Not just for directors: 10 storytelling rules from documentary cinema

Thomas Balmès, Victor Kossakovsky

Thomas Balmès and Victor Kossakovsky (inset)

I’m an avid documentary watcher. I probably see at least 50 to 70 docs a year, mostly from PBS and a few in the theater or on DVD from the library.

Not only do I watch the movies, but I also read up on them after viewing, including reviews, updates and interviews with the filmmaker and subjects. I’m a sucker for a really good, true story.

One such documentary is “Happiness,” which aired on PBS in 2014. The director, Thomas Balmès, discussed his immersive look at the people in a remote mountain village in Bhutan about to modernize with electricity and television.

Naturally, in looking for follow-up material, I found the interview with Balmès on the PBS site. He shares advice for aspiring filmmakers near the end — actually advice from a Russian director and friend.

It’s advice that’s appropriate for corporate storytellers, too.

My friend’s Victor Kossakovsky’s 10 rules are I think the best advice of all:

1. Don’t film if you can live without filming.

2. Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it.

Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.

3. Don’t film, if you already knew your message before filming – just become a teacher. Don’t try to save the world. Don’t try to change the world. Better if your film will change you. Discover both the world and yourself whilst filming.

4. Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.

5. You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.

6. Try to not force people to repeat an action or words. Life is unrepeatable and unpredictable. Wait, look, feel, and be ready to film using your own way of filming. Remember that the very best films are: unrepeatable. Remember that the very best films were based on unrepeatable shots. Remember that the very best shots capture unrepeatable moments of life with an unrepeatable way of filming.

7. Shots are the basis of cinema. Remember that cinema was invented as one single shot – documentary, by the way – without any story. Or story was just inside that shot. Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before.

8. Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.

9. Documentary is the only art where every aesthetic element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used aesthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.

10. Don’t follow my rules. Find your own rules. There is always something that only you can film and nobody else.

I translate the advice for myself into how it applies to writing, since that’s my primary medium. (I don’t know beans about filmmaking, only filmwatching.) And I’m still processing these 10 tips, but I know they have value for me as someone always trying to improve my storytelling skills.

Thanks, Thomas. Thanks, Victor. Thanks for the images, the stories and the great tips for telling better stories.

Video: Victor Kossakovsky explains his 10 rules in this series.

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y’all Connect. See his full bio.