Directing the Documentary – Keys to Directing People

The word “directing” suggests ordering people around, and is particularly misleading for documentary since you guide or lead the process, rather than command it. Your job is to know what motivates people, what psychological blocs you must remove, and what subtle pressures you can exert to catalyze behavior, or uncover hidden narratives. As leadership, this is very indirect. How best to prepare yourself?

Acting experience of any kind, particularly improvisation, is most valuable because it gives you firsthand experience of doing things in front of others, and in response to them. This is what your documentary participants will have to do for you. To understand them, it helps to be familiar with the ideas of the Russian acting and drama theorist Constantin Stanislavski (1863–1938). His work clarifies the psychological difficulties that bedevil anyone under intense scrutiny, and makes apparent what practical steps exist—whether you are an actor, director, or documentary participant— to alleviate the paralyzing curse of self-consciousness.



The relative comfort we feel in everyday life depends on assumptions about our function, identity, and worth in the eyes of others. In unfamiliar social situations our psychological equilibrium is apt to suddenly depart, as everyone has experienced. Through his study of acting, Stanislavski discovered aspects of human psychology that are very helpful to nonfiction film directors.

Certain actors excelled because they had invented ways to ward off the self-doubt that is apt to cripple anyone in the public eye. From questioning them, Stanislavski discovered that each had found particular work to occupy their minds and bodies, and as a result could put all their mental energy into pursuing their character’s actions, mental processes, and interactions with others. By stilling the judgmental self, they could play their parts naturally and believably, and function as normally as if they were alone. Today, actors are trained to sustain psychological focus by maintaining an inner dialogue “in character,” and, most importantly, by keeping up a stream of their character’s physical and mental tasks. Paradoxically, these actions awaken genuine feeling, whereas an actor who tries to reach directly for feeling hits a wall. Stanislavski realized that emotions arise out of actions, and that going through certain actions awakens accompanying emotions.

What impedes the free movement of this psychic interplay is the neurotic ego, always ready to judge how one is doing. In new or unexpected situations it pops up like a jack-in-the-box, creating insecurity of all kinds, and disrupting the normality of relaxed concentration. When we are being watched, any opportunity for unstructured thought, even the fear of losing focus, allows the ever-anxious, ever critical mind and judging mind to rush in. Immediately the unlucky actor loses conviction in everything he says and does, and since no inner state is without an outer manifestation— another Stanislavski observation—the audience straightaway notices something is amiss. The fiction director is there to help remove whatever is breaking the actor’s focus.

Your function as a documentary director is similar. Apply these simple human principles to directing documentary, and,

● A person’s body language tells you whether they are unified and focused, or divided and troubled. Is the filming situation causing it, or something else?

● You can lower participants’ self-consciousness by giving them familiar mental or physical work to do.

● The most intense focus for an actor or documentary participant—and thus the greatest relaxation—comes from pursuing something compelling, since this shuts out other forms of consciousness.


To help participants take part naturally and spontaneously, you must reiterate trustworthy reasons for making the fi lm. You must ensure that the participant is doing something comfortably routine, or something that involves him or her with its special meaning. A sheltered middle-aged couple, for example, will happily fall into a recurring discussion about which food is best for the dog’s arthritis. A self-conscious construction foreman, asked to supervise the loading of a heavy steel beam, will immediately fall naturally back into his officious everyday self.

In quite a short time, participants become used to working with you, and come to enjoy being who they are in the presence of your camera and your crew. I once filmed elderly miners discussing the bitter days of a strike, one in which they had derailed a train manned by “scabs” or strikebreakers. We shot them outside their old mine, and because they were reliving the deepest, most divisive issues in their lives, they were completely oblivious of the camera even though it came within feet of their faces.


The easiest people to work with are those unmindful of their effect on others. Old people and small children can be naturally themselves because there is no ego, no internal censor at work. Knowing this, you can predict who lies at the other end of the scale, and will need help to get over their self-consciousness. Those with nervous mannerisms who are compulsively careful of their appearance won’t settle easily in front of a camera. During a street interview with an elderly lady, I saw her completely lose focus. I was puzzled until I saw how, in mid-sentence, she began removing the hair net she realized she was still wearing.

The more “proper” someone feels they must look, the less flexible, impulsive, and openly communicative they will be. But care and circumspection were this lady’s stamp, so her action was so wonderfully representative that her friends would have smiled in recognition. Notice that the pressure of the camera’s presence did not make her behave uncharacteristically.

“Doesn’t the camera change people?” people often ask. Yes, it does, but only in aspect or degree. This can go either way—toward self-consciousness or toward self-revelation. Indeed the camera may catalyze an honesty and depth of feeling never before seen by a participant’s closest friends and family. Often when the “history box” fulfills the human craving for recognition, the floodgates open. The implications are most important:

● You don’t need to be unduly protective of participants. People know their boundaries and seldom ever go beyond their capacities.

● Somewhere, lurking in everyone, is the urge to confess, to come clean, to tell all.

● Filming a revelation doesn’t mean you must use it. You and your advisers can thoroughly consider the consequences of using (or not using) the footage later.

Some exceptions:

● Consider erasing anything that would be damaging to a participant if it fell into the wrong hands. To keep it and use it, you need the participant’s informed consent (that is, you fully and carefully explain the likely consequences and ask the participant whether he/she is willing to give you permission to use it).

● If someone else, not you, has editorial control of your material, keep nothing that can potentially do damage. If it’s taken out of your hands, used, and causes your participant harm, you will be held responsible, not the executive who decided to use it.

● Some people even say, if you shoot it, you’ll use it. So, if you don’t trust yourself to abstain, don’t shoot it!


Particular jobs attract particular kinds of personality, and some employment instills mannerisms and self-awarenesses that can be a liability in filmmaking. Lecturers address invisible multitudes instead of talking personably and one-on-one, as they did during research. Officials unused to making public statements suddenly go in dread of crossing their superiors, and become excruciatingly circular and tentative. This is fi ne if that is what you want to show, but if it’s not, then you must estimate what is deeply ingrained habit, and what is a misperception about filming. A common notion is that one must project the voice. If so, move the camera closer and ask for a more intimate mode of conversation. You can also try saying, “There is only one person, me, listening to you. Talk only to me.”

If the participant cannot respond to direction, a little playback may do the trick. People seeing and hearing themselves for the first time are usually shocked, so only ever expose an unsatisfactory “performance” supportively, in private, and as a last resort.

Sometimes you will get someone whose concept of being in fi lm makes them valiantly project personality. If you are making a fi lm about stage mothers, you could hardly ask for anything more revealing.


The skills used to direct actors in fiction, and those in a documentary (whom Bill Nichols calls “social actors”), are not radically different:

● Don’t ask them to be anything (be natural, be normal, etc.). Asking someone to “just be yourself” sets anxious people worrying. What did he really mean? How does she see me? And which self does he want?

● Make sure that anyone on camera has appropriate tasks to occupy them in mind and body.

● Ask people to do only what is organic to their normal life.

● If you plan to cut from location to location, you may need to remind participants where we last saw them, and what they were doing and saying before the new scene.

One cannot choose what to be, only what to do. Once when filming a mother and daughter in the kitchen together at night, I saw they were camera-conscious. In a moment of inspiration, I asked them to resume a recent disagreement. They went straight into a friendly argument, and became visibly at ease. I realized they were enjoying the sensation of re-enacting their habitual roles.

A mother and daughter put at ease in Au Pair to Paris.

When making a “transparent” film (one designed to look as though there is no observing camera or crew) tell participants to,

● Ignore the camera and crew’s presence.

● Not to worry about mistakes or silences since we shoot far more than we use, and edit everything down.

Both requests relieve participants from feeling they must “play to the audience.” The crew helps by avoiding eye contact, concentrating on their jobs, and giving no facial or verbal feedback.

When making a reflexive film, tell participants that,

● You are filming to catch things as they happen.

● They can talk to you or to the camera as they wish.

● They can go wherever they need to go, do whatever they need to do, while filming.

● Nothing is off limits, and no thought or subject of conversation is disallowed.

In Nick Broomfield’s The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (GB, 1991, below) the director uses boyish disingenuousness to draw out the South African white supremacist leader. Eugene Terre’blanche (sic) is such an egomaniac that he falls for Broomfield’s provocation, with hilariously revealing consequences when he acts like a general chastising a mere upstart.

Nick Broomfield chastised as an upstart by the Leader

Directorial manipulation must be justified and well judged, or the audience becomes uneasy. There are moments of this discomfort in Ross McElwee’s otherwise very sophisticated and highly influential Sherman’s March (USA, 1989), an autobiographical fi lm about searching for a wife. The director’s self-presentation plays up his innocence, but merely holding a camera confers power, so we sometimes worry on behalf of the young women he courts.

Holding a camera gives a power advantage in Sherman’s March.

Excerpt from Directing the Documentary, 6th Edition by Michael Rabiger © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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