How to create a documentary character

Five not-so-easy steps to seeing your nonfiction protagonist up in lights.

Robert Greene

Web exclusive

Coven director Mark Borchardt, star of Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie

Coven director Mark Borchardt, star of Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie

Crafting a documentary that follows characters and an unfolding story requires many feats of stamina. Your camera must be present at the right moments and it’s essential that you capture images that resonate. You need to handle the vagaries of reality swirling around you, people not wanting to be a part of your story, others hoping to manipulate it, events and instances constantly out of your control. Later you need to find order amongst the chaos, a way to impose narrative or otherwise cinematic stability on your material.

One of the most underrated elements of crafting a nonfiction film, though, is the creation of character. If documentary filmmaking is something like trying to bag a thousand snakes at once, perhaps the slipperiest ophidian is the shaping of a meaningful performance out of the raw, volatile and often friskily interactive relationships with the real people being captured. Creating a documentary character requires a nimble dance of ethical considerations, cinematic interests and practical limitations. We documentary makers must be exceptionally good at it. The old Hollywood maxim that when “you cast your film, you cast your fate” is especially true in nonfiction. A documentary film will surely sink under the weight of an uncompelling protagonist.

In my own films, I’ve been lucky enough to find great subjects that could be turned into amazing characters. Kati Genthner’s teenage idealism, heartbreaking naiveté and likeable toughness carried Kati with an I, while the pro-wrestling cast of Fake It So Real couldn’t have been more fun or captivating. My Actress star Brandy Burre allowed me to explore the nature of performance in documentary because she is such a dedicated craftsperson herself, creating an electrifying, layered character out of the very real turmoil of her life. With these and with other films I’ve edited, I’ve learned some valuable lessons in the crafting of nonfiction characters, the cinematic possibilities of exploiting performance and the limitations of exerting directorial control.

Here are five things to consider when making a documentary character:

1. Find a performer

 ‘Little Edie’ in Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer’s Grey Gardens (1975)

 ‘Little Edie’ in Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer’s Grey Gardens (1975)

There seems to be something of a prevailing myth that documentary subjects are just regular people who happen to have a camera pointed at them. While it may be true that most people who become documentary subjects don’t intend to become movie stars, and that many subjects would steadfastly deny they are performing for their filmmakers, I think it’s safe to say that the best nonfiction characters throughout history have been anything but ‘average’. Whether they self-identify as such is irrelevant. From the Beales to Mark Borchardt to the political actors in The Battle of Chile or even Maidan, the best documentary characters have always been, on some level, great performers.

It is the filmmaker’s job, then, to find people that can offer – either intentionally or instinctually – the vital material for a compelling, movie-carrying performance. This has been true since the beginning of documentary: Robert Flaherty had his Nanook and his men of Aran, Miller had Speed, Wiseman his workers and speech-givers, Herzog his maniacs. There’s a reason there are so many films about staging plays, about models preparing for runways or rock stars in studios, but great performances don’t have to come from professional performers or what film critic Dana Stevens recently called “auto-dramatizers” when discussing the subjects of Joshua Oppenheimer’s films. From the children of Spellbound to Edward Snowden to the elders who star in the Chilean film The Last Station, ‘regular’ personalities have long been crafted into good performances, but there almost always has to be something inherent in the person being filmed that the filmmaker can tease out. Finding this special quality is key to a filmmaker’s success.

Here’s a major caveat: try to avoid useless quirk, over-performance and easily commodifiable suffering. Too many documentaries depend entirely on fetishising the idiosyncrasies of their main subjects. Documentary festivals can sometimes feel like a parade of weirdos, camera whores and helpless sad sacks. Ameena Matthews, star of Steve James’s The Interrupters, is one of the great characters in documentary history because she’s a fighter and an inspiration… and a real person, not a collection of quirky hangups. The teenagers in Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’s Only the Young aren’t Millennial caricatures because their natural charisma doesn’t overshadow their down-to-earth likability. Great performances are often found in the most authentic people. Unless you can find an intriguing way to explore the eccentricities of your performers, consider making your movie about genuine human beings.

2. Use the layers

Afrikaner Resistance Movement leader Eugène Terre’Blanche (right) in Nick Broomfield’s The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1991)

Afrikaner Resistance Movement leader Eugène Terre’Blanche (right) in Nick Broomfield’s The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1991)

When you see a police officer in an average fiction film, there are likely just a few ways to interpret his character’s functionality to the story: he’s usually either hapless, heroic or sinister.

When you see a cop in a documentary, his presence is often accompanied by a set of questions: why did he agree to be filmed? What is his political point of view? What does the filmmaker think of the police in general? While the fiction cop is often a shallow sketch, the nonfiction cop can’t help but be a layered, complex cinematic character, whose motivations and perspectives get tied up with audience expectations and the way police officers have historically been represented in films.

I call this the layering effect of documentary and I think it’s a filmmaker’s job to exploit it to its full potential. Documentary characters are a strange amalgamation of real person, actor and a surface on which audiences project their biases. You have to find the authentic core of someone in order to understand them and make a movie about them.

At the same time, you need to think about your subjects as actors, fabricating a version of them that, although still based in observed truth, is the version you’re choosing for your film. (Here is gets slippery – all crafters of documentary performance must remain obsessed with ethics. To paraphrase Victor Kossakovsky, every aesthetic choice made in shaping a meaningful performance by a real person is dogged by ethical dilemmas. It’s our job to always maintain that unbreakable tether to reality that prevents our work from slipping into pure fiction.)

Exploiting the full cinematic potential of layering means crafting frames in which your audience can perceive it. Think of the way Shirley Clarke’s close-ups allow her main character to slip in and out of his Jason Holliday and Aaron Payne personas in Portrait of Jason or how staged scenes reveal levels of social or political performance in films like Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing or Nick Broomfield’s The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker must be very aware of another layer: that of audience projection and judgment. I believe viewers tend to bring stronger biases and preoccupations to their experiences of viewing documentary subjects (rather than fiction characters). This is another place a filmmaker can use the layering effect to subvert expectations and to create a more compelling experience: try to anticipate how your audience will judge your characters, then play with that knowledge to draw them in (or push them away).

In a sense, the relationship we’ve historically had to classic movie stars is not wholly dissimilar to the way we can view layered documentary characters. When we watch Garbo or Brando or Bogey or Jolie, we’re seeing not only the performance but also the famous person giving it, and often the best Hollywood filmmakers exploit the tabloid fodder of their biggest stars to make more addictive films for their audiences.

In documentary, this layering effect allows a slippage between realities that exploits a viewer’s natural instincts to read between the lines. There’s a built-in desire by audiences to search for levels of authenticity and artifice in reality-based work. Exploiting this effect might help us make more interesting movies.

3. Externalise the internal

Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne, in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967)

Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne, in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967)

My undergraduate professor/mentor Dr. Joseph Gomez liked to say that a filmmaker’s job is to externalise the internal – to find images that create some cinematic comprehension of the unspeakable. This is especially true with documentary, though it’s often considered uncouth to say so. This is a medium, after all, which is often over-defined by its relationship to journalistic reportage and evidence gathering.

But to me, documentary filmmakers must rely even more on the primary parts of cinema (mise en scène plus time) to prevent our images from simply serving as factual recordings. What we do is most exhilarating when we use our captured, reality-based images to translate and express psychological actualities.

A compelling nonfiction performance can only be made out of striking, salient observations that reveal deeper things. Our job is capture moments with our subjects that speak to unspoken psychologies or emotional truths. Expressive images can often connect viewers to characters in ways that cut-and-dry factual images often cannot. In documentary, there’s a built-in friction between the reality happening and the attempt to record that reality, and situating your subjects within this tense construct can allow you to understand them better, which can help turn them into characters worthy of big screens.

4. Edit them

Danièle Huillet’s finger in Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, 2001)

Danièle Huillet’s finger in Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, 2001)

In fiction, a great performance is a collaboration between the actor, the director, the cinematographer and the editor. Without the director and cameraperson doing their work, the actor has no stage; without the editor, the actor has no boundaries. Shaping a performance in the edit room is crucial to the success of that performance, and that might be even truer with nonfiction.

Unlike our fiction-making counterparts, we documentary makers generally don’t have time (or resources) to do different takes, to work with our subjects extensively about the scenes we’re trying to create or to set up a proper relationship between performer and camera (though we should struggle to claim as many of these methods as we can, if they suit our stories or situations). In this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way we make movies, editing becomes even more important.

The key thing to know is that time on screen greatly changes the nature of a performance. We tend to capture a lot of material, sometimes hundreds of hours of the same person, so understanding how screen time significantly affects the way audiences relate to characters is crucial to making that performance as intriguing as possible. We can use all that footage to make someone seem long-winded or witty, solipsistic or generous, like a bad listener or like a patient friend. We have a scary amount of power to take the (often contradictory) behaviours we capture and turn them into whatever character we want. While these choices have to be guided by ethical concerns, what works onscreen also inevitably drives what we choose to leave in.

For Kati with an I, I had a main character in Kati that loved to repeat herself. She would often tell stories or anecdotes (or even just say particular phrases) many different times while the cameras were rolling. While this was, in many ways, a gift – it gave me plenty of options – it also presented a challenge. Do I leave this (kind of annoying) character trait in, just because it would make for a more honest depiction of my sister?

For me the answer was ‘no’. It was more important for the movie I was making that the audience related to Kati and the way her mind worked than it was to display this tic of repetition. What appears in the film is an absolutely truthful depiction, but the character I edited just happened to be a version of Kati that worked better.

5. Collaborate

The present writer’s half-sister in Kati with an I (2010)

The present writer’s half-sister in Kati with an I (2010)

While doing all these editorial manipulations, deft camera moves and directorial dances, the most important thing to remember is to give up some control. Documentaries are never one-way deals. There are no films without willing, often courageous, subjects. This work may be inherently exploitative and a filmmaker may have to jump through countless aesthetical or ethical hoops to finish these films, but they’re almost meaningless without some amount of collaboration. There are many exceptions, of course, but my favourite films often feel like high-wire acts where subject and filmmaker are desperately clinging to each other for meaningful survival.

If you want to spend your time transforming real peoples’ lives into onscreen performances, with all the cinematic engineering that implies, you must remember first that you can only control, narrativise or craft to a point – and that’s the point. If this doesn’t appeal to you, get a copy of Final Draft and start writing your script.

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.