Documentarians – look to family stories for inspiration - Raindance

The holidays are quickly approaching; for many of us, this means reconnecting with loved ones over hearty meals and meaningful conversation. This year as you sit around the dinner table, consider the stories that are shared and how they may find a life on film. Your next documentary project may be closer than you think. 

Strong trust leads to good access

In nonfiction storytelling, the term “access” refers to a character’s level of comfort with being featured in a story. When a character is supplying factual information – such as scientific evidence – strong access isn’t essential. However, when the character is putting themselves in an emotionally vulnerable situation – perhaps they are recounting a story about how they dealt with a difficult time in their life – strong access becomes an essential element of producing a compelling film in an ethical manner.

Unlike journalistic access, which typically only requires a one-time interview commitment, documentary access is not fostered overnight; instead, it is nurtured over months and often years of shoots and interviews. With time, the character becomes increasingly comfortable in the presence of the video camera, tending to open up and let the filmmaker deeper into their story. As the filmmaker becomes increasingly unobtrusive, the character lets their guard down.

In a healthy documentarian-subject relationship, interviewees must trust that their interviewer is going to represent them in an accurate and non-exploitative manner. However, when interviewing close friends or family with whom you have long-established relationships, this level of trust is often already present. This may allow you to bypass the length of time it takes to gain access, thus allowing you to focus your energy on telling the story effectively.

Access to home videos

Think of all the old VHS tapes collecting dusk in your parents’ attic. Or the bins of old photographs in your grandparents’ basement. Maybe you’ve forgotten about the photos and videos waiting to be uncovered on the camera rolls of your old phones and laptops.

Obtaining the rights to images and videos that don’t belong to you can be an expensive and time-consuming procedure; it is much easier to obtain permission to use videos that belong to people you already know.

Home videos can be powerful because they bring the past to life; when juxtaposed with present-day footage, the use of found footage can be a powerful method of showing your characters’ evolution over a period of time.

Family stories are exclusive

Filmmakers often dream of having the exclusive rights to a story, a phenomenon that occurs when a filmmaker has sole access to individuals with a compelling story. Having the exclusive rights to a story is a good bargaining chip when conferring with potential investors. You will need to be able to communicate why you – and only you – should be the one to tell the story. Without exclusive access, you will be unable to distinguish yourself from other filmmakers who desire to tell the same story.

Thankfully, unless your friends or family are famous or otherwise high-profile, you will likely be unrivaled for exclusive access.

An example:

In Memories of a Penitent Heart, Puerto Rican filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo communicates her catholic family’s struggle to accept her gay uncle Miguel, who died of AIDS in the 1980s. Through photographs, audio recordings, letters, and interviews with family, Aldarondo reconstructs Miguel’s life, the conditions surrounding his death, and the disconnect between his legacy and reality.

Aldarondo is the only person who could have told her uncle’s story. She had the exclusive access to interviewing family members and rifling through old home movies. She had already built trust with her interview subjects, so she could instead focus her efforts on telling the strongest possible story.

Getting started

Think about a story within your family that only you could tell. Perhaps your family has a history of mental illness. Or alcohol abuse. Maybe political divisions have led to familial tension. Maybe you’re curious about an uncle’s early death, as Cecilia Aldarondo was. Consider the struggles that are unique to your family and consider how you may be in a unique position to communicate these via film.

A pre-emptive warning…

Relationships between filmmaker and subject can be delicate yet enriching. Documentary filmmakers are constantly walking the fine line between ethical storytelling and exploitation. They often develop very close relationships with their characters, yet there is also the potential for misunderstandings to give rise to hurt feelings. It is important that the characters you interview in your film understand your long-term plan for distribution. It is also important that they consent to the use of their image, likeness, and story.

There is more personal risk when making a film about close friends or family because you may strain relationships. Keep this in mind throughout all stages of production. Telling family stories can be extremely powerful if done right. Though it’s also important not to burn any bridges.



McKinleigh Lair is an Oklahoma native, New York adoptee, current Londoner, and future Swede. She is currently interning at Raindance while also pursuing a B.A. in Documentary Studies and Production from Ithaca College.