“Where do you get ideas for documentaries?” is the number one question I have received through comments and conversations over the years. As my students this semester have been working through ideas toward their story pitch assignment, I have been turning over some possibilities for seeking ideas. Here are some starting points to consider.
Many, many documentaries start with and / or focus on the people making them or the people in their lives. The best stories resonate beyond the scope of their telling, connecting with larger social and cultural issues.
Examples abound: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March; Amalie R. Rothschild’s Nana, Mom, and Me; Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation; and Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Hear and Now.
Some makers pursue their own passions or questions. I think here of the documentaries about veganism, such as Marisa Miller Wolfson’s Vegucated. Or, makers take themselves as their own subjects such as Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me or Joe Cross in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.
As in, geographical communities. Stories weave throughout communities large and small. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “No Guns for Christmas” brings the national gun debates to their home in Ohio. Josh Fox’s Gasland explores fracking’s overall effects starting with his land in Pennsylvania.
One key way to find great stories is to talk with people in your community — the ones in coffee shops, laundromats, bus stops. Not through the phone, but in person. Not through texting, but in person. I once asked a man about his tattoo while he rang up my carry-out order. The tattoo itself was visually interesting, but the story behind it was gut-wrenching as it was a memorial for a family member who had been shot and killed during an armed robbery.
Newspapers and magazines build their reputations on quality storytelling, but their stories represent only a glimpse into what could be much larger ones. For High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing started with a story in The New York Times that mentioned Chinese bloggers.
“I was curious who these bloggers were and discovered Zola’s [one of the bloggers appearing in his documentary] website, which featured a great number of other fascinating reports,” Maing told me in an email. “I was immediately intrigued and wanted to understand how a young man from a small farming village was managing to pull off such daring reporting all over mainland China and in the face of government censorship.”
Through Zola, Maing later met Tiger Temple, the other key figure in his documentary and featured in the Op-Doc “A Long Ride toward a New China.”
Sometimes, one story leads to another, very different story. Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida started with a newspaper article about a small town with a high rate of people “losing” limbs. The final piece, however, veers from its original inspirations.
Magazines, too, offer ideas. Florence Martin-Kessler’s Op-Doc “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers” follows up with several female lawyers who appeared in a 2001 magazine article.
And, finally, books. Multiple documentaries start with books, including Dirt!, Half the Sky, and Food, Inc.
Since they are driven by people, social networks also offers potential ideas. I refer here both to interpersonal connections and online ones. One of the greatest potential documentary stories I ever heard came from a student who got the story from someone who overheard someone else talking in a diner.