Tips for Finding the Story in Your Next Documentary Film

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Sundance Institute's Richard Ray Perez and filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz. ©Sundance Institute | Tom Dunn

Sundance Institute’s first-ever workshop at IFP-Minnesota in St. Paul drew more than 40 emerging and experienced documentarians to a daylong series of instructional sessions last weekend.

As participants, some pitching projects, were treated to presentations on nonfiction storytelling structure and how to make regional stories relevant to larger audiences, running themes included the importance of preparedness and the need, according to Twin Cities native Annie Sundberg, to “keep your key audience in mind” at every stage of production.

In a high-energy half-hour visit, Sundberg, co-director with Ricki Stern of the recent In My Father’s House and other exceptional American docs, candidly admitted that she and Stern “made the wrong choice” by partnering with AMC Theaters on a meagerly marketed release of their latest film in 20 cities earlier this month. It served as a stark reminder that passion is a central element not only for documentarians, but for their distributors and other partners as well.

IFP Minnesota Executive Director Andrew Peterson and filmmaker Annie
Sundberg. ©Sundance Institute | Tom Dunn

Presiding over the day’s events, Richard Ray Perez, head of creative partnerships for the Institute’s Documentary Film Program and co-director of Cesar’s Last Fast, repeatedly emphasized the significance of compelling images, forward narrative momentum, and the clear progression of human subjects through conflict to transformation, not least to issue-oriented docs. “I don’t want to watch a film as homework,” Perez told the audience. “I want to be moved.” 

Other quotable examples of Perez’s tough-love tutelage abounded during pitch sessions, where he remained the most memorably vocal of five judges.

"Never start a pitch with facts and figures. You need to hook us with the human element first."

"We know the oil company executives are the villains of the film because you told us. But we still need to know exactly what [your hero] is up against."

"Give yourself a detailed map [of the narrative] rather than wander down the road blindfolded."

"Filmmaking is like sculpting. You chip away at the block until there’s something shapely that an audience wants to look at."

"You say yours is a story that needs to be told. But what is the story?" 

Earlier in the day, another pitch session judge, Sundance alumni artist and acclaimed documentarian Bernardo Ruiz, offered Minnesotans some tricks to broadening the scope of hyper-regional projects so as to give the films more widespread appeal.

Ruiz explained that his 2012 doc Reportero (The Reporter) began as a “small, observational film” about a shelter for deported children on the Mexican side of the California border, but grew over the course of a two-year shoot into a tale of “pushing against the system” as seen through the eyes of a journalist, Sergio Haro. Adding political and historical context to the kind of story that network news divisions too often render in rubbernecking form, Reportero scored deals with European broadcasters who wanted a “humanizing portrait” of the drug war. 

For her part, Sundberg focused on the essential element of networking, saying that she left Minnesota for New York City in the early ‘90s because there “wasn’t much happening” for documentaries in her home state back then.

Near the end of Sundberg’s talk, a Minnesota doc-maker asked her whether, if she were starting her career today, she’d feel the need to move to a bigger city. To the evident relief of many in the audience, Sundberg said she’d stay to enjoy the new surge of energy among Minnesota filmmakers -- who proved the point last weekend by trading business cards aplenty.

This collaboration between Sundance Institute and IFP Minnesota Center for Media Arts is made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Lead photo:

Sundance Institute's Richard Ray Perez and filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz. ©Sundance Institute | Tom Dunn