How to Make a Strong Documentary Short FilmOvercome the challenges of creating a story from real life.
“People almost always want to tell their stories, and all it takes is a willing listener.”
Two years ago, documentary filmmaker Daniel Koehler made his way to Los Angeles to receive his Student Academy Award for Win or Lose, a short documentary film that follows a photographer’s campaign against a discriminatory amendment to the North Carolina Constitution.
His previous short, The Tobacco King, about a white Zimbabwean farmer’s efforts to cultivate a new life in Zambia after losing his home, enjoyed a healthy festival run.
Most recently, Daniel wrapped a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship in Botswana, where he shot his latest film (currently in post-production), A House Without Snakes.
Here at Lights Online Film School, we had the opportunity to catch up with Daniel to discuss his award-winning completed works. If you’re an aspiring documentary filmmaker, you need to read this interview through, as Daniel goes in depth with his experiences.
Before we jump in, let’s check out the trailer for The Tobacco King:
And the full film for Win or Lose:
Hello, Daniel! Thanks for discussing your films, The Tobacco King and Win or Lose. Both epitomize the caliber of content we showcase here at Lights.
You made your first short film, the twenty minute documentary The Tobacco King, while a student at Elon University in North Carolina. That’s many miles from Zambia, where the film takes place. What inspired you to head to Africa? Why did you choose to explore the lingering influence of colonialism in Zambia?
I grew up in Uganda, East Africa, and developed a genuine love for the country and its people. That love matured into an academic interest in African studies, which I pursued at Elon University. So when I had a chance to propose any topic for my thesis film, I knew I wanted to focus on a story in sub-Saharan Africa.
I sent out a few emails to friends who lived in or frequented the continent, and the story of the Zim farmers rose above the others. Having grown up as a white kid in Uganda, I became aware of race very early on and was fascinated by the role it played in my own life and throughout history. And while I was familiar with what happened in Zimbabwe, I had no idea where the Zim farmers had fled after their exodus, so I thought it was a fresh idea. That took me to Zambia for a research trip in summer 2011 before official filming in 2012.
Interesting! So the idea came from a very personal place, it seems. Can you discuss the process of making such an ambitious film as a student? Where did you even start? How, if at all, did the school support you? Did you do everything yourself, or did you have a team in the US and/or in the field?
I got lucky in a lot of ways. The film was first and foremost an academic project made possible by funding from the Lumen Prize, a $15,000 research grant at Elon University, where I earned my BA. The Lumen Prize had the added benefit of rooting my film in academic rigor. Before I even thought about touching a camera, I had to prepare an in-depth, competitive research proposal in order to receive the Lumen Prize. That meant lots of reading, lots of research, and lots of thinking about feasibility, ethics and narrative arcs. So when I actually received the prize, I was equipped with clear goals and the necessary groundwork to achieve them.
The summer after I received the prize, I traveled to Zambia for a research and development trip. I took a camera with me and naively arrived in the country without any real contacts. Luckily a friend of a friend gave me a place to stay in Lusaka, and that became home base. From there I forged the relationships I needed to make the film possible.
I met a friend who worked selling scales – because farmers are always in the market for scales – and he introduced me to many Zim farmers, including George Botha. George and I quickly became friends – he loved showing me around the farm and taught me how to fish, which was a lot of fun. I met a lot of other Zim farmers during that time, and I spent a lot of time with their workers, too.
I was struck by how many people wanted to talk to me. I quickly realized that people almost always want to tell their stories, and all it takes is a willing listener.
For that reason, I often like to work alone. I find that large crews and cumbersome equipment distract from the authenticity of the moment. People begin to feel self conscious about how they look or what they say, and the conversation rarely dives as deep as I’d like. When I work alone using a small camera rig, people are more conversational, and the footage is almost always more intimate and interesting.
How did you balance your responsibilities as a filmmaker with your responsibilities as a student?
It wasn’t always easy. But it helped that at the same time as I was making the film, I was enrolled as a part-time student at the University of Zambia.
The situation worked better than I could have expected because it gave me an opportunity to approach one of my professors about being in the film. As a student at UNZA, I also had access to the University archives, where, after days of flipping through stacks of old newspapers, I found the clippings about the Zim farmers.
It was actually more difficult to be a student after returning to the States. I edited the film in the fall of my senior year while taking a full course load at Elon. Being a good, engaged student was very important to me, but the film quickly became my first priority.
A lot of people talk about a separation between school and the real world. That’s a dangerous distinction. I decided that my career started while I was in school and that walking away with a solid short film was more important than an “A” in class. And so I learned to become a better manager of my time. I made choices about which assignments required full attention and which ones didn’t and made it through the semester with good marks and a polished film that I’m still proud to show people.
Tough decisions. On a different note, airfare to Zambia isn’t exactly cheap. How did you fund the project? I noticed that the credits list “The Lumen Fund” as a producer – what does this mean? If you don’t mind my asking, what was the film’s budget?
The money from the Lumen Prize made the whole thing possible. My budget was $15,000. That allowed me to purchase equipment, airfare, and anything else I needed while living in Zambia.
I live a pretty Spartan lifestyle. I shared a very small room (literally two single beds separated by a tiny desk) with a good friend while I was in Lusaka and stayed with George while I was on the farm in Chisamba. That kept costs pretty low.
I’d love to hear about your experience of international production. For example, did you encounter language differences? If so, how did you overcome them? What were some of the challenges of shooting on location, where – I imagine – the amenities we take for granted in countries like the US are few and far between? How long were you in production?
I lived in Zambia for six months and would move between the capital Lusaka and Mambo Farm in Chisamba. Zambia was a British colony, so the official language is English, which helped a lot in terms of communication, especially in Lusaka.
Communicating wasn’t as easy on the farm. Most of the workers spoke Bemba and knew only a couple words of English. My knowledge of Bemba was limited and amounted to a few pleasantries. This experience taught me a lesson about verite filming. While the spoken word is important, you don’t need it to understand how to get coverage of a situation. There is body language and tone to help guide your decisions. There were definitely moments that I missed, but I was almost always surprised by how well the coverage worked.
In terms of interviews, a couple of the Zambian supervisors and tractor drivers spoke decent English, so they would provide a rough translation on location, which I used to ask follow-up questions. Eventually Dumi, my roommate in Lusaka, translated everything word-for-word.
I stayed with George while I was on the farm, so I had access to electricity, which I needed to charge my batteries and dump footage onto my computer. The hardest thing about filming on location was the hours. Farming starts early in the morning, and I wouldn’t return to the house until late in the evening. So everything – batteries and memory cards – had to be ready for a full day every day since my only source of electricity was at the house. This meant that after 12 or more hours of running around the farm, I would have to stay up to transfer footage and charge batteries. Often, I set alarms throughout the night to keep that process going. If I didn’t, I risked sabotaging an entire day of filming.
Wow. What did you shoot on? How did you record sound?
I love that The Tobacco King presents its conflict in a balanced light – we understand why the farmers act the way they do, and we understand why George, the farmers’ manager, acts the way he does. Was either party reluctant to open up to you? Said differently, how did you gain access to opposing sides of a tense situation?
That was a really important part of the story to me. It would have been really easy to oversimplify this film and ignore the complexities, but that wouldn’t be an interesting film. I was fascinated because I could empathize with both positions, and I wanted to share that experience with an audience.
George trusted me almost immediately. He wanted to talk about his past and to share how he lived his life with someone who would listen. Building a rapport with the workers was more difficult. I was an outsider and was introduced to them through George. Trust came slowly. In fact, a good three months – half of my time in the country – was spent trying to build a relationship with the workers.
Again, a lot of it came down to being a willing listener. I was surprised to learn that I was the first white person to visit their compound, which meant George had never visited.
A defining moment came when I shared lunch with them instead of going back to George’s house. Frank and Raphale – two workers who became my closest friends on the farm – caught a chicken and started the preparations. We cooked nshima, Zambia’s maize-based staple, and a dipping sauce of relish. Then we sat, ate and swapped stories. We communicated through a combination of broken English, Bemba, gestures and smiles.
Whether we understood each other didn’t really matter. We were enjoying ourselves, and that was the moment that they started trusting me.
George is so vulnerable as he flips through his photo album, reflecting on the home he lost. How did you earn his trust to capture moments like these?
More generally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the filmmaker/subject dynamic in documentary filmmaking. Is there a tension between observation and engagement? If so, how do you navigate it?
A farm can be a solitary place. George didn’t have a lot of people to talk to about his past and present experiences. I could tell that he was hurt and bitter about what happened in Zimbabwe. But he had a hard time communicating that in a normal interview setting. I thought the pictures might help him talk about it. Rather than ask a lot of questions about specific photos or presume to understand what it means to lose a home, I asked him to talk about whatever he wanted as he flipped through the album.
At first it was awkward. We spent several minutes in silence, but eventually he started talking, relaying stories associated with each photo, and the footage was perfect. He was visibly affected by the memories, which communicated the depth of his loss.
Any time you work with human subjects, you have to be careful. You’re dealing with real people’s lives, not characters in a fictional universe. There is a huge amount of tension between observation and engagement. In the case of the photo album, I wasn’t worried. George and I had developed a strong rapport by this point, and I sensed his desire to share his experiences, even if it was emotionally difficult.
I felt tension most strongly when George lashed out at his workers. Do I risk eroding my relationship with George and intervene on the workers’ behalf? Even if I did, what good would that bring?
In the end, my duties are that of a storyteller. My goal is to make a film that captures the complexities of the situation in a way that elicits a response, whether that’s action by others or for a character like George to reexamine himself. The balance between observation and engagement isn’t always obvious, and it’s an area of documentary filmmaking that I’m still working to understand.
Honest words, Daniel. Thanks for sharing. One thing that struck me in The Tobacco King is the coverage. It often looks like you cover events with multiple cameras – I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which George instructs his workers to regrade the tobacco leaves.
Did you have multiple cameras? If not, how did you achieve such continuity of action in verite moments? Did you “shoot with an eye toward the edit”? If so, what does this look like in a documentary context?
From a filmmaking perspective, one of the benefits of farm work is repetition. People often work on the same tasks over and over, which means endless opportunities for creative, varied footage.
Generally speaking, one of my goals in The Tobacco King was to capture the cinematic landscape of the farm during one tobacco season. I have hours upon hours of footage of people reaping, curing and grading tobacco, and I use this footage as the structural integrity of the film.
The verite moments are what make the film more than an episode of How It’s Made. When I shoot verite, I always think about the edit. I know I’m going to need cutaways and reactions, not just the person speaking at that moment. I make decisions on the fly about what the scene is about and film accordingly. That’s why it feels like a multi-camera shoot even though it isn’t.
In the example of George in the grading shed, I filmed him yelling about the inconsistent grading. But I knew I couldn’t have one long shot of George and call it a scene. To make the moment meaningful, I needed to be able to cut to a worker reacting to George. So, when I felt good about the amount of George coverage I had, I grabbed a couple of reaction shots even though George was still yelling at this point. Then I shot an extreme close-up of the tobacco itself – yet another cutaway. When I felt like I had enough coverage at that distance, I ran back for a wide shot. Several bales had been graded at that point, so I clambered on top of a large stack and shot down on the argument, which gave the whole scene a unique perspective.
By shooting all of these angles, I knew I would have enough footage to craft a compelling and cinematic scene in the edit room. When I shoot verite, my motto is, “Shoot more than you need. Maybe then you’ll have enough.”
Haha. Did you know what direction the film would take before you started filming? If not, when did the story click into place for you?
When I first set out, I thought the story was going to be about racial reconciliation and building a positive future for Zambia. Obviously, the reality was a little different.
Adapting is part of the joy of documentary filmmaking. A couple of months into my stay, I drafted a rough outline of where I thought the story would go, complete with minute markers. But even that changed.
A big part of my creative process is editing footage as I go in order to see what works: what moments or concepts I already have and which ones I still need to get. Because of that, I left Zambia with a rough cut that ended up being close to the final version. I spent the fall of my senior year polishing that version and readying it for festivals.
How long were you in post? I’m especially curious to hear about your experience of the editing process. How many hours of footage did you have? Some say that “a documentary film is directed in the edit”… To what extent did you find this to be true?
Normally I would agree that a lot of directing happens in the edit room, but The Tobacco King was a special case since I was editing throughout production.
I thought about story a lot, seeking the advice of friends and family as I went. Three months in, I had crafted 15 consecutive minutes of the film as well as several random scenes. Editing while shooting gave birth to the idea of gifting the opening shot of the film as a photo to George, which he then added to his album. That beat wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
That said, a lot of polishing happened after I returned to the States, and the subtleties of the film took full form then. Several scenes were edited, re-edited, and then edited again to sharpen their meaning and smooth the overall arc. In all, I edited for 10 months (counting production), but it was never full time. Unfortunately, I’m not sure about the total number of hours of footage, but it was a lot.
The music really works, supplementing the mood and elevating the drama perfectly. Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with your composer, Neil Penninger? What were your responsibilities as director, and how did you guys work together?
It was a pleasure to work with Neil, the composer. At our first meeting, we watched the film together, and he had a lot of ideas about where he wanted to take the score. Together we honed those ideas into a vision.
We decided we wanted to incorporate some traditional African instruments in a score that highlighted the drama. The danger with this approach was the potential to musically stereotype the region. Neil avoided this trap, using a combination of drums to keep the piece regionally specific and strings to bring out the tension.
Our process was very collaborative. Neil would produce drafts of the cues, and we would workshop them together, figuring out which elements worked and which ones didn’t. He was always able to translate my non-music notes into musical terms, apply what he thought worked best, and produce fantastic cues.
Your second short film – a sixteen minute documentary entitled Win or Lose, which has gone on to play at multiple festivals and win a Student Academy Award – you also produced while at Elon.
How did your experiences with The Tobacco King prepare you for this next project? More generally, what were the most important lessons you learned from making your first documentary?
Win or Lose is a very different film from The Tobacco King, thematically and stylistically. But The Tobacco King taught me a lot of lessons about filmmaking, which I applied when making Win or Lose.
First, it solidified my understanding of shooting for the edit. Regardless of whether I think something is going to make the final film, I always cover it as if it’s the most important moment in the movie. You never know when a gem will appear.
For example, the introduction to the concept of the photo shoots – the core of the film – was a private gig before our shoot was scheduled to begin. I picked up the camera and started shooting regardless, and I’m glad I did. Having Curtis photographing one person felt smaller and more intimate than the actual photo shoots. This allowed for a quiet moment to introduce Curtis in his element. Starting small also allowed for the photo shoots to feel like a movement that picked up steam over the course of the film.
The second lesson I learned was the importance of including a range of emotions in a film, especially moments of levity. Win or Lose ranges the emotional spectrum, showcasing scenes with tension, shock and humor.
You went from Zambia to your home base in North Carolina. What impact, if any, did shooting locally have on your production? How, if at all, were the challenges you faced shooting in the US different from the challenges you faced shooting internationally?
Shooting locally made the whole process much easier. Plus the shooting schedule was less intensive. The structured nature of the photo shoots with an impending vote gave us a clear start-to-finish timeline for the film, unlike The Tobacco King, where the narrative arc was open-ended.
The biggest difference was that we had to travel with the Vote Against team to different parts of the state, which ramped up travel expenses. But that was a small price to pay given the cultural and lingual barriers I had to face when making The Tobacco King.
One problem I was surprised to encounter was lack of access. We wanted to include footage of the proponents of Amendment One but found ourselves shut out of their campaign because we had spent time with Curtis and the Vote Against team. We were forced to turn to archival footage instead, which ended up working well.
What inspired you to make a film about Curtis and his campaign against Amendment One?
My producer Liv and I had to make a short documentary for our Producing the Documentary course at Elon University. Earlier that year, Curtis had approached Liv about making a promotional film for the campaign. Liv counter-proposed with a documentary film. I didn’t know much about Amendment One at the time, so I was shocked to hear that it would ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina if passed. I thought, “If I haven’t heard about the amendment, who else is in the dark?” That question drove me forward.
The film was an opportunity to produce a socially relevant film that could change hearts and inspire minds in the struggle for marriage equality.
If you don’t mind my asking, what was your budget for Win or Lose? Where did the funding come from? I noticed that you credit “ElonDocs” with “Distribution Funding” – what does this mean?
I honestly don’t know what the budget was off the top of my head.
The film was supposed to be a contained class project, so we weren’t very diligent about keeping a record of costs. Most of Win or Lose was funded out of pocket, but we did have some financial help.
We won a pitch contest at the RiverRun International Film Festival and received a couple of small grants from the Elon Student Government and ElonDocs, a community of documentary filmmakers at the university. ElonDocs provided funds for a lot of festival submissions, which was a tremendous help for a couple of poor student filmmakers.
What did you shoot on? How did you record sound?
The equipment setup was similar to The Tobacco King (Canon 7D and Sennheiser wireless kit) with an extra Zoom H4N recording sync sound from a Sennheiser boom microphone.
How, if at all, did having a partner during production change the process from when you were alone in Zambia?
Curtis gave us incredible access, so the reasons I voiced earlier for working alone weren’t as big of a factor.
Having a team (Liv) helped a lot. She recorded sound using the boom microphone, which gave me the freedom to focus more on the visuals. We also bounced ideas off one another all of the time. Rather than having to run to an Internet cafe and write emails to mentors and friends for advice on The Tobacco King (and then wait several days for a response), I could walk into the next room and ask Liv. That was incredibly freeing. Liv also championed a lot of the logistics, including organizing shoots with Curtis and the Vote Against team.>
How long were you in production for Win or Lose?
We shot Win or Lose over the course of five months. Both of us were juggling classes at the same time, though, so it wasn’t full time shooting. We’d drive to Raleigh for weekend shoots with Curtis or skip classes during the week to catch a Vote Against photo shoot. We would have benefited from having more flexible schedules, but we made do with what we had.
Throughout most of production, the outcome of the Amendment One vote was, obviously, uncertain. How, if at all, did this impact you during the shooting? Were you ever worried that a vote “for” the amendment would sink your film?
Throughout most of production, polls indicated that the vote was swinging towards the “for” side, so we often thought about how we’d adapt to tell our story if Amendment One passed.
Obviously, we would have preferred to tell a story about a grassroots campaign that helped turn the tide against a discriminatory amendment. But we thought there was power, too, in a film that put human faces to the movement for marriage equality in North Carolina regardless of the outcome. A decision “for” the amendment would allow us to show North Carolinians – and hopefully others worldwide – how such legislation deeply affects people. That way, a defeat could be turned into a lesson for the nation.
During production, we were very intentional about asking Curtis his prediction for the vote. Like the polls, he worried that Amendment One would get ratified. His concerns allowed us the flexibility in the edit room to foreshadow the results while keeping hope alive.
You handle the passage of Amendment One in a way that acknowledges defeat while suggesting a future victory. The audience is left feeling uplifted instead of crushed. Did this ending come naturally, or did you have to work with it extensively in the edit?
We knew we wanted to end on a positive note, especially since Obama endorsed same-sex marriage on the tail of the defeat. We could see national trends moving in a positive direction, and we wanted to show that to others in order to turn disappointment into hope that might inspire action.
Having Curtis revisit the photo shoot exhibit for the conclusion of the film was an idea I had long before the vote results were announced. In fact, we shot that before the vote even took place. Because of pre-planning during production, the ending came naturally in the edit. Granted, nailing the execution took some time.
How long were you in post? How many hours of footage did you have to handle in the edit?
I turned around a rough cut of the film in a week in order to meet a class deadline. Even though significant portions of that edit survived in the final cut, the film was far from complete. Post-production continued on-and-off for about a year as I juggled full-time work with Marshall Curry in New York.
I saw in the credits that you used “Additional Music” from the bands Chris and Thomas and Puritan Rodeo. How did you go about licensing their songs?
Puritan Rodeo came to one of the Vote Against photo shoots and gave us written permission to use the song that day. Liv organized the rights to the Chris and Thomas music through the band’s lawyer. Because Win or Lose was a student project that addressed an important social issue, Chris and Thomas offered us a great deal.
Both The Tobacco King and Win or Lose tackle complex subjects. I’m impressed by how effortlessly you interweave exposition with the immediacy of each film’s conflict and characters’ thoughts and actions. How did you go about finding this balance? How much exposition is “too much” in a documentary?
Too much exposition will kill a documentary.
If your film is frontloaded with background information, few people will watch past the opening scene. I think the key is to lead a film with a dramatic hook or character moment followed by brief exposition. Then sprinkle additional exposition throughout the film, asking, “What context does an audience need to understand this scene?” That way the exposition builds seamlessly with character moments instead of hitting the audience in one, indigestible block.
Well said! On a more technical note, both films include some neat graphics sequences – I’m thinking of the newspaper clippings in The Tobacco King and the Facebook animation in Win or Lose. How did you make these sequences?
The newspaper clippings in The Tobacco King are just moves on still photographs with a couple of dips and dissolves.
The animation in Win or Lose was a little more involved. I built the Facebook pages in Photoshop and animated them with text in After Effects. It was a great and fun learning experience for me since I hadn’t worked with After Effects before.
Any advice for indie filmmakers gearing up for their first documentary efforts?
A lot of young filmmakers emphasize expensive equipment and complex shoots.
I’d encourage folks gearing up for their first documentary to try something simple. Find an interesting character and spend a week with them. You don’t need a fifteen thousand dollar camera or complex issue to create a cinematic and compelling film. Also, make sure you choose a character or topic that you care about! You’ll be spending a lot of time with them.
Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective, Daniel. We’re excited to learn more about your latest film and wish you all the best with your projects!
For more from Daniel, head on over to his Vimeo page.
Michael Koehler, with
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