This piece was written by freelance writer and filmmaker Priyanka Mogul
To make your own independent documentary is really fun and very exciting – but it isn’t a walk in the park. It takes a lot of research, expertise and, above all – effort and time. I knew I wanted to go into documentary filmmaking for a long time before I made my first independent documentary; it’s a great way to tell stories and raise awareness about issues that have remained untouched. But jumping into a documentary idea without the right research and expertise will often lead to a lot of hard work amounting to nothing. When I finally decided to make Caste Aside – a documentary about caste discrimination among the British-Indian diaspora – it took me two years to complete it. Here are some of the things I learnt along the way.
Find some expertise
I studied journalism at Kingston University and then worked as a journalist for the International Business Times, reporting on human rights and politics in Asia. It was while reporting on other stories that I came across the issue of caste discrimination among British-Indians in the UK. I met Damiano Petrucci, our Director on a shoot for a different documentary. He has a background in filmmaking and studied photography and Digital Imaging at an undergraduate level, before doing a Masters in Documentary Filmmaking. By the time we started working on Caste Aside, he had already won awards for his films and was working full-time as a videographer for Time Inc. Because the two of us had met before, we already knew each other’s work. Our skills were extremely compatible for the project – I brought the journalistic aspect of research and conducting the interviews, while he knew how to make things look fantastic and powerful on screen.
If you haven’t studied journalism or filmmaking at university, there are a number of short courses available online that can get you the basics – you don’t necessarily need a university degree to make a documentary (although it can help). Alternatively, there are many young people who do have expertise in these areas. If you have a good idea, you can always try teaming up with people who have the right skills. I know this documentary wouldn’t look as professional as it does without Damiano’s skills – find the right people and bring them on board.
Do your research
Who cares about this issue? Why do they care? This is a question you need to be asking yourself throughout the making of your documentary. When we began making Caste Aside, there was a whole community of people across the UK who cared deeply about caste discrimination in the UK – yet no one seemed to be covering it. The British government were contemplating introducing legislation against caste discrimination and we knew this made our documentary even more topical – and we were right. Promoting the documentary was a lot easier because of this; screenings are easier to organise when we can say how many people this issue affects. However, this doesn’t mean that you should only make documentaries about things the government is paying attention to – far from it. But you do need to identify your target audience who are connected to the topic as they will be a crucial network of support, both in terms of your research, as well as getting the final product out there. The people affected by caste legislation in the UK have been massive supporters of the documentary. Through them, we have reached a larger audience than we ever anticipated through screenings, and even got broadcast on television.
Source funding and learn legalities
Not everything about documentary filmmaking is fun and glamorous – especially when it’s an independent. One of the first things you need to think about is funding; how are you going to pay for everything? Caste Aside looks at a very niche topic and it was difficult to find sources of funding for it. We invested our personal savings into making the documentary which wasn’t easy. However, there are places you can turn to for funding, such as; Doc Society, the BFI Film Fund, and One World Media. If you think you might have enough of a support base for your idea, you could also try crowdfunding to make the documentary. A lot of big documentaries have been crowdfunded, including Cowspiracy (a popular expose-style documentary about the food industry) whose makers reveal how they sourced funds, here.
You’ll also need to consider costs for equipment and how you’ll get to interviews. We once booked train tickets to do an interview in a different city, only to have the interviewee cancel on the morning of the interview – an immediate £150 down the drain. Another important thing to remember is the legal stuff. There’s a lot of important things you need to know about copyright and defamation laws, as well as the smaller things such as putting together interviewee agreements and getting permits to film in certain places. If you have no background in media law whatsoever, a good place to start is with the BBC Academy Journalism Law page.
Know your topic really well
I had never looked at caste discrimination in the UK until we started doing research for this documentary, so I had a lot to learn before we could start filming. It wasn’t enough for me to say, “caste discrimination is bad and we should make a documentary about this.” As we looked into the issue, we realised there were many layers to the topic and different arguments for and against caste legislation. Sub-communities were also being affected in different ways. Yes, caste discrimination is bad, but there was a large group of people who didn’t believe legislation should be implemented – and their voice was crucial to the making of the documentary and understanding why the issue has manifested itself in this way in the UK. Knowing about these various factors shaped the questions I asked my interviewees and the footage we got. Trust me – you don’t want to be doing an interview and have to admit that you have no idea what your interviewee is talking about. It’s embarrassing.
Learn the art of letting go
This is something I struggled the most with while making Caste Aside. By the time we were done filming, we had more than 12 hours of footage that we had put our heart and souls into – and now we had to cut it down to under one hour. Our interviewees said so many amazing things that we just couldn’t include in the final cut of the documentary and it was heartbreaking – but you have to keep the bigger picture in mind throughout. You need someone who can step back and analyse the documentary from the perspective of an audience. An interviewee might be making a really great point, but if they haven’t articulated it in the right way, you could end up losing your audience – and it’s hard to bring them back. Remember that your audience isn’t necessarily as familiar with the issue as you and your interviewees are and what sounds extremely important to you, might end up being very confusing to an audience.
Making a documentary can be stressful (and there’s undoubtedly a lot of sleepless nights involved), but the feeling you get when you see an audience come together to watch what you’ve made is indescribable. It’s been one month since we released Caste Aside and it just gets more exciting every day (we have a screening and panel discussion coming up in March 2018 here). Documentaries do have the power to shape the world around you – even independent documentaries made by first-time filmmakers.
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