Documentaries For Dummies


There are two kinds of documentaries I watch: the ones that feed my interests, all of which happen to start with the letter “b” for some reason (ballet, baking, and burlesque), and the ones that other people make me watch. I have had enjoyed myself in both situations. 


Documentaries are informative. They are born a question and bloom into a lesson of some kind. All this talk of learning makes them sound more boring than they are. That’s fake. Almost everyone I know has a guilty pleasure documentary genre, something they like to snuggle up to in the evening with powdered donuts. There’s no shame in this. I’d argue that whether you’re watching a crime conspiracy or some award-winning film, good entertainment is good entertainment.


Good documentaries, the ones we end up watching again and again, teach us something fun, like what happens behind the scenes at a ballet rehearsal. That, or they teach us something so important we don’t want to forget it. Every few years I re-watch SuperSize Me just to re-inject the fear of junk food in myself.

Making it Interesting

On a deeper level, documentaries get us to step outside ourselves. In narrative film, there is the opportunity to attach oneself to the main character and before you know it, you’re personally hurt when Sophie stops talking to Frances in Frances Ha. In the reality-based documentary world, the protagonist is a real person, so we are forced to concentrate more on getting to know their story than on finding ways to insert ourselves. This is a great opportunity for empathy, which can be a real pick-me-up! 


The hard part is making a documentary interesting enough to actually care about the people in it. 


The internet has some helpful guides on how to make a successful documentary. A common suggestion from various filmmakers is to only make films about subjects of passion, because the audience can feel passion (or lack thereof). It is important to have a question of some kind that drives the film to a conclusion, and inevitably teaches the audience something new about that subject. If your subject is horses, your question might be, “why are horses so great?” Many (elaborate later) suggest going into the film with an open mind so as to prevent bias.

Finding a Foundation

I believe that all good documentaries start with this foundation, but are not without several key structural elements: a good hook, strong story-telling, and appropriate pacing. This is good stuff, I promise!


Beginning with a documentary I choose to watch whenever I’m feeling unmotivated: the Christina Tosi episode of Chef’s Table. Chef’s Table is a show that does documentary-style features of top chefs across the world. Christina’s episode begins with soaring reviews from her coworkers and admirers. Reviews are a great way to get the audience to trust that a person is good. Placing them before any footage of the subject creates suspense, almost like a curtain that conceals the performer before the show begins.


While trust and excitement is building, we meet Christina. She is wandering through a county fair at sunset, holding her daughter at her hip. She orders a long list of deep-fried foods at the snack stand, followed by a “no judgement!” disclaimer to the man at the cash register. As she spoons ice cream into her daughter’s mouth, she reminisces about her childhood and how important comfort food is to her. Already, it’s hard not to wonder how such a down-to-earth, fried oreo-loving lady could be so successful in the chef world. This is the hook!


It’s easy to stay interested in the story of somebody you look up to. From the beginning of the episode, I admired Christina’s crafty bandana outfits and energetic attitude. I have no personal connection, on the other hand, to the Pruitt-Igoe Apartments. I watched The Pruitt-Igoe Myth with my Evolution of the American Cities Class during our Suburbs unit and did not expect to become so invested.

Meaning in the Story

Trustability in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth comes from its news footage, which documents the rise and fall of an unusual affordable housing experiment in the 1950s. It opens with POV footage of a former resident wandering the site, long after the buildings were destroyed. There is an eerie feeling in the air. He seems nostalgic and a little frightened.


Even though the narrator introduces Pruitt-Igoe as a historical disaster, the importance of the apartments didn’t kick in for me until I heard the resident interviews. The residents, all of whom grew up in the slums of Saint Louis or rural surrounding areas with few resources, tell stories with such detail and passion it’s impossible not to believe them. The new housing development was designed to be a safe, organized alternative to the slums. A woman tearily describes her move-in experience, how “beautiful” Pruitt-Igoe was “in the snow, with everybody’s Christmas lights” (not an exact quote, will change). 

Subjects with Passion

So, passionate subjects are more believable than lackluster ones. After the problem is introduced, that Pruitt-Igoe lost its funding, the stories worsen. We learn about how the elevators would lose power and the little boys would make a business out of rescuing people by pushing the elevator doors open and crawling down the wires. Crime became an issue as people became more desperate, unable to pay for higher rent and suffering without heat. A man tells the story of how he watched his brother get shot on the concrete outside the apartments. 


A wide variety of stories, each carefully laid out to reflect the passage of time, make us eager to know what happens next. It helps to know how this historical event impacted real people in very real ways.

Visual Cues

All of these elements pack more of a punch with appropriate pacing and visuals. Not too much of the same thing (unless you’re making some kind of artistic statement), and it has to match what we’re hearing about. While Christina from Chef’s Table opens up about her lonely days in New York City, the camera rests on her eating a sandwich alone in a coffee shop. She’s on her lunch break in the scene, a successful entrepreneur by then, but the visual of her being alone is enough to compliment the story.


There’s a certain thrill in watching engaging material about a real person. If documentaries were fake, they’d be way less interesting. That’s why mockumentaries are so funny. Fictionalized versions of our favorite documentaries suddenly become trivial and dramatic-seeming. But the real thing sure does work! 


I wish luck to the documentary-makers of the world. I once attended a Richmond Documentary Club meeting, where local filmmakers screened their documentaries for feedback. Even professors and people who’ve been in the biz for years struggle to make their films engaging to the average dummy. As someone who’s attempted it once before in a VERY casual short film class, I can say that it’s easy to get lost in the soup of interview questions and impromptu footage. If anything, it’s helped to reflect on this subject!