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What Makes a Good Documentary (Fully Explained)

The best documentaries can make you laugh, cry, and think. They can change your perspective on a particular subject, whether through a historical, political, or cultural lens. Good documentaries make you feel like you’ve learned something new about the world and yourself. A great documentary scratches at something deep inside people, often revealing truths that have been hidden.

The Audience Experience

Audiences want to feel like they’re being taken on a journey while watching a film. Whether watching a documentary at a film festival or streaming on Netflix.

This can be through a story, a performance, or a theme. While fictional films often rely on tropes and stereotypes to create an audience experience, a good documentary never has to rely on these tropes to achieve its goal.

The best documentaries have a strong theme and a voice that’s authentic to their vision.

Behind many of the best documentaries are filmmakers who’re among the best in their field and have years of experience bringing their passion projects to life.

Education and Entertainment

Although, from the time of one of the founders of modern documentary John Grierson in the 1930s onwards most documentaries are a blend of education and entertainment, the real goal of a good documentary filmmaker is for the audience to leave the film feeling different at the end, with a sense of revelation about the subject of the film.

The job of a documentary filmmaker is to capture the truth of a moment, whether it’s the truth of a person speaking to the filmmaker, the truth of a cultural moment, or the truth of a historical moment.

Documentaries are a blend of storytelling and journalism, and the process of documentary filmmaking is a blend of both.

In addition, good documentary filmmakers have a sense of the subject they’re covering and know how important their work is.

Shaping a Journey With Documentary Storytelling

A good documentary filmmaker uses his or her skills as a storyteller and journalist to capture the truth of the subject he or she’s presenting.

Then she distills the truth into a form that the audience can understand, and then she can use her vision and passion to create a film experience that makes the audience feel like they’ve been on a journey.

Story structure is everything in the way in which a documentary film experience functions. Every documentary worth the name is a narrative film because it tells a story.

Subjective Experiences

A documentary script is important, but it is in the nature of documentaries that they are made in a discovery fashion – the moment a filmmaker steps out on location or brings the material into the edit, the script will change hugely.

This marks a huge difference between a documentary film and a fiction film.

The most inspiring documentaries bring the voices of people who’ve been silenced by the world or are being silenced by the social status quo. These can be some of the most vulnerable people in our world, but also people who think differently than the status quo.

A good documentary shows people from a different perspective than they’re used to seeing in the media. It opens people’s minds and hearts to the struggles of other people in the world. It makes people question the way things are and the way they should be.

The best documentaries tell stories you wouldn’t otherwise hear, and those stories need to be told to make the world a better place.

All of that’s very difficult to achieve in a documentary, much more so than in fiction. The reason is that a documentary is about taking a truthful account of real people and putting it into a dramatic structure that works as a film.

That can be especially difficult with documentaries that deal with taboo subjects like drugs, alcohol, and sexuality.

It Tells an Important Story

If a documentary is going to make the audience laugh, cry, and feel like they’ve really learned something, it’s important that the film tells an important story.

The story has to relate to something the audience cares about, while at the same time I’m getting into territory they think they’re familiar with, but really don’t know.

The story should be rich in drama. The story should touch the audience to their core. The story must be honest and authentic.

Finding the right story is one of the biggest challenges a documentary filmmaker can face. It can take months or even years for him to settle on a story that’s the right combination of meaning, access, and permanence – in the sense that it’ll take months or years to research secure funding, film, and edit.

Related: Why is Film Important to Society

Unique Documentaries

A good documentary story mustn’t only be important, but also fresh. In a sense, every story that can be told has already been told.

If you look at the dramatic arcs of human experience. But the forms in which stories can be told, including in documentaries, are many and infinite.

The best documentary filmmakers are always looking for new stories with unique perspectives and unique themes. They’re looking for stories from which the world can learn.

A filmmaker can often achieve a sense of uniqueness by using a unique structure or approach that other filmmakers cannot replicate.

Hell in Paradise, and Paradise in Hell

There are a few things that I always had in the back of my mind when making documentaries around the world.

The first is something a Russian colleague told me: always look for paradise in hell or hell in paradise. For me, this idea sums up the paradoxical contrasts and experiences of life, and at the same time opens up a very useful intellectual tour with which to examine certain stories.

In my investigative documentaries, I’ve always thought that the most interesting films are the ones that show people how the world they think they know actually works differently. Usually, that only becomes clear when you do extensive research in an area and manage to portray it on screen.

Finally, I’ve always found in investigations that those who harm others and do wrong usually make mistakes at the very beginning. That’s why I think a good documentary is an investigation that goes to the very earliest stages of the timeline and tries to connect the threads of later wrongs to what happened at the very beginning.

Telling the Story

The story must be told in a way that’s not manipulative, but told from a place of passion and truth, even if the truth is uncomfortable for the audience to hear.

A good documentary has a story that should be told and must be heard.

A good documentary encourages the audience to question the status quo of the world around them. This can be accomplished by telling the story in a way that’s entertaining and fun, but also leaves room for the audience to question the world they live in and their own beliefs.

A good documentary takes the audience on a journey while teaching them something new about the subject of the film and the world around us.

A good documentary filmmaker should therefore be aware of his message and how he wants to convey it.

Never Tells You How to Think and Feel

The really difficult part is that a good documentary should never tell the audience what to think or feel.

It’s important that the audience always has the opportunity to form their own opinions about what they’re about to see and fill in the blanks with their imagination and curiosity as the film progresses.

Leaves No Stone Unturned

In a good documentary, the audience feels the passion, enthusiasm, and commitment of the filmmaker or filmmakers. You always get the feeling that no stone is left unturned and that the filmmakers have done their best to get to the bottom of things.

In this sense, they’re the direct representatives of the audience on the journey to discover honest truths that the film depicts.

A good documentary filmmaker is one who passionately searches for the truth in his/her point of view and then uses the power of storytelling to communicate that truth to his/her audience.

No Frills or Gimmicks

Skilled documentary filmmakers know their craft and never rely on luck or gimmicks to tell the story.

A good documentary filmmaker is one who’s not out to manipulate the audience or try to play a game of smoke and mirrors, but instead tells the truth and tells the story in a way that’s compelling, but also accessible.

They are oriented to the story and the characters but are also interested in the world around them and the people and ideas that are in it.

Documentary filmmakers must be master storytellers and also be able to think critically because they often have to ask themselves, “What’s the story I want to tell?”

Exudes Empathy and Emotional Honesty

A good documentary filmmaker must be willing to grapple with difficult issues and understand the people he or she’s filming.

Such filmmakers must also be sympathetic to the struggles of the people being filmed and approach the subject with care and sensitivity.

In a good documentary film, the audience never feels patronized but instead feels that the filmmaker is speaking to them.

Ethical documentary filmmakers will always display a sense of caring and even empathy toward the villains of the story; they’re aware of the complexity of humanity and the difficult choices some people have to make. This doesn’t mean that evil is tolerated. Far from it.

The Search for Truth

A good documentary film takes viewers on a journey of discovery, where they learn something new about the world and themselves.

Good documentary filmmakers always try to find the truth while filming. It’s not always possible to capture the truth, but a good documentary filmmaker always knows when he’s found the truth and when he hasn’t.

They remain open to the possibility that they might be wrong while filming. And then they are ready to tell the truth in the film.

A good documentary filmmaker is a storyteller and a journalist, but only in the sense that he/she’s driven by the idea of telling an important story that involves a real struggle.

This drive is characterized by empathy and the ability to see the truth in the subject, and in the people interviewed for the film.

Especially with investigative films or films about controversial topics, there’s a chance that a good documentary will have to piece together the different strands and assemble a huge puzzle of witness statements and evidence.

Often the witnesses in such a film provide pieces of the puzzle, and a good documentary manages to incorporate them into the film in a way that tells the overall story while preserving the subjective truths of the witnesses.

No Shortcuts

A good documentary filmmaker often has to revise the story in his head several times, and several times after the film is completed.

The filmmaker knows that there are no shortcuts to telling a good story and that through honesty and a caring attitude, he or she can get to the heart of a subject and show it in a way that appeals to viewers.

Stories Can (And Do) Change

A good documentary filmmaker is always open to the possibility that the story he wants to tell will change. And then he’s willing to tell the truth about it in the film.

Documentary filmmakers should always know that they aren’t the experts on the story they’re telling. They should learn as much as they can about the story they’re telling, but at the same time, allow the story to shine through.

Good documentary films should never shy away from diving deep into the world and the people being filmed. If they shy away from that, they’ll never get to the truth of the situation.

A good documentary doesn’t necessarily have to have a message, but if it does, it should be subtle and powerful.

A Controlling Idea That Matters

At the heart of any really good documentary is what professional documentary filmmakers call a “controlling idea.” The controlling idea of a documentary isn’t the general theme, documentary subject, or topic.

The closest thing to a controlling idea is a film’s hypothesis or what the filmmakers believe to be the truth or the most important thing about the subject.

A good documentary filmmaker must be able to express his/her central idea in an honest, reliable, and clear manner.

This is because the filmmaker has power over the story itself.

If there’s no controlling idea in a documentary, the film tends to get lost, make no sense, and lose the audience.

A good documentary film expresses the controlling idea in such a way that it’s clear not only to him/herself but also to the audience.

It’s Not Important to Know Everything

A good documentary film doesn’t have an answer for everything in order to make it a good film.

It should have questions to drive it, not always answers. The audience should form the answers in their own minds!

A good documentary filmmaker knows when to get the story and when to let it breathe.

Conflict and Tension

One of the real challenges of making complex and important documentaries is that you’re dealing with real-life experiences for which there are very strict guidelines about how you should portray the truth of what you discover in research and during filming.

Not only is it difficult to source and put together the various pieces of the documentary, but you’ve to do it in a way that makes sense dramaturgically and cinematically.

Of all the different moving parts of a good film, conflict and tension are probably the most important. Of course, you need excellent characters, but if you don’t build conflict and tension into the film, it’ll fail dramatically.

In practice, this means that you set up the conflict that’s at the heart of the film very early in the film. A good documentary will always do this. If you see a film where the conflict is still unclear in the middle of the film, the film will probably fail.

In a good documentary, conflict and tension take all kinds of forms. While the protagonist of a film is usually a human being, the antagonist can be anything. Human, animal, nature, circumstance, the power of history, and more.

The Choice of Characters

The choice of characters or the casting of a good documentary can make or break a film.

The challenge for documentary filmmakers is that the people who may have the most information about a story aren’t necessarily the ones who’re most engaging or charismatic on screen, or as an interview subject (sometimes referred to as a ‘talking head’ – though this is a million miles away from the way a documentary should treat them).

It’s the job of a good documentary filmmaker to single out those who really have something to say and bring them to life on screen – usually through an interview. A big part of that, of course, is done in the editing stage.

Good documentary filmmakers are characterized by the fact that they change a lot over the course of the documentary. That doesn’t mean they’re going through a dramatic change right now, just that they’ve made a significant journey, usually both externally and internally, during the time the film is being shot.

In a good documentary, you can feel the depths of a character and the conflicts they’ve gone through or are going through because of the expressiveness of the character; which is almost always due to the school of the filmmaker who’s broken down those experiences and turned them into a great film.

A good documentary filmmaker should be able to recognize the important characters and make them interesting, in a way that reveals their humanity and keeps them a real person on screen.

They work with their subject to make sure they’re comfortable and confident in front of the camera, so they feel free enough to speak in their natural voice and reveal the truth of their heart and soul.

This interview footage will later be assembled in a way that remains true to the overall story, and to the character.

Part of good documentary casting is knowing that the character will change over the course of the film.

Great Narration

Sometimes you’ll come across a documentary where everything has been done to avoid narrative at all costs. While this can sometimes work brilliantly, it usually leaves the audience confused and the story lackluster.

The fact is that every film, including every documentary, is a subjective affair. Every single choice of casting, editing, camera angle, sound mixing, archival footage, and many other factors is a decision that supports the audience’s emotional and informative experience at that point in the film and throughout the film’s journey.

The same is true for the film’s narration or commentary.

A good documentary filmmaker will work hard on the commentary for many weeks, and it’ll go through many different versions before the final film is shot. The hallmark of a really good commentary in a good documentary is that it serves as a guide and a friend, an extra layer in the film whose presence is absolutely necessary, but never intrusive or imposing.

The same is true, by the way, of music and sound effects. They serve as emotional amplifiers, but only very rarely as the main carriers of emotions.

In a good documentary film, the filmmakers will work hard to get the commentary right.

Craft in a Documentary

A good documentary is usually crafted to engage you visually and emotionally – it’s a film you want to watch, not a lecture. This is usually the result of two things:

1) The filmmaker is a great storyteller.

2) The filmmaker is a perfect master of the craft of filmmaking.

A good documentary filmmaker not only understands the technical details of his or her craft but also has the ability to use these craft elements to create the drama and emotion of the film.

Although the artist’s hand should rarely or never be felt in a film, there are a number of things that are part of an excellent documentary experience.

First and foremost, the documentary filmmaking process behind any good documentary involves excellent research, solid film production, well-judged cinematography, and good direction.

Films are made in the editing room. It’s possible to salvage poor footage shot on location with a deft cut. However, with sound, it’s much more difficult to save work that was poorly done on location. However, a bad or unmotivated editor can ruin a film, no matter how good the source material is.

The documentary director doesn’t work in isolation, but depends on the willing and professional cooperation of his colleagues, from the cameraman to the editor. Ultimately, it’s the director’s responsibility to assemble a solid working team, and the success or failure of a film stands or falls on the director’s ability to hold everything together.

As a viewer of a documentary, you’ll never be privy to all the backstage drama. But ultimately you’ll judge a film as good or bad based on the story it tells and the way it tells it. If any of the above elements went wrong, you’ll have the uneasy feeling that the film didn’t work right.

This isn’t to say that every piece of film has to be perfect. If you watch a film that was obviously made by people who’ve known each other for a long time and work together as a team to achieve a common goal and vision, then that film will stand out as something special.

You can feel the passion and craft in a film when it’s done right.

A good documentary filmmaker respects the craft of filmmaking and works to understand and master it in order to do the best possible job with the material he/she’s.

Examples of Good Documentary Films

The best way to find good documentaries is to check out the filmographies of the major directors as a starting point. So, for example, you should watch the films of Werner Herzog, Michael Moore, Errol Morris. Also look out for films that have won prized at the major film festivals – the Sundance Film Festival, New York, San Francisco.