Films of all kinds and genres are made at our workshops and for that reason the preparation methods are also very different. Since the film manual was made as an addition to the film education within the framework of the project “Naj se vidi” (Let it be seen), which was intended and carried out as a series of workshops on the subject of documentary film, we will treat the latter as the central subject.
In today’s age of the internet, it’s quite simple to gain insight into the history of documentary film as an independent genre within film art. A number of publications, published in Slovenia as well as abroad, offer great insight into the history of filmmaking or documentary film. In this manual, we will try to prioritise practical advice but on the theoretical level we will rather discuss some questions about documentary film and it’s place in today’s times.
What is the role of documentary film today? Where is it going in its form and content? Which topics should it discuss? Does documentary film best reflect the social and political problems of today’s times?
Of course, ethical questions arise as well. What kind of responsibility does the filmmaker have towards the given topic or subject? Should the filmmaker look for objective truth or should his documentary film be submitted to a subjective view of the world? Should the film, in its form and content, be able to reach the widest circle of viewers possible?
We at Luksuz produkcija believe that we can improve society and bring positive social changes through documentary film. With documentary film, we can investigate certain topics more thoroughly and critically than today’s media. Through that, we also open the ground for public debate about certain topics and problems, which are socially marginalised.
At the beginning, every documentary filmmaker probably confronts three basic questions: what do I want to film, why do I want to film precisely that and how I am going to film it. We asked some established documentary filmmakers to answer these questions. We sincerely hope that you will find something in their answers which will help you with your further work.
Želimir Žilnik was born in Niš (Serbia) in 1942. Many of his fictional and documentary films have received awards. One of the first was the Golden Bear award at Berlinale in 1969 for his fictional film Early Works (Rani radovi).
He is one of the main figures of the Yugoslav Black Wave. Noticeable in his style are social involvement and regime critique, in which he positions himself on the side of the helpless and rightless people. Since his filmmaking beginnings, he’s been portraying people fighting to improve their situation, student demonstrations, fighters for the right of freedom of thought and media, migrant workers… He explored the closing of borders and groups from the edge of society.
He often combines fictional elements with documentary reality in order to say what he thinks is important. He is one of the pioneers of the docudrama genre.
As a visiting lecturer, he cooperates with many film schools all over the world.
An important element of group work at video workshops is the fact that all filmmakers have to cope with clear limitations of the framework of production, in which they must fit: the workshop lasts ten days or the group has to meet each weekend for three months. During this time, a topic must be defined, a work plan must be made, as well as editing and other final things, and the film must be premiered. All this with available technical equipment.
At first glance, this frame seems limiting but it is at the same time stimulative because the limitations are known. First it is necessary to work on the idea and concept and to think about efficiency later. These “limitations” are basically the working frame in every production. There is no one who would decide: “Let the author and the team do whatever and as much as they want, and let them spend as much as they think is necessary”. Even if such circumstances existed, they would rather bring chaos than focus on the work. Therefore, the answer to the question “What is the condition for making a good film?” is: a spark of a good idea (inspiration) and then hard work.
Exploring the topic, scouting the location, choosing co-workers and writing the shooting plan for future filming – this is the process in which you look for the answer to “Why did I choose this topic for my own?”.
My answer is simple: because I will get to know a fragment of society and people who interest me, but I don’t know enough about them. Experience shows that the attraction of the camera and filming open doors to new information and acquaintances. For me, filming is an adventure of exploration.
The third question “What should be the form of the film or video we are making?” has no rational answer. Everyone has different visual taste, temperament, type of narration. At the same time, we are also lovers of very different films. In the end, the “film handwriting” defines and differentiates one author from another. This is something we can’t learn. Every filmmaker has to find it within themselves.
Workshops are an extraordinary platform precisely for these types of questions.
Boris Petkovič, born 22. 4. 1971 in Zenica (Bosnia), graduated at the Higher Vocational College of Traffic and Transport in Portorož in 1996. In 2005, he graduated in film directing from EICAR film school in Paris, where he also taught for the next three years. In 2008, he returned to Slovenia, where he currently lives and works. He is the author of several documentary and fictional films which have received awards in Slovenia and all over the world. He’s been active in the field of film education for over a decade.
Generally, topics that interest me in my filmmaking are those that are mostly pushed to the side or are not widely discussed. In my work, I am solely and above all interested in people. Whether these are people who have been stigmatised in the medical (HIV-positive, lepers …) or political field (refugees, migrants, Roma people …) or are stigmatised merely through their actions (different subcultures).
When I begin to prepare a documentary film, I always ask myself, will this topic affect me, will I become a better person because of it, more tolerant, more open?… If my answer is affirmative, then I can rightly assume that this topic will affect any viewer in the same way.
When I decide on a topic that thrills me, I first get well acquainted with it. Through the process of research, I go as broad as possible because in that moment I still don’t have a story, nor characters or form. Several times, I have given up on a certain topic during the research process. After I decide on a certain topic, the next step is to find characters I can tell the story through. Sometimes, it’s the opposite process; I first meet a person that intrigues me and I afterwards weave a broader story around this person.
The form comes at the end and it’s always adapted to the content. If I decide on a “cinéma vérité” approach in the form, then I’m careful not to open certain subjects with my characters in the process of preparation. I believe namely in the rule of “spoken for the first time”. I believe that people, if you manage to establish good relations with them, talk with a certain fire, emotions, beliefs… and if they are forced to repeat this story several times, the fire and emotions get lost. Instead, a reflective or more conceptual story appears. If I am forced into repetition while shooting, I try to “turn” some other member of the crew into a listener. This way, I get a bit closer again to the “innocence” because my hero or heroine is telling the story again to someone for the first time.
In principle, I don’t write scripts. I write a synopsis, also a certain content scheme of the project. After that, I get ready for single parts of the project “on paper”. The great pleasure of making documentaries is that you never know where the film will take you. Despite this, it’s very important that wherever the film may take you, you know that in the end you must be the one who leads the film and not the other way around.
Marko Cvejić was born in Zrenjanin (Serbia) in 1978. He graduated in film and theatre directing at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. He is the founder of the independent film production company Mandragora film. He has made more than ten short and feature films and has a lot of experience in all fields of filmmaking. He is mainly interested in the combination of documentary and fiction, which is noticeable as the dominant characteristic of his work. His films, unconcerned with language, space or national identity, represent the broader cultural diversity of the Balkans.
Documentary film isn’t just a genre, it’s a way of life that is based on a keen sense of taste and sight, adequate moral and ethical judgement, a need for healthy critique of society and readiness to stand up for your own decisions. In a documentary film, there is no room for compromise; it’s a mirror of reality with its own laws – things, which are clear in their nature, must stay that way and shouldn’t be mystified. Unclear things should be left as they are without being analysed. Things which are partially clear should be recognised because within them lays all the drama and magic of film.
I always try to be consistent and independent in the choice of topics. At the same time, I try to establish a unified methodology for discussing these topics. The topics themselves depend on various circumstances and manifest themselves differently from film to film. Sometimes, it’s about the feeling from which a story develops. Sometimes, the authenticity of a person is so great that I put this person in the role of the protagonist and build a drama around him or her. And sometimes, it’s the producer who brings the topic and money for filming. I like to address topics which aren’t represented in the daily media space. My heroes are often anti-heroes, marginalised and pushed out of society. Under the assumption that enjoying art enriches and inspires, I try, with the messages that I send through my films, to create some kind of an intimate world within the viewers, where they themselves can explain the drama which I am dealing with. I believe that art must be current according to the time in which it’s made. It must be politically active, unbribable and worthy of its position in the history of humanity. Thereby I justify my position in the ocean of creativity with the fact that viewers of my films are taking part in this, at least a little.
The documentary form intrigues me because of its authenticity and endless possibilities, because of the fact that I’m capturing moments of reality with my camera and recording them for eternity. In documentary language, the protagonists don’t act or lie. Finally, documentary film attracts me because it’s much cheaper than fiction film and so enables me to stay independent from any ministers, offices, foundations and other false patrons. Dramatically speaking, we live in a very interesting era, full of film stories. If they would all turn into fiction films, not even hundred of them would stay recorded for future generations. In this sense, documentary film enables higher productivity and this drives me to continue occupying myself with it. Sometimes I choose a documentary-fiction form for topics that allow this. Then my principal of work is that I come up with an artificial part of the story based on documentary facts. This part of the story isn’t completely made up nor has it actually happened but according to all other parameters of the dramatic story, it’s an organic part of it. Also then I mainly work with non-professional actors, because they don’t lie.
With my work, I try to contribute to the restoration of value criteria. Film is a very communicative medium and as such much more expressive than television, which is flooded with daily political impressions. Social responsibility shows in authors the ability to recognise the needs of the times in which the author lives, to speak out in the name of supporters who don’t have the chance or capability, and to use the language of motion-picture to constantly warn about the social injustices that were caused through uncontrolled politics or irresponsible individuals. The documentary filmmaker must be a critical and active individual, motivated in his work by social movements.
Documentary film is one of the lighthouses of humanity in the 20th century – it recorded, encouraged, transformed and preserved. Without documentary film, history would be submitted to manipulation to a much greater extent and numerous key things would stay far away from the eyes of reality.
He understands documentary film as an integral part of his social involvement. His main interests are social topics, supporting social groups without rights and social conflict.
Why, what and how?
In my documentary work, I combine practice and theory. I regularly document everyday life with fragments of photographic, textual and audiovisual notes on my blog. Archiving little things from personal life serves me as an exercise and experiment or a plan for scenes in films which I will never make. At the same time, I think about originality, style, creativity and reception.
I’ve been making films since 2006. Eight years in filmmaking is a relatively short period, because life experience is an important factor for continuity in documentarism. I believe that we can’t discuss the process of making a documentary separately from what we call “personal life” because it isn’t like work, which we start at one point and end at another. Experience, which we gather through life, is an integral part of our work in a film. After the film is made, the characters and topics which we were working on become a part of our life.
I think it’s more important to answer the question “Why am I making documentary films?” than “What am I filming?” or “How am I filming?”. Above all, it is important to enjoy the process of making a film, unexpected changes, trying out new techniques, getting to know new characters, working with new colleagues… In doing so, it’s necessary to keep the elementary wish for research, to be curious about potential topics and possible audiovisual techniques of presentation and interpretation of topics.
As for the answer to the question “What to film?”, I believe that even the most boring topic can become a great film in hands of a good director. Each topic can be presented through different media – it can be worked out as a documentary or fiction film, as a journalistic article, a book, an essay, a scientific work, a series of photographs, pictures, a television reportage, a radio play, a performance, an interview… We begin filming any topic only when we first have a clear idea why this specific topic should be worked out in a film and not, for example, in photos or in text.
The question “What am I filming?” is inseparably connected to the question “How am I filming?”. If I’m watching films, I recognise filming procedures and styles that I like and intuitively or consciously use them with the topic I’m working on. I often ask myself how I could present a person, space, problem or a feeling in a film, regardless if I’m actually planning a film or not. This is an everyday practice that sometimes brings me in an unbearable situation, when I see everything around me as a potential film.
I try not to make banal or boring films and not to underestimate the viewer. Even if I am working on serious topics, I enjoy the process of filmmaking and understand it as an integral part of life and not as work, which would lead to some external goal.