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So You Want to be a Documentarian? A Primer for Seeking the Truth of a Story

By Cynthia Close

Making Documentary Films and Videos
Second Edition 2007
By Barry Hampe

As the director of a well-established documentary film distribution company, one would think that I watch a lot of documentaries. The truth is, I watch the first five minutes of a lot of documentaries, but it is a rare and much anticipated moment when I lose myself in a story and find that 60 or 90 minutes has passed, and suddenly I emerge feeling I've actually learned something or met someone that I hadn't known before.

Something similar happens between me and books about the film industry. Being an advisor to independent filmmakers, I am obligated to know what is going on in the world in which I profess to be a source of information. I am always on the lookout for books that keep me up to date. I buy and scan the table of contents, add them to my office library, but rarely read them.

However, the second edition of Making Documentary Film and Videos by Barry Hampe was different. I actually read it. Rather than skimming for information I could reduce to a power-point presentation, I found myself immersed in Hampe's storytelling style. After all, he reminds us, good storytelling is at the heart of every documentary, and he seems to have taken his own advice by weaving his personal filmmaking experience, his well informed history of the genre, and technical and practical "how to" information, into an engaging handbook that has now replaced my previous number one recommendation as the best book to start with when considering the making of a documentary film.

I like knowing an author's source of inspiration, as it informs the perspective he or she brings to the work. Hampe tells us right up front in the preface of the first edition of the book, also included here, that he was mentored by Sol Worth. He also sets the tone by stating there is a process one can follow as a documentarian that can lead you to the truth of a story, whether it is the re-creating of past events or recording behavior, that this process is not a strict set of rules, but rather guided by a sensitivity to the subject.

Hampe's belief that ethics are essential to the core of documentary-making struck home to me as my own mentor, filmmaker John Marshall, had a commitment to getting at truth in his films. Being of a younger and more jaded generation, this sounded almost quaint to me. Hampe manages to make ethics actually sound hip, and gives clear direction how a documentary can be planned and executed to produce a final product that audiences can believe in. In this age of image saturation and information glut from dubious sources, I find this aspect of Hampe's writing to be the most important, the most compelling and inspiring.

Most filmmaking guidebooks are heavy on the technical side, but leave out the most important part about filmmaking: The Idea. Without a good, solid idea at the start, no amount of technical know-how will help to produce a great documentary. The biggest leap, and it is a leap that some filmmakers never successfully accomplish, is moving from the idea or concept to The Story, a story that can be told, and should be told, in pictures.

Hampe uses real-world examples throughout the book to illustrate what he's talking about. Watching all the films he refers to in the text could provide a way of learning by osmosis. We can absorb those concepts the way most emerging filmmakers learn best-visually, seeing how really great films were made, and understanding their underlying structure.

Personnel anecdotes from Hampe's own family and professional life are sprinkled throughout the book. If over-emphasized, these could have been distracting, but they popped up at just the right moment and helped to maintain my interest as well make me feel that there was a real person here, acting as my guide.

One of the most informative, and to me, helpful, aspects of the book was Hampe's definitions of terms. I am often asked, "What is a ‘proposal'?", "What is a ‘treatment'?", "What is a ‘script'?" and "How do they differ?" So many aspiring filmmakers think all they have to do to make a documentary is grab a digital camera, point it in the direction of something interesting and start shooting. Hampe emphasizes the importance of planning and the amount of time that should be invested in this part of the process. I particularly like what he said about the treatment: "...Some people, including some producers, have the idea that writing a treatment is a sort of pro forma exercise that shouldn't take a lot of time. Actually, the treatment sets the direction for the film. As we've seen, a treatment may be the primary shooting plan for a documentary. It's often used for budgeting. It sets the structure of the film. And it's the template from which the script is written. All in all, a pretty important document."

Much of the information in this book is devoted to relationships: The relationship of filmmaker to subject, director to crew, the role of actors vs "real people," how to conduct interviews, and ultimately the finished film to its intended audience. In all instances I found a healthy mix of general reflections-"Interviewing is a special skill. Some do it well, some don't. I think the best interviewers listen intently and speak cautiously-and as little as possible."-followed by very specific guidelines: "You may want to do a pre-interview to find out what the person has to say and how she or he says it. But be careful this doesn't lead to the situation, on camera, in which the speaker begins every sentence with, ‘As I told you before...'"

Hampe includes a treasure trove of information that he saves for the nine appendices at the end of the book, including recommendations for equipment, information on budgeting, actual sample treatments, a sample script and a great filmography that I am using to guide my Netflix queue. He also tells us how to get in touch with him, personnally, to continue the dialogue-a rare opportunity from an author. But Barry Hampe knows the importance of building relationships with your audience. He is demonstrating by example. All of this adds up to why this has become my new number one book for aspiring documentarians.

Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.