3 Documentary Short Films to Inspire You

Become a better filmmaker by breaking down this short film showcase.

“You work with the light that’s available and create something with what you have at hand.”

When you think of a documentary film, a feature-length “treatment of actuality” likely comes to mind: last year’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour, 2013’s controversial Blackfish, 2008’s exhilarating Man on Wire.

There are a lot of great docs available these days – but not all of them run two hours.

From La Reina | By Manuel Abramovich

From La Reina | By Manuel Abramovich

Making a documentary short film is an excellent way both to hone your craft and create a memorable window into another world. Moreover, the short format can widen your audience by leveraging the viewership of online distribution platforms like Vimeo, where bite-sized content is showcased and celebrated.

To get you thinking about what’s possible, here are three recent documentary short films that inspired us:

1 – La Reina | By Manuel Abramovich

La Reina has won more than 40 awards since its release in 2013, and no wonder – the film’s confident style relays its story with subtlety and tact. Memi is an 11-year-old girl set by her mother to play “the queen of chocolate” during a carnival in Argentina. This involves wearing a rhinestone-studded crown so heavy Memi feels she’ll pass out.

Closeups limit our perspective to Memi’s perspective as she endures her mother’s primping; we almost never see an adult’s face. “From the very first moment I felt the need to represent that big clash through the style: the grownup world versus Memi’s experience,” Abramovich told Vice. “While we heard the grownups talking about how fantastic and marvelous the carnival is, the camera lingers on Memi’s gaze, who hardly ever speaks.”

The result is a methodical and uncompromising critique of a bizarre mother-daughter relationship and window into a complex cultural tradition. The simplicity of the edit belies the depth of thought behind each cut and overall scene sequencing:

2 – Elder | By GenĂ©a Gaudet

A New York Times Op-Doc and Official Selection of numerous film festivals including The 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Elder tells the story of a Mormon missionary who falls in love with a handsome Italian Communist.

Interviewee Tom Clark’s poetic recollections narrate this bittersweet romance, illustrated with strategic BRoll and original 8mm film Tom himself shot in 1974. A passionate soundtrack completes the picture, capturing the sights and sounds of Italy and Tom’s life-changing self-awakening.

Elder is especially impressive for its ability to condense a feature’s worth of story material into just twelve minutes. It’s interesting to note that GenĂ©a takes a writing as well as directing credit, and rightly so – no doubt she transcribed Tom’s interview and “Frankenbited” its content into a short film structure:

3 – Junk Mail | By Voyager

Production company Voyager’s ten minute short is a testament to what can be achieved with basic gear on a low budget. The beauty of the storytelling helps smooth the film’s technical rough edges.

Junk Mail may not be much to look at, but its stirring portrait of 98-year-old Mary reminds us “that people her age are sometimes forgotten, but still very much alive.” With millions of views and counting, it’s a powerful demonstration of a film’s ability to reach people and move them to social action:

If you’re an aspiring documentary filmmaker, there’s no reason not to pick up your camera, find a subject you’re passionate about, and start shooting! You don’t need the latest and greatest tools of the trade to make a film that sings and strikes the heart.

If you’re more on the fiction side of things, there are still lessons to be learned here. In the words of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who began his career in documentaries:

That’s what’s great about documentary, about working in it. You work with the light that’s available and create something with what you have at hand. It teaches you how to be quick in terms of setting the frame and finding the angle and reading what’s happening – reading the development of what’s going on in front of you.

And that really relates to fiction as well, when you look at actors working, blocking, and rehearsing a scene. I feel like my documentary experience comes in handy during those situations. I still feel like I’m looking at real life and figuring out how to place myself and the camera to translate what’s happening within the scene.

 Michael Koehler, with


For guidance and support in getting your film off the ground, check out our affordable online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

MORE FROM US:

  • Award-winning filmmaker Daniel Koehler shares in-depth tips culled from his experiences, for you to apply in the field to create your own successful documentary - the challenges of international production, how to conduct awesome interviews, how to shoot for the edit in a doc context, & more.

  • Some stories can be told in just a few minutes. Here are 3 documentaries that leverage cinematography, sound design, and editing to maximize screentime.

  • A beginner's guide to creating a documentary film treatment that will help you define your vision and win grants, with insights from The Sundance Institute.

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