How To Find Your Documentary Film Idea

You may spend five years or more living with, working on and building out your documentary film so you want it to be based around a topic you are passionate about.

There’s too much involved to allow yourself to make a film that you are not really all that bothered about. Too much time, too much hustle, too much money, too much required enthusiasm.

Ideally you want to make a film that you feel in your bones that you must make. (unless it’s a paid or work project, but that’s a different story and not what we’re talking about here).

Follow your instincts you will know when you have the right subject, topic, film idea.

Deciding on your documentary film idea requires you to ask a lot of questions and to talk and consider.

Chances are, if you have a question about something, other people do too.

You can engage with trusted friends, other trusted documentary filmmakers, your mum, the milkman, the lady at the store, the universe. But mainly you’re talking and asking questions of yourself.


What questions should I ask?

So, let’s ask some questions right now. Connect with your head and your heart when answering.

* What interests or intrigues you?

* What makes you frustrated or mad?

* What are you passionate or excited about?

* What topic would you like to know more about?

* Is there a specific cause that speaks to you?

* What do I have access to?

* A local nonprofit that deserves the spotlight?

* Something or someone that has a story you feel needs highlighting?

* Do you have a hobby or attend an event you’d like to further explore?

* What information have you learned that you think should be shared

* What questions do you have that you need to be answered?


Be prepared for the unexpected

Once you have asked and answered these questions as honestly as you can, pick out a few ideas and begin to explore them a little further. Be prepared for the unexpected and don’t be surprised if it shows up.

* What speaks to you?

* What is naturally progressing?

* Which path are you allowing yourself to follow down?

* What interests or intrigues me? What do I find myself drawn toward?

* What makes me frustrated, angry or mad? What gets my blood boiling?

* What am I passionate or excited about?

* What topic would I like to know more about?

* What do I have access to? What stories are circling around me personally or within my family or community?

* What challenges have you or someone you know overcome?

* Is there a specific cause that speaks to me?

* Do I feel there’s a local nonprofit that deserves the spotlight?

* Something or someone that has a story I feel needs highlighting?

* Do you want to reveal the truth about something?

* Do I have a hobby or attend an event I’d like to further explore?

* What information have I learned that I think should be shared?

* What questions do I have that I feel need to be answered?


Where to look for your idea

Another way to find a story idea is to look externally for something which then speaks to us somehow internally. Where can we look for ideas and inspiration? Some places we can recommend are:

* Newspapers & magazines

* Online – Read blogs, forums and social media

* Local causes, events, groups or societies

* The News – Local, TV or online

* Books – both fiction and none

* Change your environment – take a day trip or vacation

* Your friends or your family members stories or your personal experiences

* Challenges you or someone you know have overcome

* Stories you’ve heard about in your community

* Talk to people and more importantly, listen


Finding your idea!

You may feel that you’re just not adept at seeing and seeking out story ideas in this way. But let me tell you from personal experience that you are. It just takes a shift in mindset. Please don’t underestimate your abilities.

You are opening yourself up to receive a story that’s out there that needs to be told. You are letting the universe know that you are open to a story that needs to be shared. But most of all you are opening yourself up to a strong and passionate belief that you have found something that you want to spend your time, money and other resources on to make.


Let me tell you a story

From 2010 to 2013 I lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the feature film industry, which was a pretty eye-opening and exciting experience. Whilst I was there I was given the opportunity to work in another creative medium, writing articles for a magazine. Although I enjoy writing, I had never considered myself a ‘writer’, and I was incredibly nervous that what I would produce would be, well, to put it bluntly – absolute rubbish! It felt like a scary and vulnerable experience, not unlike making your first documentary film! But something happened that I hadn’t expected. Something that felt pretty great. And that was…

I began to see the world differently. I began to see potential story ideas everywhere I went. If I met someone new or had an interesting conversation with a friend, if I heard of something happening in the local area or attended an event. There were stories everywhere and they jumped out at me through a mutli-coloured lens.


Find the story

What I’m saying is the same thing can happen to you!

Open your eyes.

Go out and take a look around.

Take some time to allow ideas to present themselves, but keep your eyes open as they do.

Find the story.


What will be the purpose of your film?

Another way to look at and for your story idea is to consider what you’d like the purpose of your film to be or who you would like to make it for. These questions will guide you on the tone of your film and may help give clarity or direction to some ideas you’ve started to consider or have begun forming.

* Do you want to make a change?

* Do you want to provide information?

* Do you want to highlight an injustice?

* Will your film be to primarily entertain?

* Will you film make people laugh or cry or a mixture of both?

* How do you want your audience to feel?

* What do you want your audience to know?

* What do you hope your audience will do next?

* Who is your audience?


Find your idea hot spots

There are two places or activities I do that I can say without doubt are idea forming, clarity building and energizing. For me they are, jogging and taking a shower. I genuinely have the best mental breakthroughs while I’m doing either of these things.

Now it may not be the same for you. Perhaps your breakthroughs come while you’re driving, taking a walk, in the moments just before you wake or while trying to meditate, doing some other form of activity or having a drink with a friend.

Be conscious of that.

* Where and when do you feel your most inspired?

* What are you doing?

* Whom are you with?

If you have a friend that you can chat to for hours, call them up, arrange to meet. Being active and being in fresh air or two great things to help the little grey cells start to circulate.


Write it down

Write down your ideas when they come to you. Write a journal and in it detail events, people, places or topics of interest from your day but you can also do some free writing whereby you pick a thread and allow it to unravel, letting it take you wherever it wants to go.

Keep a notebook on you at all times, even placing it next to your bed. Do some free writing. Record your ideas as an audio voice recording on your smart phone. Whichever way works for you and means you’re more likely to utilize. Also, a personal favorite brainstorm or mind map your ideas.

I hope I’ve given you some thing to consider. I have certainly given you plenty of questions to be asking. Good luck with your doc film idea, #Doclifer and let me know how you get on in the comments below.


Producer and Content Creator, Stephanie Vincenti

Stephanie has worked in the narrative and documentary feature film industry for over 12 years. She is also a producer and content creator for The Documentary Life.

Leave a Comment