Making A Documentary

A documentary will almost write itself if you find a good story. That is the skill of making documentaries.

Unlike narrative film, a documentary can get by with a lower production value* IF the story is strong. Many would argue that narrative film also needs a very strong story, but, you only have to visit the cinema to see that is most certainly not true. The film industry is shallow. They go for the look over meaning these days.

Documentary is all about the meaning. The heart of the story.

I haven’t made that many documentaries during my filmmaking life. The one I made was probably enough for me.

It was shot about one month after the Malatya Murders, where three Christians were murdered in the East of Turkey on the 18th April 2007. Having a personal connection to one of the victims, I felt compelled to make an independent documentary, showing the life of this person, their friends reactions and most importantly, to share the voices of their wives, who publicly forgave the killers.

You can see the documentary here still, on Youtube with English subtitles, albeit in very low quality.

Please do keep in mind I was very new to media production when I made this documentary. It was made 10 years ago, using non HD cameras and mini DV.

There are so many things I would change technically about the production of this documentary.

That said, it is still one of the productions I have a deep love for and will treasure forever, because of the people whose lives it was sharing and because of what their message was. A message that Christ died for all, even murderers, in the midst of intense pain.

I wanted to share just a few things I learned during the making of this documentary:

  1. The story must be a burden on your heart. I couldn’t rest until we made this documentary. We were a team of three and when I suggested the idea I was convinced it would be turned down as too dangerous. To my surprise everyone agreed. It had to be made. I couldn’t stop until I had made it.

  2. Prepare interviews ahead of time, but not necessarily all at the same time. We arranged our interviews with the key people we wanted to speak to before setting out to shoot. Some of the interviews involved travelling to Malatya, where the murders had taken place. It was frightening, there was always the thought that we could be targeted too. At the time, getting the message out was a much stronger pull. Other interviews were arranged in our studio where we invited friends to come and speak to us.

  3. Have a team. You may want to do everything yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it is great to travel with a few people. It’s good to have someone else worry about the sound while you interview and it’s good to have someone else setting up the interviews and travel schedule for you. It just makes everything easier. I could not have made that documentary by myself, it would have been impossible. You need a ‘fixer' or a ‘producer’ - someone who has the connections and contacts you need to bring this story together.

  4. Setup interviews in a nice quiet environment and give yourself about an hour to set up and an hour to do the interview. We went between studio shooting and on location in the houses of people we were interviewing. Try and think about alternating the direction your interviewee is facing, so in the edit you can mix and match to shake it up a bit. Most of the interviews included tears from interviewees. We sometimes cried with them and let the cameras run, unless they needed a proper break. I chose in the edit to not include a whole of tears, only when it was part of a thought process. I felt it was private and I didn’t want to exploit those tears.

  5. Prepare and memorise your interview questions. It was a daunting moment where I had to sit in front of two women who had lost their husbands in such a tragic way and ask them about it. I felt like a worm. I, who had endured nothing and was suffering nothing, had to sit and ask them about this terrible thing. To my complete surprise, I was uplifted by what they had to say. I was encouraged by their words. We all were. One of the things I do remember helping me ask those questions though, was learning them off by heart so that I could ask a different relevant question if one came up during an answer and then find my way back to the original questions.

  6. Sketch a plan of where you want your documentary to go. We structured the story along the life of one of the victims. My only reason for this was because I had known him and his wife briefly as a child and I had attended their wedding and heard his testimony there, which really stuck with me. Drawing out a light plan of his life and the information that started his walk of faith and ended with dying for his faith helped us shape interviews and locations around that structure.

  7. Film people doing things. We filmed a home church meeting which added a lovely touch to the documentary. It showed the effect of the deaths and their testimony on not just immediate friends and family but on the church as a whole in Turkey. You could see it there, before your eyes. In spite of such threat, the Turkish church was still going on. People, still reading the Bible, still praying, still meeting together.

  8. Get hundreds of cutaways. When we came to edit, I was so thankful we had trawled all around Turkey, going to church meetings, filming inside the victim’s flat, getting shots of his church members and extra interviews as well as lots and lots of different location shots. The more footage you have to work with, the easier shaping the story becomes and you’re not left wondering what images to put over the interviews. We had been able to attend the funeral and knew a couple of cameramen who had filmed it and were also able to obtain that footage which was extremely useful in the edit.

  9. Be prepared for backlash. I was too young to understand at the time that dealing with a story this public and this terrible, meant that we would get reactions after the film was broadcast from unexpected places. Perhaps this is the reason I have been so reluctant ever since, to be brave and make anything that speaks out so openly. A pastor tried to get us to remove certain interviews because he didn’t want his congregation member as part of the documentary. We were accused of creating fear among Christians, despite only reporting the facts and having the permission of the wives of the victims. I was particularly crushed when I received an email about a year or two later from someone I knew, saying I should be ashamed of myself for making the documentary and didn’t I have any compassion for the victims children. At the time of shooting we had the wives permission and they openly allowed us to interview them. That last barbed comment about the children absolutely broke me. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but to receive such criticism and anger from the very members of the Christian community who should be preaching the same message of forgiveness and speaking the truth of those events, really hurt.

A documentary should do exactly what it says on the tin - document.

So don’t forget that some people won’t want certain events or people documented, even if you have permission. There will be others who want to keep you quiet.

Whenever you make a documentary over a current or controversial issue, you are by the very nature of what you’re doing asking for a reaction, be it good or bad.

My name is Jay, I’m a writer and a film director living in the North East of England with my husband Kevin who is a web developer (and often also my producer) I love Doctor Who, writing songs and illustrating.

  • Production values are the lighting, sound, scenery and props used to improve a film