long-term projects often because they want to start or contribute to a public dialogue about issues that are important to them, but it doesn’t stop with the finished film. The level of investment put in the film’s production should be reflected in its distribution and outreach.

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Shannon Carroll was Digital Community Associate at POV, where she supported POV's social networks.