How do documentary makers find subjects?
Your real subject is a story, not a topic really. Documentaries have characters and settings. They take place in specific contexts. Also documentaries are pictures. You don ‘t look for subjects, you look at reality and you write about it until you can picture a story in your mind (or on a tape).
The romantic version is : you read or see something (a person, a fact, a place, whatever) and become interested. You start to research and read more, looking for trends. You talk to people, ask questions, maybe make friends and understand more your topic. You go out on the field as much as possible. You write about your findings, shoot some footage, look at it again, take pictures, go to specific places. You observe.
You need to find the right angle. If you just keep shooting around, you end up with fragments, pretty much like ethnographic footage.This doesn ‘t make a film. You need to make a point but also be anecdotal enough so people can relate to. There may be years before you have a real story. Eventually, you come across something or someone that is worth starting the process of making a documentary. Now, you have the story. You are up to 2-3 years of filming, cutting, post-production, promotion in festivals, etc.
This was the more artistic vision, now the other side of the scope : how it happens in most TV channels. A producer come up with a topic and order a film. You have to find the story, write a script and start everything before the deadline. Of course, the easiest way is to fabricate a story : some people crying (pathos), some guns (for the males), some love (sex maybe?) and some heroes. If you can have explosions or some violence, that ‘s great. You reach the deadline on a small budget (actors aren ‘t paid), you have a huge audience crying and loving it and they ask for more.
Now, what you are really looking for are stories, not subjects. You can find subjects all around you. Depardon ‘s works are exemplary in this regard : emergency workers, psychiatric hospitals, farmers, cows, etc. Even your grandma ‘s life is possibly a great topic. But what you are looking for are stories and pictures. Making documentaries is a craft. How can I turn the boring life of this worker into great pictures ? How can I not lie ? How can make my point without twisting the reality ? Which story will allow me to do all this together ? Seeking answers to those questions may get you on the way.
This text was originally published in quora.