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How to improve documentaries – here's the truth

Audiences have become obsessed with filmed tellings of the truth, even if they’re not always all that truthful, but there are some familiar traps documentaries fall into that remove luster from the genre and threaten to make them more like schlockumentaries.

To avoid these pitfalls in the future, I propose the following doc-ing guidelines:

*Don’t create artificial conflict by contriving situations and confrontations just for the movie. Otherwise, it might as well be reality TV.

*If the doc is a portrait of a disgraced public figure who’s serving time, let’s not have a close relative produce and direct it. It might not turn out to be all that objective—but hey, that’s just my subjective opinion.

*If it’s about a scandalous story involving two people and one of them won’t talk, I’d say just skip doing the movie. It will be as skewed as a memoir by a bitter alcoholic. No one wants to hear a one-sided rant—except me–no matter how loud and colorful it is.

*Don’t scream for two hours against a target without at least trying to show both sides of the argument. Everyone’s so anxious to be the next Michael Moore that they tend to pick an enemy and then demonize them for the length of the film.

You end up sympathizing with the devil.

*If there were some germs in the beef processed in New Mexico in 1992, don’t make a whole movie about it. Just send me a memo with some slides. And let’s not have any more films blanketly declaring “Food is bad!” We know!

*Let’s not pick just any artist, avant garde performer, or musician and then train the cameras on them only because they’ve never had a documentary made about them before. There might be a reason there hasn’t been a documentary about them before. Make sure there’s a story there rather than just trotting out a loving portrait of someone who’s been around and doesn’t really surprise anyone anymore.

*Don’t overdo the talking heads. It’s lazy journalism. An endless array of people blabbing away can be a little numbing, especially if they’re all saying the same thing: “This artist, avant garde performer, or musician is so amazing–and a really nice person too!” And please identify these heads onscreen, not just the first time we see them. Keeping track of all those bozos can be really wearying—even if I’m one of them!