Anthony Kaufman invited me to speak to his NYU Contemporary Documentary class last week on the subject of the personal doc. Just for fun, in preparation, I decided to compile a list of my Ten Rules of Personal Documentary Filmmaking.
Not that I have ten rules, exactly. Or any rules, for that matter. But I do have some strong opinions based on having made a couple of personal docs myself, as well as having helped produce a few that I consider rather magnificent examples of the genre (Silverlake Life, Jupiter's Wife and the soon-to-be-released A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory). Normally I would have tossed these opinions out in the course of the evening and they barely would have caused a ripple. But the second I announced I had TEN RULES to give the class, everyone excitedly whipped out their notebooks and took down every word. Lesson learned.
In the past, I also would have listed all ten rules right now, just as I did a while back when I wrote about The Art of Producing. But I've since learned another lesson: smart (aka lazy) bloggers never write one long post when they can stretch it out over, say, ten days. So, over that period, give or take (does one really blog on weekends? - not me, peeps!), I'll be posting one rule a day. This is good - it will give you time to think over each nugget of wisdom very carefully. Especially those of you egotistical, self-indulgent, narcissistic navel-gazers tempted to pick up a camera and turn the lens around on yourselves.
So, here they are, in no particular order of importance, my Ten Rules of Personal Documentary Filmmaking. Go ahead, whip out your notebooks...
RULE #1: Don't make it all about you (even though, of course, it's all about you)
Actually, I lied about order of importance. This, to me, is the rule of rules, the rule every other rule is rolled into. Because audiences watch a personal doc with a built-in resistance and even resentment. I'm not sure why that is. In virtually every other art form critics and audiences eagerly seek out personal works. Anyone with a reasonably dysfunctional family can pen a best-selling memoir. In the theater, many of our most honored playrights (Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Neil Simon) write thinly-disguised autobiographies. But for some reason first-person docs are greeted with crossed arms, prove-it-to-me scowls, and an attitude of "who the fuck are you to be putting your life up there on screen?!?"
So the whole art of the personal doc is to appear as if it's not really so much about you. It's about your remote genius of a father who died mysteriously (My Architect). Or it's about your relationship with your mentally ill mom (Tarnation). Or it's about General Sherman's march through the south, for crying out loud.
But, honestly, in the end, it's really all about you. Your personal journey to enlightenment (and maybe a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse, along the way).
On the other hand...