"Ten Commandments" of Observational Filmmaking
I have made eight feature length documentaries so far using the same method and style. I call them "observational films" not only because they are inspired by the tradition of observational cinema, but also because I believe in the power of observation.
When I say "observation" in this context, I do not mean maintaining a distance from my subjects or being a neutral third party. On the contrary, it is about looking and listening attentively. Furthermore, there are two aspects to observation.
Firstly, I as a filmmaker closely observe the reality in front of me and make films according to my observations and discoveries, not based on my assumptions or preconceptions I had before I shot the film. Secondly, I encourage viewers to observe the film actively with their own eyes and minds.
In order to realize these two aspects, I came up with these "Ten Commandments" for me to follow. They are:
1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot for as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, super-imposed titles, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.
These policies were conceived based on my frustrating experiences as a television documentary director before I started making films.
As a television director, I was required to do a lot of research and to write detailed scripts before shoots. I felt this process made it harder for me to discover anything beyond my imagination and expectation because I was bound by my own knowledge, preconceived notions, and plans. I was also forced to explain everything to the viewers by including narration, super-imposed titles, and music, all of which seemed to obstruct the viewers from really observing what was on screen.
In other words, I found that these practices prevented me from making documentaries with eye-opening discoveries for both the audience and myself. So I decided to do the opposite.