Harley Wince made her first documentary film at age 14.
It featured her underfunded public school in West Virginia, which was considered an unsafe learning environment due to a rampant black mold infestation.
That film was lost due to technical difficulties, but later, Wince had the opportunity to make a documentary again. In her senior year of high school, she compiled an intimate 10-minute documentary about her parents’ relationship.
“I think that having the capability to make a documentary at 14, regardless of how low-quality it is, I think that’s so empowering,” Wince, a sophomore studying photojournalism, said.
Documentary films are nonfiction works, yet tell personal stories deeply tied to the makers behind them. Documentary filmmaking is a challenging but rewarding process for the filmmakers.
In order to make a good and honest documentary, it’s important to understand both the subject of the film and the technical aspects of filmmaking, Frederick Lewis, associate professor of media arts and studies, said.
“You've got to establish some type of base of knowledge,” he said. “I mean it’s pretty standard that the best thing to do is to try to study it. You can study general production.”
Lewis said the future of documentary film is bright. Modernity allows the art of making a nonfiction film available to everyone, even from their smartphones. However, having a basic understanding of filmmaking and the ethics of it remains important.
“You do have to have a foundation,” Lewis said. “You do need to know the rules before they can be consciously broken. Lots of documentaries kind of die on the vine because the filmmaker has never really thought through. You really have to have a good foundation in terms of just figuring out the world.”
Many people indulge in documentaries without ever realizing it. Assistant professor of film D. Thomas Hayes cited Netflix’s Making a Murderer as a great example of documentary filmmaking.
“That’s a wonderful one,” he said. “It goes back to Errol Morris’s work, The Thin Blue Line, where he not only told an interesting story but saved a man’s life with the camera. This is a powerful tool. It’s not just an object for the creation of an aesthetic.”
When picking a subject, there is a documentary film for almost everything. Nothing is taboo in the world of nonfiction filmmaking, Hayes said.
“There's a billion stories out there to be told,” he said. “There may be three and a half billion. I mean, every human being ever has a story that’s interesting. They’re involved in their culture, their community. I don’t think you have to look far to find a documentary.”
Though it can seem that documentaries typically feature only dry, overdone historical subjects, each director brings his or her individual flair.
“I don’t know that there is such a thing as a generic documentary,” Hayes said. “I think every documentary is kind of like an experimental film because they’re not really formulaic. You can't separate the maker from the work. It’s just impossible.”
Choosing a subject isn’t really a planned process. Documentaries are passion projects that directors pursue out of their own desires. Hayes said documentary subjects are personal, and the filming process can make directors specialists in those fields.
“Most documentary directors, by the time they finish the film, are subject area experts just because they have to be,” Hayes said. “They spend years just digging into a topic.”
Hayes believes documentary films may rid filmmakers’ misconceptions about their subjects, too.
“I have this gut feeling that if you have the film you thought you were going to do before you went out the door to start, it’s a fail,” he said. “Because you didn’t really explore the world with your camera, you didn’t really learn anything.”
Hayes said documentary filmmaking is an evolutionary and interactive process, and it is difficult to control or plan. The purpose of documentary film is to not only share the truth, but to explore the world as we don’t know it.
Wince said the process of making a documentary film is an immersive one, and if someone has an interest in documentary filmmaking, they should delve into it completely.
“Just go out there and try it,” she said. “If you have the means to do it now, just go full force into it.”