5 Tips for Making the Personal Documentary

Often times as documentary filmmakers, we will choose topics that are near and dear to our hearts, we have quite personal connections to these topics.  So it’s only natural we choose to be a central part of our films and make what is known as the ‘personal documentary’.

While some of the more powerful stories in documentary can be of a very personal nature, there are things that any documentary filmmaker must consider before embarking on the personal documentary journey. Here are some tips in making a personal documentary.


5 Tips for Making the Personal Documentary


1. Have a way to film yourself

This is kind of an obvious and a very practical tip.  You have to have a way to film yourself, or at the very least have someone filming you.  But really, even if you have someone filming you, you’re still going to need a way to film yourself, because the notion that someone is going to be with you filming you 24-7 is a pretty fantastic – and I might add, pretty frightening – thought.

Because you’re doing a personal documentary, you’re often going to want to have the ability to share some immediate thoughts to camera or film yourself or something that has happened on the fly.  Because of this, you must have easy and quick access to a camera at all times.

Now, these days, that’s pretty easy since most of us have mobile phones with some pretty great video capabilities.  That being said, just be sure that’s the look that you’re going to want for these spontaneous or journal-esque type moments.  You should think through prior to beginning production on the look and feel and what camera or cameras will be employed, and the reasons for employing them.

You may decide to shoot truly personal moments with your phone.  And if you’re an athlete, perhaps your moments where you’re practicing your sport, with an action camera like a GoPro.  And, perhaps, you want footage that isn’t directly on you to be shot in an obviously different style and look.

Figure this all out beforehand, if possible, and then move forward with whatever you decide.  However that looks just make sure that you always have quick access to some video recording device.


2. Decide how personal you’re willing to be

Since you’re making a documentary that is going to be about you (and possibly your life), it’s probably pretty important to decide early on how personal you want to be.  How much of your life are you willing to expose to the outside world? 

Remember, once you make this film and get it out into the world, nowadays, it’s practically impossible to pull back from it.  So you need to be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to share with the world, your family, your friends, your kids, your grandkids.  When you make your film, it’s pretty forever.  And that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

As a side note here, remember, that any of your family and friends who might end up in your film, will also have to live with the image that is presented of them.  They too will be affected by how they are portrayed.  You might remember, when we had on documentary filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday and there was one particularly sensitive and emotional moment when they are interviewing Leah’s father, Morrie.  And they had to make a very conscious choice on whether or not to include some very raw & emotional moments.  And they, as well as Morrie will have to live with that choice now for the rest of their lives.

You might also remember that we had on IDA Career Achievement Award Winner, Lourdes Portillo on the podcast, a woman who is well acquainted with the personal documentary.  And she even said on the episode how some of her family have not spoken with her since she did her film 30 years ago.

This, of course, is not to scare you – actually, maybe in a way it is – but the point is just to be very conscious of how you might be willing to present yourself on camera, as well as others who may be in your film.  That there can be consequences, depending on how you might portray yourself and/or others.


3. Choose topic you’re passionate about

If you’re doing a personal documentary, you are hopefully passionate about what you are doing and the things that you are saying in your documentary.  If not, you could end up making a pretty boring video diary of events of your life.  And trust me, no one really wants to see that.  Maybe I shouldn’t speak for others, but I don’t want to see that.  I don’t want to invest a couple hours of my time to watch you going to the grocery story, cutting your fingernails, or having boring conversations with your friends.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true, I suppose.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing that in The Maysles Bros’, Grey Gardens.  Haha!

But seriously, your personal documentary will most likely contain some sort of interesting story element anyway, otherwise you might not have a need to make the film in the first place.  You might be someone who is actively engaged in helping refugees acclimate to your town.  Or you might have discovered a new and unique way to sail around the world on a boat made of balsa wood.  You might be a teacher at a particularly diverse school on the border with Mexico.

You get what I’m saying here.  There has to be something that you deeply care about, not just because the viewer needs a good reason to invest their time watching your film, but also because you yourself are going to be investing an extraordinary amount of time making your film.  You’ll want to have something to say, whether it be during pieces directly to camera or through the filming of events taking place or whatever.  You can have something to say, literally, or with the footage that you are shooting.


4. Can you be comfortable in front of the camera?

This may seem rather obvious, initially, but it is actually something that you really need to consider.  Can you not just be comfortable in front of the camera, but do you think that others will want to see you on camera?  And I don’t mean this in any vain sort of sense, I don’t mean are you attractive, or super witty, or anything like that.  I just mean, when the camera is on – which it will be a LOT of the time – are you able to speak and act in a way that’s pretty natural.? Or are you, in fact, intimidated by the camera and are unable to speak what’s on your mind?  Or are you often too aware of the camera, or are very self conscious?

Now, it may also be that you just need some time with the camera.  Most subjects of documentaries, I would wager, have a bit of time that’s necessary for them to get used to a camera being around, let alone a crew of some size.  That’s perfectly natural and understandable.  But after a while, the camera kind of seems to fade from the scene.  You do get used to it.

But if you’re never really able to get used to it, or you’re always apprehensive or shy about it, well then you might want to reconsider having a film about yourself or your life made.  Because it’s just gonna make you anxious all of the time!  And if you’re anxious at all, that’s most certainly going to be seen on-camera.  So, do find out what your comfort level is, or could be.


5. Don’t over-explain

One very quick way to either bore or turn off an audience member from watching your film, is if you constantly over explain things.  Never beat people over the heads with your ideas, thoughts, suggestions.  Let people come to their own conclusions.  Afterall, isn’t that part of why we read a story or watch a film, to be able to take the information and then form our own opinions?

Now, obviously, if you’re making a Michael Moore-type doc, you’re perhaps trying to shape people’s minds about a particular subject.  (And he can certainly go over the top with his presentation, although he often does this sort of thing, with a wink of an eye to the audience).  But unless you’re making this kind of a documentary, you’ll want to remind yourself that you want to allow your audience the opportunity to take in what you’re presenting to them, and to form their own opinions.

Best way that you can do this, is to show don’t tell.  So allow us to see events and people without your actual voice or narration always telling us what we’re seeing or how we should interpret what we’re seeing.  You may need to go through and re-write your narration – if you are using narration in your film – you might have to re-work it a few times so as to make sure that you’re not over explaining moments.



Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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