For a few tips on making a good documentary, I interviewed Patricia Foulkrod. She is the director/producer of The Ground Truth, which was on the shortlist of 15 documentary features considered for a 2006 Oscar nomination.
Patricia has worked on both documentaries and feature films. Among her credits, the documentary, They’re Doing My Time, is about children with mothers in prison. She produced and directed that film, and later was executive producer on its fictional adaptation, starring Angela Bassett.
At the heart of The Ground Truth are harrowing interviews with Iraq war vets, men and women, and the parents of a vet who committed suicide, plus interviews with wives, girlfriends, and members of support groups. These interviews fit within the general progression of the film, from induction, boot camp, and war, to homecoming.
When interviewing people for a documentary, Patricia stressed the importance of sound. She said that picture quality can be poor, “but if you can’t understand them, forget it.” A wireless or boom mic is essential; “never ever” use the mic that comes with a video camera.
In spite of the importance of sound, she does not mind conducting an interview where a lot is going on, for instance, in a market. The key is “to have things as quiet as you possibly can.”
Listening is an important skill for documentary filmmakers. She said, “You should always wear headsets when you interview people. Because if you don’t have headsets on you’re not really listening as well as you think you are. You have to work with a headset that makes you feel not too separate from them.”
“Because I come from television, I will constantly be able to hear. I don’t know that everybody does this, but I will constantly be able to hear when they [the interviewees] don’t incorporate the question into the answer.”
If necessary, Patricia will retake an answer, which is a little bit of a skill because you can really piss people off. Because you’re asking them to basically repeat what they’ve just said. If you don’t do that when you get into the editing room it can be a nightmare. And it’s worth it because people will say things that are just really, really important, but they won’t make any sense because they’re completely out of context.”
“I think you have to interview people as if you will never ever have narration. And sometimes when I see documentaries, it’s very clear to me that if they didn’t have narration, we wouldn’t know what anybody was talking about.”
In addition to sound, a documentary filmmaker obviously must work out how the video is shot. Patricia said that a director can’t assume that the camera people know what you want or what you’re thinking, particularly in terms of angles. Because a cameraman might think that a medium shot is really the right place to be, and that’s standard for him in his experience, or her experience, but for this particular person [being interviewed], you might want to be really tight on them for whatever reason.”
Interviews are generally intercut with B roll (additional footage), usually shot without sync sound, of people waking their dogs, etc. Patricia commented, “I get really bored with the idea of filming people in their kitchens or ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ And having made this film, I really see that it may seem boring at the time, but it’s invaluable in terms of being able to tell a story. All that B roll really helps.”
In The Ground Truth, some B roll of Robert Acosta, coupled with a voice over, is particularly affecting. Acosta lost his right hand and his legs were shattered by a grenade in Iraq. His voice over begins as he unloads a box from a car, which he takes upstairs to his apartment, “I’m 22 years old and I’m all, I’m all messed up. My leg’s messed up. It’s hard to wake up in the morning. My hand’s gone. My hips are all messed up now because I’m just walking all weird. My knees hurt. Like I had goals in the military, you know. Like never before had I had goals, and that was all taken away.”
Without the editing of footage and sound, we would see Acosta’s physical loss, but the loss in his life would not be as explicit. As Barry Hampe wrote in his book, Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos, the proper job of documentary filmmakers is “recording of good images and organizing them in a forceful way to make a statement to an audience. We are obliged to document as well as to record.”
The distribution of documentaries is easier now than in the past. Since a number of documentaries have done well at the box office in recent years, Patricia said that the trend is to push that forward so that the money a documentary makes is no longer judged “by documentary standards,” but by the standards applied to any film.
She thinks that Netflix is a major new form of documentary distribution. The Internet is also embracing documentaries. By streaming seven minutes of The Ground Truth, AOL played a very big part in increasing audience awareness of her film. AOL has also launched its own feature length documentary project.
I asked Patricia if she thought that documentaries will become a more important source of information because Americans don’t read much.
She answered, “My job is not to educate someone because they don’t read. My job is to find a subject that really interests me that I think you should know about, and take a point of view and tell you about it. I can’t possibly tell you everything about the Iraq war because you’re not interested in watching the news or reading the newspapers about it everyday.”
Her idea of what documentaries or films can do is get people interested enough to learn more. She advises, “If you have an idea for a documentary, and you think that you want to make this film because you want people to learn something, that’s great, but you really have to think about the way you structure it so that they’re willing to listen and willing to learn.”
Mike Reizman works as a technical writer, and sporadically, as a freelance writer and bookseller.
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