Doug Block's 51 Birch Street is an example of a filmmaker successfully using himself in his film.
“If the structure doesn’t work, put yourself in the film.” And everything will magically work? Not quite.
The myth in all its glory
When desperate to solve some structural issues, the eager-to-help colleague blurts out, “How about you? Make it your story!” You might cringe because you had mixed feelings about this approach. Or you wanted to do this all along but felt shy or modest about it.
Granted that for scattered docs, whether due to entangled storylines or too broad a topic, a grounding element is always a welcome alternative. Yet there are many story devices that can be used to unify the structure of your film. As a character or a narrator, you are only one of thee potential devices and not always the most suitable or efficient option from a story perspective.
The myth of your having to become the star of your film to save its structure is a much-touted magic solution that rarely lives up to its expectations.
Possible origin of the myth
The two most common ways a filmmaker can be in the film are: a) when it’s his/her story, the personal doc; b) when the filmmaker is the searcher/inquisitor, sometimes as narrator only or often on camera, interacting with characters, interviewees, etc. The filmmaker as searcher of truth is different in intention from the journalist or host in a documentary, who has no personal investment in the search except for doing a good job.
The personal documentary, where the camera turns inwards, reached its apex in the ’90s. In this American Belle Époque, with the social climate stable and the economy generous, film nonprofits and grants blossomed and the artist could indulge in some self-reflection. Personal films existed before and still do, but they peaked at about that time.
Then history took a turn in three successive strikes: Bush, 9/11, Michael Moore. That is to say: the economy shrank (read, less federal funding for the arts); the social climate got troublesome; and a documentary filmmaker succeeds at the box office by getting personal.
So the filmmaker-in-film formula carries two strong decades of critical and financial validation. It’s no surprise then that when a story doesn’t work, everyone chants in a trance of unquestioned conviction, “Put yourself in the film!”
Some truth to it
There are great examples of filmmakers who embraced the personal doc. From Doug Block to Alan Berliner, they mastered the genre and we can’t imagine their films otherwise. Can anybody picture 51 Birch Street by Doug Block as an investigative report done by somebody else? Or as a doc narrated by an actor? Certain films are meant to be personal or there is no film.
There are great examples of filmmakers on a personal quest, diving with passion into pretty much any topic, from guns to burgers. Those films are more likely to have worked without the filmmakers in them, but their presence added that je ne se quoi that makes their documentary what they are.
Yet, just because it worked for them in those circumstances, doesn’t mean it will work for everybody or even for them next time around.
The real deal
Both the personal doc and filmmaker-in-the-doc are genres, not band-aids to apply when things don’t go as expected. As such, they present their own structure challenges. If being in the film can be a possible solution or was in the cards and never materialized because of filmmaker’s doubts, then much needs to be considered before taking that step.
What to do
Before considering being in the film at any stage of production, fix the structure separately from the option of adding yourself. Are all storyline arcs working like clockwork? Is there missing information? Is there repetition when there should be reinforcement? And, finally, does adding the filmmaker enhance the film in a way that nothing else can?
After that and only after, it’s time to ask yourself, do you want to be in the film? If yes or no, why? Eagerness or reluctance speaks volumes. It might seem an obvious question but few take the time to think about it thoroughly. And when they do, their reasons are plagued by the same misconceptions and prejudices of those offering such advice.
No matter whether it started as a yes or was a no that became a yes, a filmmaker has to be judged for her role as character as any other character would: Can this person sustain the story? Is she engaging? What does this person bring to the story?
If having the filmmaker in the film was always a no and remains a no after thoughtful consideration, there can be a compromise in having the filmmaker narrate instead of appearing in full body.
The decision, as usual, has to be intrinsic to storytelling and not an outside force. Because for everyone who counts the benefits adding the filmmaker to make the doc more personable, there will be an equal amount of industry people rolling their eyes and approaching the film with reservation. When it comes to prejudices, there is plenty to go around on both camps.
And if fearing that not being in the film will make it less your work, remember the thoughts of French semiotician Roland Barthes who believed all fiction is autobiographical and all autobiographies are fiction. The same can be applied, to some extent, to documentaries or any artistic work for that matter. When there is a person creating, their hand can be seen no matter the format. Now does the hand need to be seen literally?
To think further
Maybe we need to expand our vocabulary to go beyond the personal doc description, like in-person doc, or point-of-view doc. And at all times we have to distinguish when the personal is genre or story device.
May all filmmakers be in their films; not always in the flesh but always in spirit.
Other information: The Doc will take August off!
Doctor’s Credentials: Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award® nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.