The documentary film, in the literal sense, is a filmic document of something that happened. It is presented as non-fiction. Documentaries take a wide variety of styles and viewpoints, from cutting edge social documentaries, to dramatic historical documentaries, to perspective-shifting nature documentaries, and so on: the list is truly endless, and you can, of course, document anything.
Interviews are a key part of many, if not most, documentaries. In this lesson you’ll learn about how to interview with a documentarian’s stance.
The Documentary Stance
As the interviewer, your role is more than just listening: you are a guide and an interested (and informed, hopefully) participant in the conversation—that’s what makes it an interview.
As a documentary filmmaker, you try to create the conditions to allow people to volunteer information to you, true information. It takes practice to create and guide someone through an interview and to get them to open up. To do an interview can sometimes require a lot, both from your subject and from you as a filmmaker.
Interviews run the gamut of emotion. They can be long or short, easy and challenging. They can be intimate. They can be fun. They might even test you as a human being!
Of Experts and Emotions
The documentary interview normally serves one of two purposes: to offer expert input on the subject matter, or to share personal experiences. There are, of course, other reasons to interview someone, but, broadly speaking, most interviews will fall into these two categories.
The reasons for adding interviews into your documentary are the same: You need an expert to better explain the situation or a concept, or you need someone to share their personal recollections, opinions, emotions, and so on.
The responsibility is on you to ensure that there is accuracy and balance in your film. Responsibility starts with the way you interact with your subjects, how you talk about your film, and continues with everything else you do. On a basic level, you must appear to your participants, and eventually the audience, as a credible-enough filmmaker for them to trust you.
A documentary, by its very nature, is nonfiction. You have to ensure that everything that ends up in your finished production is also non-fiction.
Check the Facts and the Corroborate Stories
Again, the responsibility for accuracy and balance will always be on you, not your interviewee. If they state things as fact, you need to check that it is actually true. If they’re speculating on a subject, then you need to make sure that it’s clear that they’re speculating and not stating things as fact. And when it comes to editing the interview, you have to make sure that your interviewee isn’t edited in such a way that the thrust of their arguments, statements, and emotions are altered.
You will, of course, need to edit your interviews and your footage. It’s up to you to make the judgement call about what to take out and what to leave so that the overall tone is not changed.
Editing With Integrity
In the video with this tutorial I’ve included an audio example that illustrates this responsibility in action. We needed to edit the information down to make it shorter, but we also need to ensure that the core messages remain. The goal is to edit in such a way that the core messages remain the same, just tighter.
It’s a delicate thing to get right! Any edit or omission that changes the core information your interviewee has relayed isn’t just unfair, it can get you into trouble and make your subjects pretty upset.
If one of your subjects makes a bold statement, it’s your responsibility to see if there is a counter or alternative point of view. Not only is it your responsibility, but it’s also crucial in documenting the facts and producing a well-rounded documentary. Fairness, accurate representation and balance are the key elements you need to keep in mind when sourcing, conducting and editing documentary interviews.
Try to always fair to your interviewee, fair to your subject, and true to the story. If there are two or more sides to a story, then you have to investigate and understand so that all sides are considered. Considering a side is not the same as presenting a side, however, and you are free as a filmmaker to weigh subjective perspectives, including your own, in telling the story. The line between “sides” is usually also tends to get pretty murky when you scratch below the surface of a story, a tension that many documentarians have explored with rich results. Whatever the case, a documentary that only presents one perspective on a story is probably not all that interesting.
Next time we’ll be looking at researching and sourcing your subjects. Thanks for reading!