Rise UP! Document the system! (Documentary How to?)
June 2, 2010 7:36 PM   Subscribe

ActivistFilter: I'm done, I'm going rogue, I'm fighting the system, I'm doing it Guerrilla style, I'm 100% serious: Our first project is a documentary, but we don't know how to make a documentary.

My cousin and I are fed up and going to fight back... with words, images and knowledge, but probably not much money.

Leaving the larger activism question aside, lets focus on the immediate project, which is a Documentary that needs to be made.

We do not have any film experience per say, but we have passion and, whats better, the topic we are exploring is local, accessible (My aunt, my cousin's mother, works at and is leading the fight to protect this public institution in our area) and touches on everything we care about... there is a labor aspect, a social justice aspect, and a use of public lands vs commercial interests aspect, and a mental illness/exclusion/stigma aspect. And it is a gripping story in that (unfortunately) it bleeds... due to poor staffing and training there have already been deaths of patients and nurse injury at the new facility that is meant to house the outflow.

From my aunt we have some pretty easy access to the underdog side of the fight, The union, the activists, etc but we do want to get access to the "system" side of the story (state legislators, city officials, the hospital, the bean counters).

What I am concerned about is this institution is closing in less than a year (well, they've said that for 6-8 years, now, but now it is getting serious). So we need to get material fast and hopefully be able to release the "protect the hospital" version of the documentary soon enough to effect the outcome. I'd like to make a full length or other projects that examine the deeper aspects later, but that can wait (though it would be great to have some of the video content in the can).

Also, there are a ton of legal problems since it is a hospital and HIPPA etc, I'd love to get the patient interviews and reactions.

So please help, how do we go from basically zero to documentary film in 6 months on a shoestring and no experience? Technical help and legal assistance is primary concern, but also any resources on good interviewing, researching, and eventually distribution methods and other related areas appreciated.

BTW, I'm not talking about some sort of full length feature documentary or traditional distribution methods (though that would be great.) We are prepared to release the film for free on the internet with backyard screenings if that helps. In mini-sodes, or as a integrated website with additional resources or whatever. But Right now I just want to capture the material on celluloid (or digital equivalent) so we can release something.
posted by DetonatedManiac to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should quickly add what I said about my Aunt "leading the fight" is a bit over the top... she is very vocal and part of an organic resistance, she has been interviewed by the media multiple times, but she is just a nurse, there are a number of other organizations in various aspects of this.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:40 PM on June 2, 2010

Have you considered bringing this to the attention of an experienced filmmaker?
posted by HuronBob at 7:42 PM on June 2, 2010

For that matter, bring it to the attention of an inexperienced film maker - is there a university in your area? Students, students, students. Cheap labor, passionate, and will be able to help you out with perspective if nothing else because they're studying the process of film making themselves.
posted by lriG rorriM at 7:47 PM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: I'd be happy to, do you know any?

also, a book has been made about this, it's been in the media for 8 years, it has been a major thing in local press, a few propositions have been voted on and no one seems to care. there are a half dozen Universities with film schools within walking distance of this institution, no students have stepped up...

People don't care cuz they are dark skinned insane people. But if you can get Michal Moore to appear more power to ya.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:49 PM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: (let me clarify, there are 3 institutions within walking/biking distance, and then 3 other state schools/trade schools in the greater city area...)

But I don't mean to be snippy but that is the point of the question... I think it would be easier to recruit student talent if we have the two core people with the connections and the passion start with a plan and then draw other people in... not make it:

step 1: tell college kids
step 2: ?
step 3: Profit!
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:54 PM on June 2, 2010

Call Michael Moore...barring that, is the hospital JCAHO accredited? You may want to complain to them if so. Does your state have a hospital association? Your state department of health may have something to do with their certification. Does your media have a "people helper" consumer advocate? A documentary is good (lots of technical work required) but how about a YouTube video? Social media going viral may get you more attention than a documentary film.
posted by MsKim at 7:54 PM on June 2, 2010

the best training you will get is to watch. get 20-50 documentaries on topics you know nothing about and don't care about - watch them, figure out what they do to inform and get you to care, figure out what they do that fails at that mission.

for the legal aspects, especially since you're dealing with hospitals and metal health, you have to have a lawyer. don't interview anyone on film until you've discussed your plan with a lawyer.
posted by nadawi at 7:54 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: MsKim - the state WANTS THE DAMN LAND! It is downtown and prime development land, to hell with the fact that it is beautifully kept up and historical property. Yes, State Regional, where they are transferring people has had accreditation issues (I don't know if it JCAHO specifically, I'll ask my aunt) but this is the point... they are forcing it anyway because of $$$$.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:01 PM on June 2, 2010

Mods deleted it, so let's try this again because the comment wasn't intended as snark, but meant to illustrate a point:

I am completely serious about this. Go through all of the mini-documentaries that live on Youtube. They are rife with careless spelling mistakes. It lends an air of ignorance and carelessness. This is a bad thing, especially in a documentary.

I'm going rouge

Spell check every bit of text that you plan to put on screen. Careless mistakes will cause derision that is apt drown out the subject matter.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:18 PM on June 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Local access tv might have equipment to lend and classes in how to use it, but like HuronBob said, finding experienced help will result in a better film, and I disagree with you, people do care, dark skinned or not, but they may not want to butt in where they haven't been invited. So you have to invite. And that is the next problem.

What you're really asking for is help, a mentor, not someone to take over (and we do all have egos, and students and academics do especially.).

First, decide exactly the amount of help you want. Second, don't look for the person perfect to give that help -- you don't want a film maker, you want a film maker who will be interested in your project, your cause. Look for the organizations on the campuses, or in the community, that can tell you who at the local tv stations or in the local film department share your commitment. You will need to find about five students or two professors/locals with production backgrounds and contacts, and may need a second batch later.

Once you have the list go in with your proposal. This is more detailed and shorter than anything you have ever written in school: a page that tell exactly what you want to do (not, "make a documentary", the aims of the documentary and why those aims are important and to whom they are important. That page is the heart of your project, do not kill it with rhetoric and bullshit, sell it with honesty and hope.). Then spend a page and half on the help you want, be precise. Then, spend as much as two pages on an outline, well considered and reasonable, on an outline of your film (specify shots; name people you would like to interview; the last words the narrator will speak. Spend a lot of time on this, but it is the least important, all you want it to do is give an experienced filmmaker an orgasm of imagination, and then she will throw your ideas out (that's fine, the first two parts are all that matter to you (remember that!).

tl:dr version: get some contacts and write a proposal. Don't worry about lawyers and such yet, when you need them they will become more interested (and some really do have hearts, I've known at least three that did.). Then you need to find a venue, an audience, but that is easier when you have the project well on its way.
posted by Some1 at 8:21 PM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry, MsKim I'm a bit heated, I should not have snapped... its Dorothea Dix Hospital, NAMI, the nurses union, and enough institutional actors are involved, I doubt I would help much going through normal channels, that's all.

Cat Pie: Well taken... I am writing in haste here, my mistake.

Mods... I too need to be taken back a step, I'm all riled up and snarky, fighting the green like they are the enemy... so sorry... if you could, please remove all my comments but this one thanks

posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:27 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Um, there is documentaryisneverneutral.com which covers exactly these sorts of things (full disclosure, I helped on this and I know you're not supposed to self link but it's made for just this sort of question)
posted by history is a weapon at 8:29 PM on June 2, 2010

Writing out the above proposal is definitely your first step. Right now, there are way too many possibly connections in your topic, and you need a focus. You don't necessarily need to know exactly what that focus is right now, and it will likely change throughout the making of the project, but you can't address all the labor, mental illness, land use, etc at once. A compelling personal narrative is a good strategy to couch all those issues. Or just pick one or two and run with it.

Also, realize that given your amount of experience and time, you can probably make something solid that is about 15-20 minutes long, if that. A good watchable short is way more powerful than a confusing, poorly done longer piece that no one is going to sit through. Embrace your limitations and work with them.

Once you have your proposals, go to the schools looking for students for specific jobs. You need a camera person and you need an editor. You can't offer money, but you should be able to find some people who want to build up a reel to work on this with you. Be nice and feed them. Since you have the access and you have the story, you get to be the director. Figure out what you want in terms of a scene. Work with your camera person to figure out what shots you need to make that scene happen. Keep in mind an interview requires more than just a talking-head shot, and that there is a lot of gold in filming seemingly mundane activities. Keep in mind they are students and might not deliver, so pick up as much technical know-how from them as you can so you can step in if needed.

Watch a lot of documentaries, read some technical books, and if possible, find a workshop class. If you are near a city, there should be places to go to take a doc making class. In Portland, there's the NW Film Center, and NWDocumentary. Look for similar things in your area.

Good luck!
posted by ohisee at 8:42 PM on June 2, 2010

The BBC has a neat site called BBC Academy, which has all sorts of tutorials on setting up location interviews, basic angles, prepping for interviews, etc. It's a lot to take on. I've done some documentary style work, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that I've learned. I had to learn via mistakes.

Documentaries are one style of activism, I wonder if you already have some more developed set of skills that could be put to use.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:12 PM on June 2, 2010

Memail me if you would like me to put you in touch with an independent filmmaker who might be interested or know people who are...
posted by bardophile at 11:13 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Instead of a full-blown documentary, why don't you do a series of YouTube videos, meant to go viral via Twitter, FB, activist blogs, etc. Start your own site with these videos embedded as you document your work and the stuff you find out. Day 1: why are you doing this, who are the key players, what will happen if people don't take action. Day 2: Interviews with key players on the admin/bureaucracy side. Day 3: talk to those affected such as patients, community leaders, etc. And so on.

This will be much easier to handle day-to-day and would inspire others right away to help out and get involved rather than trying to spend 6 months learning how to make a documentary as well as doing the research/activism involved.
posted by lychee at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Lychee and history of weapon. Are there any successful examples or case studies of what lychee is suggesting?

And Ohisee and Some1 thank you as well, I will work that track but I think it is clear that pure "documentary film" needs to not be the focus (for me at least) at this point, that may come later.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2010

Clay Shirky writes about this stuff. Here's a summary of 3 examples that frequently cites.

My oblique reference to "other set of skills" was sorta referring to a viral campaign, but without such a technology specific focus. The general idea is to try and avoid (as per lychee's comment) the overhead of learning the craft alongside creating the documentary. If I was working on such a thing, I might design a shirt/poster, have a friend screen a few, and have another friend give them window/wall space in her store. Obviously you might not have these options, but I think most people have at least a few opportunities to push ideas. It seems reasonable to brainstorm through what you do have "access" to, instead of tackling something new and complex.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 3:33 PM on June 3, 2010

Message, and audience.

To tell a compelling story, that rallies minds you may want to consider as a first phase of this project creating an arc... a 'plot' sort of, a "story" to tell, will you start with history of the area, individuals who are going to be hurt in this loss? What is the 'hook'? It doesn't have to 'look' like a movie yet, and doesn't have to think about "storyboards", or art, or how to shoot a scene yet, but you will want a concept statement, some preliminary production planning and design. Or some other angle... Who benefits, who is harmed, what other real options might there be? -what is your 'dream' outcome of telling this story to people? Will it stay in use? Or become a historical building; can anyone afford this? (important questions to consider prior to taking action).

One way to do all this is to consider how you might tell a friend who knows nothing of the topic or local area what this story is about, who are the actors in the situation, how do you introduce them? Why are people so passionate about it (these are questions that let you put yourself in the shoes and mind of someone who isn't intimately tied up with the situation and a particular position on the situation already, how can you introduce an outsider to this topic, and convince them to care about this).

This may basically be a telling of the story in a way similar to what journalists have already done initial research on (news stories), following the 'outline' of their articles on the topic, things published in the local and regional news sources... some time in a library/town hall collecting as much of the public history as possible, from initial building codes and zoning, deeds, to contemporary news pieces about this specific angle. Perhaps even going and talking to the people who are promoting what you oppose... are they being reasonable? Do they believe that they are doing right? (Be very polite[even if you think they are cold-heartless or bad]; you may want to interview them on camera much later, and if you tip them to your strongly held positions, you may scare them away from talking to you and perhaps giving good pull quotes, or sound-bites [someone arguing the opposite of your position in a bad way can be just as effective as you going and making strong statements of your position.)

But it would be best to have a 'telling' of your own ready, so maybe think and roughly draw out your ideas, like what elements of the story do you want to emphasize? Which parts are most emotive, are there specific actors in the struggle who are particularly engaging or good public speakers?

Perhaps going to the history department of the local schools can help with background, and might be more helpful, if you are worried that the local film people will 'bite' yr' film plot idea; plus, you are not at the stage to 'make a movie' until at least a bare bones skeleton of a plot and narrative style are thought of... Do you really want to do it in an 'activist' style? Or would more people be turned onto supporting you if you did it in a fair and balanced style, but make the case extremely well for 'your' side. This is also where history profs and grad students can come in; interviews and background history. This is actually centrally important to making a good movie, perhaps more than getting help with learning filming and movie making skills. Without a cohesive story making up the backbone, even with the best filmmaker, it becomes just a collection of moving images, and sounds...

Also, go to your local libraries, pester your local librarians, really don't pester them, but talk as many of them as possible, there will be librarians who can both a) find useful information on any topic, and sub-topic, and b) will possibly want to provide other assistance on the project.
As a good starter, think of maybe Five 'elements' or angles of this topic, like a five act play sort of, five "mini" stories that will be woven together and cut in between, you want to tell the emotional stories of the patients who will be turfed out, and hurt by this, but you also want to tell the wider story of how this facility fits into the context of the city and state; did universities do research on patients here? What was treatment like there back in the less than stellar days of mental health sciences?

The hospital opened in 1856 and was named later in honor of Dorothea Dix; like this is truly a gold mine of interesting material (not meaning to be insensitive to patients who are getting hurt by all this) but you definitely have a story here... and from a story comes caring about a subject, and possibly acting to 'help' on an issue.
In 1848, Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina and called for reform in the care of mentally ill patients. In 1849, when the North Carolina State Medical Society was formed, the construction of an institution in the capital, Raleigh, for the care of mentally ill patients was authorized. The hospital opened in 1856 and was named later in honor of Dorothea Dix.[1]
Who is this Dorthy Dix; how did her efforts impact the community? Other hospitals? These facts are just surface facts, but I bet you there are some extremely compelling stories that exist and are well known by someone in your local area. Perhaps winding the life of a modern patient, and a historic patient, and sort of juxtaposing the treatment before, and after the hospital? Suggesting the terrible treatment of homeless and mentally ill people when we do not fight for their rights as equally as we fight for the rights of others.

Also, what others said, simple things like grammar and spelling can make people ignore (but also too much text on screen isn't that great either; the downfall of many an 'independent' amateur doc attempting to 'expose' something. If you want a million frames of text, help on a book, utilize the visual medium to its max, even if it means finding a deep gravelly voiced local senior and having them read text, while you display general footage of the outside, or old photos... (and this is advice for later stages... but avoid too much text on screen [unless it is something like the 'deed', or a contract, or something similar]).

Many small and mid-sized areas are developing 'mediated culture' co-op like facilities, where members pay fees and dues, and in exchange get to rent reasonably priced equipment... and use high-powered machines for video editing and the later stages of the 'film' process. Perhaps there is one nearby.
The best part of these types of place are the possible contacts of specifically movie making/sound-design interested people.

Local musicians? Start listening to them, and narrowing down who has nice broadly appealing music (music is best when it doesn't dominate, but accentuates the film) and also seem like they might want to help on a small project like this.
posted by infinite intimation at 3:21 PM on June 19, 2010

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