There's No Money in Documentary Filmmaking

I might as well say that right up front, for anybody who might suppose otherwise. This is not a complaint; it’s just an observation. But I am guessing that, in one way or another, it is a subtext of much of what appears in this special issue on documentary.

I don’t make documentaries for a living. I’ve made a bunch, but my bread and butter come from teaching. I’m a professor. I’m occasionally envious of filmmaker friends who travel the globe working on fascinating documentary projects, but when the conversation turns to health insurance and job security and the challenges of fund-raising, I feel awfully lucky.

Because of the commercial basis of most media production, much of what gets made these days under the documentary umbrella is not terribly interesting to me, except in an academic sense. That includes marketing films, instructional videos, entertaining but vapid programs about dirtiest jobs and alligator hunting, and sensational game shows dressed up as “reality TV.” I think that the true power of documentary films is that they allow us—filmmakers and spectators alike—to discover and explore facets of the real world that we don’t ordinarily think about or care about. These can be as exotic and arcane as particle physics or as mundane and down to earth as garbage collection.

What I find most interesting and worthwhile about nonfiction films is the struggle to make sense of and illuminate some aspect of reality. Usually, that involves listening to and getting to know people whom one would not ordinarily meet. My delight in that kind of exploration is the reason I continue to make and watch documentaries.

Delight in exploration is, I confess, a somewhat self-indulgent motivation. When I started out making documentaries, as an eager young MFA student, my aspiration was to make movies to change the world. I was inspired by documentaries about social issues. I made films about the plight of the homeless and the struggles of severely handicapped people. Films like these fascinated me (and fascinate me still) because of how they moved me. But I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between being moved and actually doing something.

One of the dirty little secrets of documentary filmmaking is that the real first purpose of documentaries, as of all kinds of movie, is to get people into seats, not out of them. It is a good and noble goal to want to make movies to change the world, but it is pretty naïve. It is also pretty egotistical. (It’s no accident that many of the very best documentary filmmakers, like Michael Moore and Errol Morris, are more than a little bit full of themselves.) Once in a long while, social issues documentaries do manage to change peoples’ minds and behavior. Most of the time, though, they just make people feel good about themselves. I’ve heard it said that smugness is the main stock in trade of the social documentary. And so I lowered my expectations. I became content to just explore. I made documentaries about round barns and railroads, Amish Country tourists and quirky artists.

But something interesting happened along the way. In the process of spending hours talking to elderly farmers in Iowa about their round barns, for example, and countless hours more transcribing their interviews and weaving conversations with them into stories, I felt that I really came to know these folks and I really came to like them. Even though I spent a lot more time with recordings of the people than with the people themselves, my connection to them felt just as real. I even came to share the fascination of these old-timers with their barns. In this way, my movies became for me a catalyst for discovery—for getting to know different kinds of people and developing an interest in unfamiliar things. To the extent my movies were at all successful, I think it is because I was able to share this sense of discovery with audiences.

Discovery requires careful listening and looking. You need to be interested in people and genuinely pay attention to them. You need to be curious about the world and constantly on the lookout for connections between things. Careful listening and looking is what good documentaries convey, so careful listening and looking became my goal.

To be honest, if listening and looking is your goal, you are generally best off dispensing with recorders and cameras. Just use your ears and eyes. On the other hand, if your real goal is to make a worthwhile movie, discovering things is not enough. You need to share your discoveries. As I tell my students, making movies for yourself leads to sloppy, self-indulgent filmmaking. If you want to use a camera to explore the world in any worthwhile way, you need to make a point to bring potential viewers along. The purpose of movies is to be shown. There is a dilemma in this, for the documentary filmmaker.

When I was filming elderly farmers in Iowa, for my round barns project, I came to like them and of course I wanted them to like me. But I was constantly aware that I needed to please an audience, too. I was making the film for TV and I wanted people to watch. So I poked some gentle fun at my farmer friends. In the finished piece, I included some verbal tics, a handful of eccentric ruralisms, and a whole amusing montage of farmers gazing rapturously into the rafters of their barns. The film premiered in an auditorium crowded with university students. I sat in the back with some of the farmers and their families, whom I had invited. At my “funny” moments, the audience roared. It was pretty clear they were laughing at the “hayseeds” they saw on screen, not connecting with them. The farmers were embarrassed and so was I.

Documentary filmmaking is by nature exploitative. I don’t mean viciously or deliberately or even consciously exploitative. I certainly did not mean to take advantage of those farmers. Still, I took their faces and voices and I put them together as I chose, for the pleasure of somebody else. That is what documentary filmmakers do. They choose and frame, edit and organize representations of other people—real people. That often has unpredictable consequences for those people, including some that may be embarrassing or even harmful. Despite the best of intentions, toes do get stepped on. I spent a whole day filming with one farmer and wound up cutting him out because the material didn’t fit. He was quite upset. I felt lousy, but I felt I had no choice. And I have only ever made films about people I liked and respected. Bad people (i.e., people who deliberately do bad things) can and often are legitimate subjects of good documentaries. That opens up a whole other can of ethical conundrums. A documentary filmmaker can strive to be scrupulously honest and fair. Still, a documentary filmmaker can never entirely avoid using other people for his or her own ends. That’s the nature of the business.

Documentary filmmakers’ subjects, their audiences, and the people who subsidize their work (producers, spouses, employers, clients, etc.) usually have quite different and sometimes even opposing interests and expectations. A filmmaker has some obligation to all of them. That makes exploring the world through documentary a little like exploring the world while juggling. Keeping all the balls in the air is a distraction. When money is involved, it’s like juggling on a unicycle. As a result, the chance of exploitation goes up and the likelihood of genuine discovery goes down.

That’s why it may be a blessing in disguise that there is no money in documentary filmmaking. People usually make documentaries because they are deeply committed to exploring some topic. Because they are deeply committed, they tend to be careful and conscientious. They invest not only their time and energy but also themselves into discovering and sharing worthwhile things. That is what makes for worthwhile documentaries—not fancy equipment and high production values.

When I started making documentaries, it took a $20,000 camera and a 30-pound Portapak recorder to capture a decent video image. It took another $20,000 worth of gear to edit it. Today, one can record and edit broadcast-quality images and sound with a $700 camcorder and an off-the-shelf laptop. The barriers to making documentaries have gone way down. That means the potential for discovery has gone way up. This potential is often squandered on sloppy, self-interested movies or slick commercial fare.

But if you are genuinely passionate or curious about some aspect of reality, by all means go out and make a documentary. The tools are ready to hand. The world is your oyster, as they say. Go out and seek your pearl. If you discover something worth sharing, I guarantee that people will watch your movie. I guarantee that you will be well rewarded. Just don’t expect to make any money.

Postscript: How I Got Started

I was living in Houston, Texas, trying to figure out how to organize my future. I was newly married. I had a worthwhile but not terribly marketable liberal arts degree in istory and German from Goshen College). I was working nights at a university library—a job I enjoyed but didn’t see a future in. And I had decided, on the basis of reading What Color is Your Parachute? that I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker.

I went to the Houston public television station, which had a documentary film unit at the time, and told them I’d be happy to work for free several days a week, for the experience. For six months or so, I did some copyediting for them, some filing, and I went along on a few shoots, as a grip -- the technical term for somebody who schlepps equipment. My time hanging around the station was pleasant, but not particularly educational, since the pros did all the creative work. It was clear that if I wanted to get any experience in actually making movies, I needed to find another route. This was in the era before you could just walk into Circuit City and pick up an inexpensive movie camera.

I made an appointment with the film professor at Rice University and asked if I could sit in on a 16mm film production class. The professor said yes--which, in retrospect, is pretty amazing. I found the Rice undergrads smart, creative and not particularly motivated. The university had an amazing pool of 16mm film equipment that was pretty much just sitting around. Rice paid for expensive film stock and processing, as well. So, I wrote a short film, directed it and edited it, with Rice’s film and Rice’s equipment and Rice students as actors and crew. This film—a hackneyed little short fiction about a crazed campus killer, inspired by Taxi Driver—was my entrée into Temple’s MFA graduate program, a year later.

Post Script 2: A Long Day’s Night

If you set aside the problem of money, the biggest challenge of making documentaries is the long days. Just about every film I’ve made has required at least a month when I’ve probably averaged five hours of sleep a night. Filmmaking is a labor-intensive business. When you are working by yourself and a deadline looms, there’s no way around putting in a lot of time. When you’re editing, you can grab coffee and catnaps. When you’re on location, you just have to soldier on.

One of the toughest shoots I had was in rural southern India, making a film about trauma healing in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami. When you’re directing a movie, you need to be constantly “on.” You need to solve technical problems, like flaky wireless mics. You need to solve creative problems, like choosing locations. You need to be constantly interacting with your subjects or “talent,” to keep them on board and engaged. And you need to do all of this simultaneously, for ten-plus hours a day. Then you need to go back to your hotel and watch “dailies.” On this location, I didn’t speak a word of the local Tamil language and my subjects spoke very little English, so even looking at the dailies was an ordeal, which involved working with locals to do on-the-spot translations.

One evening, my cameraperson and I checked into a particularly nice hotel. It had been built for Western aid workers, evidently styled after a U.S. Comfort Inn. After watching dailies, organizing gear and hand-washing my clothes, I finally went to sleep. I woke up moments later, it seemed, with something tickling my lips. When I turned on the light, I saw a giant cockroach dash into the crack by the headboard. I tipped up the mattress and hundreds more fled for the corners of the room. For half an hour, I hunted and squashed cockroaches. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, worrying about, among other things, how I was going to function the next day with so little sleep.

Because of experiences like this, I have tremendous admiration for people who make documentaries for a living and even more admiration for those who do it out of a personal passion or concern. Some literally risk life and limb in their work. My cockroach incident pales in comparison to their travails. Even so, for the more “mature” filmmaker, this kind of experience takes its toll.

So I’ve been pursuing more poetic projects, lately, at a more leisurely pace. But I figure there are still plenty of long hours and lots of heavy lifting in my future. Maybe even some bugs.

About the Author

Dirk Eitzen

Dirk Eitzen, of Lititz, Pennsylvania, teaches film and media studies at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His four major documentary films have won awards at film festivals, and The Amish and Us and Save Our Land have been broadcast nationally on PBS. He has also published articles on film theory in various scholarly journals. After graduating from Goshen College in 1981 he earned an MFA at Temple University in 1986 and a PhD at the University of Iowa in 1993. He attends East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster.