Ask Yourself These Questions When Developing Your Documentary Film

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Filmmaker Kevin Sharpley presents at the DFP's Story Development Workshop in Miami, Florida.

Kevin Sharpley recently attended the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program’s Story Development Workshop supported by the Knight Foundation, which offers intensive story development sessions for a group of select nonfiction filmmakers from the Miami area. Below, he shares his learnings: the questions you should ask when developing your documentary film.

When I walked into the room at the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program’s Story Development Workshop in Miami, it felt electric.

I spoke with a fellow filmmaker first—she was working on a film about the environmental changes in South Florida. Another was working on a film about a rejected deal that would have ended the longest war in history between the Colombian army and the FARC rebels. I was excited to hear about their films—the development, material they were going to show, the equipment used… It already started to feel like a community.

One of the central points of the lab was development. Our films, 10 in total, were in their earliest stages. We submitted our beginning material, in my case an animation sample and a teaser from the first few interviews of the documentary I’m developing about the one of the most prominent black artists in Florida’s history.

Before any of our documentary material was displayed, I spoke with filmmaker Catherine Tambini to help guide me through the journey. I had already been aware of her work—Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award, Academy Award–nominated producer, and more. Being able to interface with her before the lab started, ask her about process and development, and speak a bit about my project already had me thinking about my film in a different way.

Richard Perez (left) on the set of "Cesar's Last Fast."

Before the documentary presentations, Richard Perez (director of creative partnerships with the Documentary Film Program) gave an in-depth presentation, providing a look into the Sundance Institute world and into his process. I filled half of my notebook before we even really got started.

“It takes a brave person to start from the beginning again”

Ask yourself:

  • How has your story not been seen or told before?
  • How will your film affect society?
  • How can your film become a part of the national conversation?

The three pillars of storytelling: character, conflict, transformation

After watching Richard’s documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, these points became even more clear and impactful.

Day two was dedicated to rough-edit documentaries. Catherine opened the day by taking us through the paces of her storytelling process while providing some powerful tools to use in our own stories.

  1. Casting is key. (Cast a wide net; you don’t know who might work out.)
  2. Access is key.
  3. Build relationships, respect your subject.

These are just a few, but she left us with a clip that punctuated these points—a collaboration with Jorge Ramos in which Jorge interviews a grand dragon of the KKK. She explained it first: they cast a wide net, found the grand dragon, secured access, built a relationship, and through respect for the subject were able to get an interview.

To close out the lab, a reception provided an excellent opportunity to recap the experience and interface with filmmakers, community leaders, the Sundance community, the Knight Foundation, Young Arts, Miami Filmmakers Collective, and all involved.

Kevin Sharpley is the president and CEO of Kijik Multimedia Inc. and the executive director of CineVisun TransMedia. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami with a dual major in motion pictures and psychology. He produced/directed Sove Nou, narrated by Danny Glover and featuring Wyclef Jean.

Lead photo:

Filmmaker Kevin Sharpley presents at the DFP's Story Development Workshop in Miami, Florida.