Why Unwatchable Documentaries Exist? - Raindance

Unwatchable Documentaries? – as the Peter Finch character in “Network” says:

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – I’ve just wasted another 90 minutes of my life watching a supposed “documentary” that is dull, boring, worthy but I’m adding it my list of unwatchable documentaries – I’ll not mention names to protect the innocent and hopefully shame the guilty.

Though documentary making is currently going through the best of times with an incredible amount of remarkable documentaries being produced, we are also going through the worst of times – so many first-time films are, to put it mildly, unwatchable, charmless affairs. How can I be so sure? Because as a documentary consultant (helping people with their ideas and first cuts of their films) and as someone who has selected films for festivals I’ve seen some real turkeys. For every genius “Man On Wire” or “O.J. Made In America” there is a raft of first-time codswallop: films that are just a conglomeration of boring interviews, or meandering exercises in pointing the camera at a group of people with no sense of entertainment, dramatic structure or basic storytelling.

So who is to blame? I suspect that these may be the 5 main culprits:

Bad Film Schools

These are the film schools that purport in their course outline to teach documentary making but really teach a glorified documentary studies programme, then letting students go out and make films having taught them little or nothing about structure or an understanding of how to make an engaging documentary. I say this not from my own bias but from personal stories that I keep hearing over and over again from students; If I had a pound for every student of mine who has told me that they’d learned more over two or three sessions of my documentary class than they had over three years at film school then I’d have, well, about 5 pounds by now! Considering you’re paying in the region of £22,000 for a BA or an MA that’s in my opinion very poor value.

Short, focused courses, or two hours of a great Documentary Consultant, can be a far more cost-effective way to learn what you really need in order to make a documentary. I know from my own personal experience that I left my film school with no real knowledge about how to structure and make a film that an audience might care to watch – I had to learn all that outside of film school.

Bad Film Tutors

I just taught a student who told me that after struggling to find a focus and a story in her documentary the advice that her tutor at film school gave her was to “just keep filming and you’ll find your film.” Two years later – surprise surprise – she still hadn’t found it. That ain’t great teaching.

Self-Appointed Filmmakers 

These are the “filmmakers” who think they don’t need to study documentary-making – that they’ve seen enough documentaries in their life that they already know how to make them. On an online film forum discussing how to make documentaries, one of these kinds of filmmakers wrote:

“You do not need a ‘course’. If they could they’d be out doing it not collecting the ‘course’ fees. Follow your story; follow your instincts. You already have the basics to run solo.”

One of the many problems with this approach is that most first-time untrained documentary filmmakers really don’t have the basics to run solo – trust me I’ve seen enough turkeys in my time to know. As Alexander Mackendrick said: “Filmmaking is structure, structure, structure.” There’s a lot of structure and rules that can help you make a film that is far more likely to engage with an audience… and this all needs to be learned.

As the New York joke goes: A woman on 57th Street sees a violinist getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the musician replies wearily, “Lady you’ve gotta practice.”

Filmmakers who are too afraid to ask for help

I am surprised why Documentary Consultants are so under-used these days – in the world of drama filmmaking the Script Editor is ubiquitous, yet in documentary-making the person who you can really help make your film great is shamefully under-used. Documentary Consultants have two purposes: one to check that your idea really does have the potential to make a film that an audience might care to watch, and 2. give you advice about the best way to direct that film.

A two hour consultation with a well-chosen collaborator can truly turn your film around. For me as a consultant the real joy of doing a consultancy is seeing the face of the person at end of it – as a weight is lifted from their shoulders and they leave with a renewed vigour and passion for their film.

Makers of cheap, high-quality cameras

Of course the preponderence of low cost cinema-quality cameras is an incredibly positive game-changer in filmmaking for both documentary and drama filmmakers – however I think that the prevalence of cheap high quality cameras seems to give people the idea that the whole process of making films is easy and quick. Well I don’t know about you but I spend a long time developing my own documentary ideas before I’m ready and able to go out filming. Just because the technology is cheap and easy does not necessarily translate into the process of making a film.



BA (Hons) Film & TV London College of Printing, Raindance MA in Film . Col is an award-winning writer/director who started in non-fiction at the BBC and now works primarily in fiction: writing and directing feature films for the cinema. He also runs his own documentary consultancy business. You can learn from Col in person at the Raindance Documentary Foundation Certificate.