Documentary Filmmaking

IDA: Window to the World of Filmmaking

by Sanora Bartels

When students ask me what’s the best thing they can do when starting out as a documentary filmmaker, I always tell them: “Join IDA!”

IDA is the International Documentary Association and students can join for $35 a year — a small price to pay given the wealth of access to high-level documentaries and their directors, producers, writers and editors.

To give a “for instance,” on Jan. 6, 2018, IDA held a Master Class with Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing in Los Angeles, CA at Netflix Studio facilities — a beautiful new building next to the old KTLA building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.  Driving onto the lot was a pleasure and everyone involved with the day was enthusiastic and welcoming, including Netflix’s Director of Original Documentary Programming Jason Springarn-Koff.  In other words, attendees were rubbing elbows with the people in charge of obtaining new work for Netflix.

More important than the welcoming atmosphere was the opportunity to hear Rachel and Heidi share their experiences making documentaries: Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, Detropia, and their latest, One of Us.

They shared clips of their films and spoke specifically of the individual challenges faced with each project. Tickets were limited (100 people were in attendance in the filled to capacity screening room) and there was time for Q&A throughout the Master Class.

NYFA documentary alum Valentine Rosado and classmates on set.

One of the most important pieces of advice Heidi and Rachel gave that day (and there were many) was to hold off pitching your project until you have secured unique access to the subject or story.  

In this era of internet and email, the most important tool to help documentarians secure access is the phone. The filmmaker must make the call and connect one-on-one with the people important to the story. Once you have developed a relationship with the people involved, you can then pitch your story without fear of a production company saying, “Yeah, great idea, thanks for bringing it wrapped in bow, we’ll get right on that,” And then proceeding to put their own team on it.

Yet access can be tricky and often it’s not just as simple as a phone call.

While researching One of Us, the filmmakers learned about Footsteps, an organization designed to help individuals leave the Ultra-Orthodox world of Hasidic Judaism.  With the permission of the organization, they hung out in the lobby of the non-profit for months in order to develop relationships with individuals and possibly use them to tell the story of the difficulty in leaving an oppressive community. Heidi and Rachel estimated that they spent nearly a year developing access and casting their documentary.

Spending a few hours with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady reminded me that Documentary Filmmaking requires patience and steel-eyed persistence tempered by a genuine compassion for your characters as they share their lives and story.  

The reminder came at a bargain price.

A Q&A With Conservationist and NYFA Documentary Alum Valentine Rosado

We are excited to share an exclusive email interview with biologist, conservationist, and NYFA Documentary Filmmaking alum Valentine Rosado. Check out his impressive work in Belize, his insights on documentary filmmaking within the context of conservation, and more.

NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your environmental work?

VR: I live in Belize with my wife and daughter. We found out we were expecting a baby only days before I went to NYFA and we had already decided to pass on on the course so that my wife would not go through her first phase of the pregnancy alone. After lots of contemplating we decided to make it work.  

I have worked on a multitude of conservation projects focused on protected areas and their benefits to communities. One of my areas of special interest is mangrove reforestation as a form of ecosystem-based adaptation. The idea is that we are able to reinforce coastlines against erosion and climatic impacts by integrating mangroves with coastal planning. The dialogue between preservation and development is most often a polarizing one, but I believe that scientists play a crucial role in facilitating the integration of sound sustainable practices into private sector development.  

I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

I have done volunteer work throughout my career and pro bono work is still a big priority for us. We work with several community-based organizations throughout Belize by providing technical support where we can. In 2016 and 2017, 30 percent of our time was dedicated to pro bono work and 25 percent of our net revenue was contributed to charitable projects.

NYFA: Can you tell us how the WWF Professional Development Grant came about for you?

VR: We have been supporting a local community-based organization with their education and advocacy program. Fragments of Hope Belize works with volunteer fishers and tour guides in southern Belize and has out-planted more than 90,000 corals since 2006 — and that number grows significantly every year.

Through our work with FoH, I applied for a WWF-EFN professional development grant to participate in the NYFA documentary filmmaking course. I believed that specialized training in documentary filmmaking would greatly enhance our ability to present our stories to the wider public.     

NYFA: Can tell us a bit about your experience studying at the New York Film Academy?

VR: I have participated in countless training courses and workshops throughout my career but attending NYFA was a truly life-changing experience for me. I realized that storytelling and filmography was something I had always wanted to do. I now look back at my earlier years and realize that I did my first photographic story when I was just 10 years old. I was trying to get the local municipality to shut down the slaughterhouse that was located adjacent to our bayside community (even though our family business was a meat shop).

When I was 14 years old I scripted, directed, and shot a short film for a school project about a start-up tour company. My original idea was to produce the trailer of a faux movie involving scenes in the cemetery and a police riot but just getting access to an old VHS camera was enough of a challenge.

There was of course not much hope pursuing a career in the arts at the time, and I knew all too well that my sure bet was to pursue a career in science. The NYFA course made me realize all these things, and that I have always been a person that lives a life worth living. Hence, it enabled me to renew my interest in film and storytelling. It sent me into a phase of extensive reflecting and soul searching.

The experience could only have been possible because of what NYFA is: the location of the school, the facility, the amazing people that I now consider my mentors, and of course such a wide diversity of students. At the expense of my family and our business clients, I neglected every other commitment I had for the entire time I was at NYFA because I wanted to take advantage of every experience and opportunity I had during the course.

I especially enjoyed the hands-on approach of filmmaking that took us to interesting locations across New York and allowed us to really appreciate the fact that everyone has a story tell. Everyone’s story can be pleasantly captivating if we invest the time and creativity to put it together. I think that was my “take home lesson” — we have the ability to capture stories that will inspire others. As storytellers, people seek our storytelling abilities and we owe it to the world to do it right.    

NYFA: How has your time at NYFA impacted and changed your work in Belize?

VR: One of the main effects was that it make me think really carefully about what path my career would take after the course. I wanted to dive into filmmaking but I also knew that it was not realistic to give up my career as a scientist. The scientist in me made me conduct a thorough evaluation of all aspects (self, family, values, etc.) and to refocus our work under our Grassroots Belize banner.

Our mission is to inspire people to improve our world. Once we defined that approach, it cleared the dilemma of scientist or filmmaker or etc. We now take up projects of positivity to promote people living in harmony with nature. Science, business, filmmaking, etc. are various methods in our advantage.     

NYFA: What is Grassroots Belize? What is your role there?

VR: I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

We believe that people can live in harmony with nature and we hope to inspire others through our work. We combine our experience in business, science and the arts to work on projects that enhance the sustainability of communities. Our multidisciplinary approach allows us to make connections across traditional boundaries and to develop a unique worldview for innovation. We work on a wide range of projects that aim to improve the environmental performance of natural resource users and the benefits they provide to communities.

I serves as a biodiversity scientist and my wife, Angie, is the administration and finance director.

NYFA: You were featured in WWF’s Education for Nature Annual Report. Congratulations! How did this come about?

VR: WWF-EFN works diligently at growing and strengthening their network of grantees (alumni). The network consists of over 2,500 experts in different fields of conservation from all corners of the world. I had the opportunity to participate in the first alumni symposium this past year that brought together over 40 current and past grantees from 17 countries.

I even had the opportunity to document the stories of three grantees and capture the portraits of several of the scientists. One of the most interesting aspect of the experience is that I was very much interested in their stories and considered my story not interesting at all.

Ironically, everyone else seemed to feel the same (super interested in the stories of others and considered their own less important). I guess if we all reflect on it, we will realize that perhaps we should all be open about sharing our own stories in the hopes to inspire others.

NYFA: Has anything shifted for you as a result of WWF’s Annual Report?

VR: Indeed. In my readings I came across literature about human personality. It turns out that the better we are at traits that result in great scientists, the less we are at the traits that define our communication with others. It seems like a challenging paradox for conservation where we invest so much effort into sound science aimed to address unsustainable behavior.

Basically, every alumni I heard from [at WWF’s symposium] confirmed in some way that our research is not having the impact we desire at the community and global level. The experience with WWF, post-NYFA, has reenergized my drive to expand my knowledge and efforts in science, and to complement it with my recent training in storytelling.

Someone has to tell the stories. The difference is that I also understand the science.   

NYFA: What do you most want people to understand about environmental conservation in Belize? How can we help?

VR: I believe that in an effort to bring attention to the issues facing our world we focus heavily on issues and challenges. However, it may result in an atmosphere of constant negativity and sense of helplessness. In the process, we tend to overlook or underestimate the good progress and the good stories around us.

I have always believed that we should be highlighting the stories about people doing their part to improve our world. We have many such stories in Belize and I think that this would inspire others at a global level.

If a small group such as Fragments of Hope can replenish reefs with 90,000+ corals in 10 years (with very limited resources), what would this world be if the global financing for conservation gets directed to initiatives that have this level of direct impact on communities?

My final message would be to follow our stories. We hope they inspire others to improve our world in their own communities, in their own small way.  

NYFA: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects we can watch out for?

VR: This past year of training, reflection, strategic planning and welcoming my daughter (thankful for good health and all), made me put several projects on the back burner. Now that our business is focused and we have all this training, we have several exciting projects in our work plan for the year.

The following is a synopsis of 3 short films that I have in post-production and expect to complete in the next few months.  

  1. Sandwatch Belize: children from schools in Placencia participate in hands-on program that assesses coastal erosion of coastal communities. The activities serve as a meaningful incentive to inspire greater learning but not everyone gets to participate.
  2. Man O’War in Peril: the island was officially protected in 1977 as a bird colony but in recent years, storms have affected the island’s vegetation. Tour guides are concerned that they are about to lose an important tourist attraction.
  3. Palo Seco Costa Rica: resort owners used mangroves to reinforce their coastline against erosion. In the process, they were able to safeguard their land concession with the government. The success has prompted scaling up of efforts.

Congratulations to Valentine, his family, and Grassroots Belize! Connect with Valentine Rosado on Facebook and follow Grassroots Belize on Facebook.

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton on Creative Circles Forum

New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton has made her career by producing incredible films on the history of Broadway. She is a member and Co-Chairperson of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers-West, and an expert on documentary filmmaking. Her work includes productions for KCET, WABC, NBC and Discovery. She recently sat on a panel at Burbank Arts for All to discuss the future of documentary filmmaking.

Hamilton took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss why these conversations are important to the community with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith.

NYFA: What is the goal of Burbank Arts for All?

Hamilton: Burbank Arts for All, or BAFA, is a foundation that provides funding for arts programs and arts-related materials and equipment to educational institutions located in Burbank. Because the budgets for school arts programs are often limited, BAFA raises funds from corporate donors, then turns around and gives grants that enable dance, music, visual and graphic arts programs to thrive in the Burbank schools. Schools can apply to BAFA and get, for example, musical instruments to replace broken ones, a ballet barre for a dance studio, lighting for theatrical productions, or a 3D graphics printer.  

NYFA: How did you become involved in the project?

Hamilton: I became aware of BAFA because I teach NYFA’s Community Film Project, and I researched local nonprofit organizations that my students could choose from to do pro bono work.  My 2014 MFA class selected BAFA to be the recipient of a promotional video that the students produced, and it was well received.  

As a result of this working relationship with BAFA, I was then invited to participate as a panelist in their annual Creative Circles Forum on Documentary Films, held Nov. 8th.  The panelists included Chief Financial Officer, Rugged Entertainment  Kelly Bevan, Burbank High School Digital Video Production Teacher Amy Winn, Writer-Director at New Filmmakers Los Angeles Varda Bar-Kar, and Academy® and Emmy® Award nominated Director/Producer and President/CEO, Rugged Entertainment Peter Spirer.

NYFA: What topics were you most excited to discuss?

Hamilton: We spoke on the industry from our various perspectives, and I talked about documentaries as a creative art form. There was so much to cover, and not enough time to cover it all, but the most important discussion for me was centered around recognizing that documentaries have become a major source of valuable information. In the last few years, the increasing popularity of documentaries has made them a welcome alternative to news outlets for information that’s trusted.  

NYFA: What was your goal for the evening?

Hamilton: My goal was to show that creating documentaries can be just as interesting as narrative filmmaking, and can lead to job opportunities in entertainment beyond documentary production.  I also mentioned that the international student population at NYFA provides a great forum to network and develop lasting relationships that are helpful in the professional world upon graduation.  The time flew by, and there was plenty of insight provided by the panel.   I certainly enjoyed the evening, and hopefully, the audience took note of the great information that was shared.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Denise Hamilton for taking the time to speak with us about her endeavors.

SERVICE INDUSTRY: How to Work with Cinematographers

“What can I do for you?”  

The above question is the first thing I ask my director.  You, the director, answering it ensures that you’ll get the most out of me – your cinematographer or DP (director of photography).  

Before you meet with your cinematographer, you should have a good grasp of what the film is about and the story you want to tell. What do want your documentary to look like? Start with visual references (documentaries, narrative films, still photos, paintings, etc.) ready to show and discuss. After reading the script or treatment, it’s the first thing a cinematographer will want to talk about.

As a visual artist, my job is to translate words and concepts into images. Cinematographers bring loads of ideas to the table. Once I know what a film is about, I shift into visual hyper-drive.  

In the meetings — there will be more than one — you’ll want to discuss the tone of the movie:  Should it be pretty or gritty? Formally composed or “fly-on-the-wall?” Some handheld work perhaps? Why? Will the subject matter benefit from cool, somber tones, or warm, inviting colors?  

Once you’ve discussed tone, your documentary film is well on its way to visual coherence. Some directors just like to chat and pull up images to discuss. Others spend a considerable amount of time preparing a lookbook. Either is okay. It’s whatever works for you.

The style of your film is comprised of more technical questions – the different modes of documentary (See Bill Nichols “6 Modes of Documentary”) beg for different approaches.

Some questions to answer for yourself and communicate to the DP:

  • What lenses will best depict the characters?
  • Is the style up close and personal or are we taking a long view?
  • Will the interviews take place in a home, a workplace, or some neutral ground?  
  • Are you thinking formal compositions, or something more edgy?  
  • If there are re-creations, will they be stylized or realistic?
  • Finally, and not least important, you’ll want to discuss visual metaphors and transitions that serve to link the sequences.  

But what about “shooting from the hip,” some will ask? Let me share an experience I had in the field.

A while back, I was starting a documentary television series that, in addition to archival footage, involved interviews, re-creations, and establishing shots. In pre-production, we spent some time discussing the re-creations, but the director and producer weren’t ready to discuss overall tone. I knew it would come back to haunt us.

On day one, our first interviewee waited patiently while we went back and forth about the location, then the background, then the lighting. It was decided the lighting should be soft with strong contrast. It became the interview tone for the show. We met later to clarify things going forward and avoid further embarrassment of the interviewees watching a confused approach.  There were new challenges for sure, but the solutions were more intuitive for me because the tone and style were set.

The DP is the director’s confidante, the “ace-in-the-hole,” the side-kick to the superhero. But most importantly, he/she is the director’s collaborator, who wants to help make the best documentary film possible. To do that, communication is key.

Ready to learn more about documentary filmmaking? Check out the New York Film Academy’s Documentary School.

Written by Carl Bartels. Bartels is a director and cinematographer whose credits include “Taken,” “The Fantastic Four,” and “Greedy Lying Bastards.”

10 Documentary Essentials

Today’s 21st century documentary filmmaker has more tools than ever available to them. The cameras are smaller and offer higher resolution. The audio equipment is smaller and hears better than ever. Editing software is intuitive and easy to learn and use. Those are the sort of broad stroke items which are essential to successful documentary film shooting.

Documentary film crews are significantly smaller than a narrative feature crew. This means everybody on a doc crew should know how to operate all the gear, and be able to take on any job in a pinch.

This article is not about any of that stuff. Instead, it’s about the smaller things you will need along your journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Here are 10 absolute must-haves on any shoot, the base minimum for professional-level work.

  1. Flashlight – You never know when you will be in low light conditions or the dark, wrapping after a shoot, prepping before a shoot, lost a nut, somebody else lost their phone … you get the idea. The point is that a flashlight is an essential tool for every filmmaker.
  2. Hat – When you are outside shooting in the sun a hat is another piece of essential equipment, and it can help in a light rain too. It keeps you cooler and keeps the sun out of your eyes. I recommend a full brimmed hat, rather than a baseball cap, to protect the back of your neck. Keep $20 hidden in the crown for emergencies.
  3. Belt – I like to wear a belt so that my tool pouch is always where I expect it to be. I can clip various items to my belt (see glove clip) including my flashlight. It provides easy access to immediate use items, and allows hands free carrying, and frees up your pockets for items best kept secure. Holds up my pants too.
  4. Sturdy Shoes – these are one of the best investments you can make. On the set you will be on your feet for long periods. Having good shoes will save your feet, make you more comfortable, and protect you from injury. A foot injury can keep you off the set for weeks, if not months.
  5. Gloves – Good leather work gloves are an inexpensive insurance policy against hand injuries and burns.
  6. Glove Clip – this holds your gloves on your belt for immediate and easy access.
  7. Pouch – I would say that a First AC pouch is best. If you have so much stuff that a First AC pouch is too small you have too much stuff to carry.
  8. Pen – see below.
  9. Paper – A pocket-size notebook will allow you to take notes and record details. Yes, this is an old school, analog way of making notes, but phone batteries run out and writing things down imprints them into your memory. Think of it as a way to cross-check the work. Documentary filmmaking is, by its nature, an exploration — with plenty of room for extemporaneous events. Record new questions and ideas as they come up to help you make your documentary the best it can be.
  10. An iron-clad plan and the ability to adapt it to changing circumstances – One of the most important things you can bring to your documentary shoot is an open mind and insatiable curiosity about your subjects, and finding the truth of the story. You should have a plan (and a point-of-view, of course). You should know about how long you expect to spend interviewing that person, or shooting that activity. Your research will have given you a strong foundation of what to expect and where your documentary is going. But don’t be so rigid in your preconceived agenda that you aren’t open to unexpected new information, or serendipitous occurrence in the field. It is better to have the footage and not need it, than to turn away and wish you had it later in the editing room.


Want to know what else you’ll need to know on a professional set? Learn documentary filmmaking at New York Film Academy.

Written by James Coburn

6 American Documentary Film Funding Programs to Consider

Documentary films are generally far less expensive than fiction, but they do have a price tag.

Luckily, funding opportunities abound for the documentary filmmaker. Crowdfunding is especially successful for documentaries. And with a clear artistic vision, an articulate artist statement, and a team that you can call on when opportunity knocks, you may be in a good place to secure nonprofit or foundation funding. For some, you may need a fiscal sponsor, which is essentially any 501c3 organization that agrees to sponsor your project — there are also 501c3s with a specific mission to fiscally sponsor film funding. Often, it’s a great alternative to starting your own nonprofit, which allows you to seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations under your sponsor’s exempt status.

Business Colleagues Together Teamwork Working Office

As a general piece of advice, be patient and get organized! These programs can be tedious to apply to, with a lot of competition. Funders don’t just hand over money to anyone with a good idea. We all have one! Each application takes time and precision, but the payoff can be significant.

Many countries have funding set aside for film. And some of the American funders are open to a production from any country!

So take out your calendar and start thinking about which materials you need to compile, in order to meet program requirements and deadlines.

Get your story told!

ITVS Open Call

Independent Television Station (ITVS) is one of the biggest players when it comes to funding documentaries, but applicants take note: this is not a grant. ITVS acts as a co-producer, investing in your film and providing creative development, feedback, and in some cases, the publicity and marketing needed to help get your film seen. They’ll also work on your behalf with public television programmers to get your film programmed on their networks.

Screenshot 2017-06-21 10.30.16

To date, ITVS has funded 533 films, with each one receiving an award of $150,000 to $350,000.  Many have aired on PBS series like Independent Lens, POV, American Masters and Frontline.

With the next deadline in February, this is one program that can certainly offer a great reward if you can take the time to complete the application, which generally, can take 1-2 weeks.

And if you don’t get accepted the first time, keep applying. Persistence rules the game!

(Check out the ITVS Diversity Development Fund and Digital Open Call while you’re there)

Jerome Foundation

Started in 1964 by artist and philanthropist Jerome Hill, The Jerome Foundation offers production grants, of up to $30,000 for emerging film, digital production and video directors who reside in NYC or Minnesota.

These grants support specific projects, and only production and post-production expenses (not pre-production, marketing or distribution costs) are supported. Deadline is August 24th.



The Jerome Foundation also has a Travel and Study Grant Program which, for the 2018 cycle, will support emerging artists who create new work in dance, film/video/digital production, and literature. This program is meant to provide support to periods of domestic and/or international travel for study, exploration and growth.

So if you are still in the development stage, for example, where you are deciding which questions to ask in your documentary, who is best to answer them, and perhaps, how to give your story a definitive arc, this program may be well suited to helping fund this critical period. Eligible activities include preliminary research, the development of collaborations (whether artistic or organizational), taking part in specific non-academic training programs, time for reflection and individualized study, and field investigation.

Deadline is Thursday, December 7, 2017 at 4:30 pm Central/5:30 pm Eastern.


Catapult Film Fund

Catapult Film Fund offers grants for up to $20,000 each and requires both a written and online application. Meant to catapult filmmakers’ careers, funds are intended to help in the crucial next steps in the development of films, which include a first shoot and editing pieces for production fundraising. Once accepted, recipients also have access to an informal mentorship program with Catapult’s co-founders, particularly in areas that include story development, production process, fundraising and distribution strategy.

This is definitely one of those funding programs that will require you to have a fiscal sponsor, as Catapult will only make grants to 501(c)(3) organizations.

National Endowment for the Humanities


National Endowment for the Humanities (or NEH) offers a media production grant with an application deadline coming up on August 9th. Meant to support projects that engage general audiences in the humanities such as history, art history, film studies, literature, drama, religious studies, philosophy, or anthropology, grants help filmmakers inspire their audiences to explore the broader significance of pertinent issues. Projects can be short form or broadcast-length video.

Filmmakers with programs intended to encourage cross-cultural and international collaboration with scholars based in the U.S or abroad, can also receive support by working with an international media team. While partnerships should address broad cross-cultural perspectives on proposed topics, they should be geared primarily to a U.S. audience.

BONUS (again!)

NEH also offers a development grant for film projects with the same August 9th deadline. And while these are just two grant programs, NEH has an online database which allows you to search for a plethora of grant opportunities that may better suit your subject and the current stage of your project.


New York Foundation for the Arts

With a longstanding commitment to supporting artists from diverse cultural backgrounds at all stages of their professional careers, the New York Foundation for the Arts’ (also known as NYFA, just like us!) grant cycle is also one to look at. In 2017, NYFA awarded 92 grants to 95 awardees with 3 collaborations totaling an amount of $644,000.

NYFA Artist Fellowships, are awarded in fifteen different disciplines over a three-year period, with $7,000 cash awards made to NYS or NYC based artists for unrestricted use. While these fellowships are not project grants, they are meant to fund an artist’s vision or voice, regardless of the artist’s development level.

Notable alumni of the NYFA fellowship include Junot Diaz, Tony Kushner, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Spike Lee. Application period opens in fall 2017.

New York Foundation for the Arts also will act as a fiscal sponsor for selected projects.

Fledgling Fund


With an open rolling application process, Fledgling Fund offers grants to support outreach and engagement for documentary films that have the potential to inspire positive social change on some of the most critical social issues.

The filmmaker must complete an online application with a project description and its goals for social change. Generally, films must at least have a rough cut.

While grants typically range from $10K – $25K, Fledgling supports strategy building for outreach and engagement and can also be used for a project that is already complete and is ready for launch. Grants are NOT available to support production or post-production.

And they make it very clear: the film must in some way inspire, educate, and mobilize audiences to create positive social change. To apply, filmmakers must have a fiscal sponsor.

Are there any other documentary film funding opportunities we neglected to include on this list? Let us know in the comments!


4 Groundbreaking Documentary Films to Note

Most of us consume quite a lot of TV and Netflix, and we tend to think of cinema as a means of entertainment. But the visual storytelling medium of film is capable of so much more, and there’s a dearth of real life stories and authentic and diversified representations of people on screen. This is where the documentary comes in. A documentary film is more than just educational non-fiction film: a well-made documentary can move the viewer as much as an Oscar-winning narrative film. Whether you’re a cinephile or a budding film maker, watching documentaries is an integral aspect of understanding how the cinematic medium works as well as for exploring its full potential.

Here are some groundbreaking documentaries that you just can’t miss.

1. “Super Size Me” (2004)

Directed by Morgan Spurlock, this film is built on a very interesting premise: Morgan decides to eat only McDonald’s food for 30 days straight! From Feb. 1 to March 2, 2003, he ate at a McDonald’s outlet three times a day, consuming around 5000 calories per day.

Given the rising obesity rates, the movie is an eye-opening look at how dangerous junk food is for one’s physical and mental health. It took Morgan over a year to lose all the weight he gained from the experiment. The movie was so successful it was nominated for an Oscar, and a comic book based on it has been released.

2. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)

The highest-grossing documentary film of all time, “Fahrenheit 9/11 ,” directed by Michael Moore, takes a cold hard look at the presidency of George W. Bush — especially the invasion of Iraq and the worldwide damage and chaos it caused. Coupled with intelligent humor and investigative journalism, the film displays a nuanced critical analysis of the situation.

Fahrenheit 9/11 made over $150 million. Among its many accomplishments, the film prompted several controversies, won the Palm D’Or, received a 20-minute standing ovation at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and also featuired a cameo by Britney Spears. The movie’s title is of course a reference to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” thereby ironically putting everything into perspective.

3. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)

This autobiographical war film by Ari Folman is important for its innovative and heart-wrenching way of tackling its subject: the 1982 Lebanon War. Given that the documentary medium is primarily associated with realism, the film eschews the use of real people to talk about their experiences. Instead, most of the film is narrated via animation which has a gritty, graphic novel feel. When real footage is inserted in the narrative, suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

The style of the film not only challenges the traditional expectations of a documentary film, it also artistically conveys that some things are so violent and so depraved that it’s impossible to show them as they are.

4. “The Square” (2013)

A three-time Emmy Award-winner, this film depicts the ongoing crisis in Egypt. Marked by gritty cinematography, it begins with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 at Tahrir Square and showcases the daily reality that most of us tend to turn a blind eye to. Over 500 hours of footage was edited to make this film.

And we have another reason for you to watch it: this groundbreaking political documentary was shot and co-produced by New York Film Academy graduate Muhammad Hamdy! For his remarkable work, Hamdy won an Emmy for Best Cinematography.

Screenshot 2017-06-21 11.08.36

Now that’s inspirational!

This list is just scratching the surface, but it should give you an idea of how diverse, original and experimental the documentary genre is, using a myriad of styles and techniques to critically and innovatively show audiences dynamic, true stories that may otherwise go unnoticed.

So if you’re looking to take a filmmaking class at NYFA, why not give documentary filmmaking a shot?


How Netflix Documentaries Are Changing the Industry

It’s hard to imagine that almost 20 years ago, you could find a red envelope nestled in the depths of your mailbox. There’s a chance you’d rip open the small package to see which DVD was hiding in its Netflix sleeve.

In 1997, Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings founded Netflix in Scotts Valley, California. Netflix — now with more than 80 million DVD and online streaming subscribers — is continuing to change today’s market.  

The New York Film Academy’s filmmaking school has ranked as the top filmmaking school for the last eight years. It has also been listed in the Top 10 Academic Programs for Documentary Filmmakers in “Independent Magazine.”

Well-rounded industry experts teach students in the filmmaking school artistic and professional skills. Our students will face practical challenges, opportunities, and realities when they are creating films in the documentary filmmaking program.

Where is Netflix in today’s market?

As of March 2017, Netflix has created original films and television series in genres including drama; comedy; animation; animated and live action movies for children and families; foreign language; in partnership; continuations; docu-series and documentaries; reality; talk shows; specials and stand-up comedies. The company even has acquisitions in exclusive international television distribution.

Michael Lev-Ram of “Fortune” wrote in June 2016 that Netflix ranked No. 379 on the Fortune 500 list. The company, which has focused on streaming media the last few years, isn’t required to disclose viewership numbers and the Netflix originals don’t show up in Nielsen ratings. The Fortune 500 ranking and the audience’s reaction to a show doesn’t really concern Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix.

“Great storytelling is what makes something really global,” Sarandos said during the interview with “Fortune.” At the end of the day, it’s about how many subscribers sign up for streaming services, not rankings or ratings.


In April 2016, Netflix announced that the company had seen an increase of 35 percent in subscribers after it had passed its 81-million-subscriber mark. Forty-two percent of Netflix’s current customers are outside of the U.S. but Sarandos still considers Netflix a small company.

Netflix Documentaries

The selection of Netflix documentaries and docu-series has increased rapidly over the last few years. As of April, there are more than 50 documentaries available on Netflix—ranging from true crimes stories like H.H. Holmes to crises in the healthcare system. Netflix documentaries and docu-series are redefining the definition—they are not boring and they boast some pretty big names.

One new documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On,” is available for streaming on April 21. The documentary series follows people and their lives, which are affected, by social media, pornography and virtual relationships. Sex and technology in today’s age highlight the fact that both are equally important in how most live and interact.  

“Five Came Back,” based on Mark Harris’ book, is Netflix’s newest documentary, which focuses on five men who put aside their careers, families, and their safety to join the fight against Imperial Japan. Meryl Streep narrates the documentary and Steven Spielberg is the executive producer.

Documentary Filmmaking at NYFA

Our documentary filmmaking program at NYFA focuses on subjects such as sound; cinematography and lightning; producing and directing the documentary; editing; new media/self-distribution; writing/non-fiction storytelling; producing; documentary craft; documentary traditions and aesthetics; production; post-production; and graphics, special effects, and color correction.   

Netflix has demonstrated that it aims to have great storytelling. The company is focusing on documentaries that will be more interesting for the audience. In order to do that though, Netflix has had to bring in larger names to help hold interest. One thing is for sure, Netflix will continue to dominate the media streaming industry, but its list of documentaries will surpass its other content without a doubt.

What is your favorite Netflix documentary? Let us know below! If you’re ready to learn more about documentary filmmaking, check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking program offerings.

How to Reconcile Personal Bias in Your Documentary Film

Is your bias getting in the way of your documentary? In documentary filmmaking, your opinion can enrich your creation with information and insight, but it can also hinder it if not at least considered. When filming a documentary, it’s important to reconcile your personal bias with the topic at hand. Reconciling your bias may not only expand your viewpoint, but may help to enrich the perspective you’re trying to convey to your audience. Learn how to balance your viewpoint with other perspectives and information out there. Your documentary will thank you for it!

What is a bias?


According to Google, a bias is a “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” For instance, you may have a bias towards a certain political party due to your pre-existent beliefs and opinions surrounding subjects like gay marriage or gun rights. Consider details of your background and experiences as predisposition towards certain points of view. Depending on your documentary’s topic, it may or may not reflect your personal bias.

What are your biases and how did they form?


It’s important to be aware of where your biases come into play and how they can help or hinder your film. First, you must have a clear understanding of your own viewpoint. You may come from a demographic that is involved in and impacted by a topic covered in your documentary. For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising for a medicaid recipient doing a documentary on health care to be in favor of public health care versus privatized health care. Details like these factor into biases.

Here’s how you can get around your bias.


There may be nothing wrong with your opinion, but you cannot let it minimize your documentary’s focus in any way. Naturally, the audience is going to wonder about the other side of the topic at hand. Give your audience information that allows them to think critically and draw their own conclusions. For instance, if you’re doing a documentary on the health care crisis, you could try to include information about privatized healthcare. Interviewing a representative from a private healthcare company would accomplish this while not straying from the focus of your documentary. You want to balance your perspective with footage and facts that broaden your viewers’ perspective.

Your documentary is presenting a perspective to your audience. It’s up to you what that perspective is.


When you reconcile your biases, you can refine your opinion in a way that strengthens and expands it. Researching arguments that differ from your own can help you a lot. Let the audience think for themselves and make sure your documentary gives them the information they need to be able to do that. Give them facts to consider that ultimately amount to your documentary’s purpose. After all, your audience has their own biases they will have to reconcile upon watching your documentary.

Interested in learning more about making documentary films? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs!


HBO Documentaries: Which Ones Make the Cut?

HBO is known for their premium television shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “True Blood.” But the network has also produced some riveting and chilling documentaries. HBO produces a handful of documentaries per year, but only a few still stick around in recent memory as truly captivating. While there are many more documentaries worth viewing, these are four of the many worthy documentaries shown on HBO within the past few years:

Spoiler Alert: May Contain Spoilers.

“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”


The six-part 2015 documentary series was already popular before the filmmakers unintentionally caught Robert Durst — a real-estate heir — making a startling admission. But even without the shocking discovery, the series captured the attention of many interested in a high-profile murder case. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a whopping 94 percent and a. 8.8 out of 10 rating on IMDb. The film combines both past and contemporary interviews, news footage, reenactments, and more exciting visuals to make it a worthy documentary.

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

Based on the 2015 book  of the same name by Lawrence Wright, the documentary premiered in 2016 and received heavy criticism from the Scientology community. Regardless, the film won three Primetime Emmys. The New York Times wrote, “[Director Alex] Gibney, who enters swinging and keeps on swinging, comes across as less interested in understanding Scientology than in exposing its secrets, which makes for a lively and watchable documentary if not an especially enlightening one.”

“Beware the Slenderman”

The film initially appeared in 2016 at South by Southwest, but was released on HBO January 23, 2017. The documentary analyzes the case of two preteens who stabbed their friend repeatedly to avoid being murdered by an internet folklore legend called Slenderman. The film lifts stills and footage from the indie game inspired by Slenderman called “Slender: The Eight Pages,” fan sites, and from the homemade “mockumentary” by Marble Hornets. IMDb rates the film at 6.3 stars out of 10 and Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 83 percent rating.

“What really compelled us about that case was how the girls blurred fantasy with reality,” producer Sarah Bernstein told Rolling Stone. Bernstein added, “[That] notion of, as a parent, can you really police what your children are watching online?”

The film itself would more than likely be nothing new to those familiar with the Slenderman myth, but for those who are just getting acquainted with the faceless forest-stalker, it’s nightmarish.

“The Loving Story”

Centered on the historic Supreme Court case on interracial marriage, “The Loving Story” follows the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who married and started a family regardless of discriminatory laws in Virginia. The film received a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and fittingly premiered on Valentine’s Day in 2012, just in time for Black History Month. The film combines new interviews as well as home video footage from the Loving family with previously unseen photographs of the Lovings and their lawyers from LIFE magazine.

Interested in learning more about documentary film? Check out NYFA’s documentary programs!

5 Social Justice Documentaries to Watch on Netflix

Whether you call it the Civil Rights Movement of the millennial generation or however you prefer to phrase it, there’s no denying that the world is politically tumultuous at present, and folks are speaking out loud and proud about those social justice issues that matter to them most. And while we’re all busy learning, protesting, challenging the status quo, or creating meaningful art, there’s nothing like a good documentary to keep us inspired, informed, and engaged, while on the path to making radical changes to improving our world as we know it.

Whether you are advocating for racial justice and reconciliation, gender equality, animal rights, or equal rights for those of the LGBTQ and transgender community, here are five social justice documentaries available to stream online right now, courtesy of Netflix.

1. “13th” Ava DuVernay, Dir.

An in-depth examination of the judicial system in the U.S. and how it reveals our nation’s racial bias at the intersection of justice and mass incarceration, Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-winning documentary posits that slavery in the U.S was never fully abolished. Her thesis is that slavery only evolved into our nation’s current prison industrial complex that criminalizes certain behaviors, unfairly targeting African-Americans. Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, “13th” demands that viewers recognize the existence of modern-day American slavery by another name.

2. “Miss Representation” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Dir.

Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Siebel Newsom draws on the experiences of everyday women and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, and Ellen DeGeneres, who concede that women cannot aspire to become what they know nothing of. In short, the film questions why there aren’t enough strong women role models in mainstream media, and implores those who view it to take a pledge against gender misrepresentation: #DisruptTheNarrative!

3. “Prescription Thugs” Chris Bell, Dir.

In this sobering look at America’s legal drug abuse problem, director Chris Bell turns his camera to the abuse of prescription drugs and big pharma, and eventually to his own harrowing addiction. This film explores the goals of pharmaceutical companies, the doctors involved in this epidemic, and the nature of addiction. This thought-provoking expose is one to watch to better understand how ordinary people deal with pain, and their response to addiction in an economy that profits off of them.

4. “Second Chance Dogs” Kenn Bell, Dir.

*Trigger warning for animal lovers.

In this emotionally charged documentary, we follow several dogs who’ve experienced various situations of abuse through puppy mills and hoarding, and despite it all, have been rescued and rehabilitated. Originally aired on Animal Planet, the film follows a facility dedicated to their recovery through patience and innovative techniques at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.

5. “A Sinner in Mecca” Parvez Sharma, Dir.

On his own pilgrimage to Mecca, openly gay Muslim director Sharma documents his own personal journey, fulfilling a lifelong dream. In the film, he strives to make a place for himself in the Wahabi Islam he’s always known, and the extremism Islam he’s come to know but that has no resemblance to his religious and spiritual beliefs.

What are your favorite social justice documentaries to stream right now? Let us know in the comments below, and check out NYFA’s documentary programs.


A Q&A With NYFA LA’s Chair of Documentary Filmmaking Barbara Multer-Wellin

Chair of Documentary Barbara Multer-Wellin recently sat down with NYFA reporter Joelle Smith to discuss the current state of non-fiction media content, her long love of filmmaking, and why Los Angeles is a great city for doc. Barbara Multer-Wellin has produced two films for the acclaimed PBS documentary series Independent Lens: “Taking The Heat: The First Women Firefighters of New York City,” narrated by Susan Sarandon and “Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire,” about the legendary editorial cartoonist. She won a 2013 Emmy for her work on the series television and web series “Your Turn To Care,” which was also the recipient of the Gracie Award.


Joelle: How did you first get started in doc?

Barbara Multer-Wellin: Good question. I was always a political person. I was always very politically minded. I’ve been politically minded since high school.  I went to school for acting and political theater.

When I got out I happened to realize that political theater had a very limited reach. I happened to get hired as a researcher in HBO at Sheila Nevin’s (producer of “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Going Clear: Scientology Prison or Belief,” and “Citzenfour.”) department in my early twenties. That was an amazing experience. I was there for six or seven years.

I began to love documentary not just for its political message but also because documentary is such a wide tent. You can do romantic stories, you can cover history, you can do a portrait of a person or an event. For anyone who is curious about the world, documentary is the ultimate playground.

Joelle: When did you first fall in love with the craft of documentary?

Multer-Wellin: One of the early ones that really shook me was “Hoop Dreams.” There are several scenes in the film following the same families for six or seven years during a very tumultuous time in their lives.

Their kids had been recruited to suburban high schools to play basketball.  These two young men both hoped for careers in the NBA. They were being bussed out to the suburbs to play for these much, much wealthier schools.

It wasn’t easy. Their families were going through great difficulties. One marriage had broken up. The father had developed a drug problem and left the family. There’s a scene in the film where the mother of the family turns to filmmaker Steve James and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to try and raise a family on the amount that I get from public assistance. We don’t have heat and they’ve turned out the lights. How do I do this?”

My blood ran cold because I thought, ‘This is what real documentary is about.”

This is the relationship between a filmmaker and a subject that’s completely honest. That you may not have an answer for but you’re not dealing with an actor here. You’re dealing with someone who is actually struggling in their lives.  How do you portray that honestly? How do you not use that?

“Hoop Dreams” was one that made me realize the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker. Many years later I heard Mr. James speak and it’s true he still has relationships with those families. It goes beyond an actor who comes in for a day’s work and then goes home. You have a moral responsibility and an ethical responsibility not just to your subject but to your audience.

It’s such a multilayered relationship involved. I think it’s fascinating, tough, and beautiful all at the same time.

Joelle: How do you impart the ethical responsibility of the subject to your students here at the New York Film Academy?

Multer-Wellin: One of the first things we talk about in the documentary project is if you’re making a documentary about someone you’re either interviewing someone about the most difficult moment of their life or they’ve experienced history in a way that it’s probably the most important thing that’s ever happened to them.

You have to be first of all aware of that. Second of all, it is almost like the doctor’s oath, “First do no harm.”  Ask yourself, “Is anything in this film going to hurt the person when it gets out there?” Be very transparent about what the film is going to be and what you expect from your subject. You’re really making a film together.   

Now, I’m not talking about investigative films when you’re up again a big corporation or someone with great wealth and power. They have their own means to get to the press and protect themselves.

But if you are focusing on someone who is not a member of the public, is not a famous person, and has allowed you the great honor of sharing their story, you need to take that responsibility seriously.

Joelle: For students wondering how to break into the industry, what makes a great subject? How can students stand out?

Multer-Wellin: I think at this point that non-fiction content of all kind is in many ways, the most happening and most sellable content there is.

There are so many different ways to use the skills you develop in documentary. Whether you’re working for the NY or LA Times to make non-fiction media content or for so many non-profit organizations using non-fiction media. Do I need to mention Vice?  Nonfiction, on so many different platforms, is being watched more than ever before.

You know, when I was coming up people would say don’t use the “D-word.” Don’t call it a documentary.  That prejudice is dying hard but it’s dying fast.

If documentary isn’t the big seller in theaters it certainly is on television. In many ways I think it’s easier to break into documentary than fictional filmmaking.

Joelle: What roads would you encourage students to take as they’re breaking into the industry?

Multer-Wellin: Well, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to students about building social media profiles and about how to use crowd-funding platforms to support their work.

There’s the 1,000 fan theory that says if you can connect with at least a thousand people who will support your career, not just one project, but the entire scope of your career, then you’ll be able to fundraise and do your own projects. That’s not an easy thing to do so there’s got to be a balance between creating your own work and working for others.

Joelle: What advice do you have for people going out there and launching their projects?

Multer-Wellin: First of all, I think these days it’s necessary to have some sort of visual reel. In the old days, you could sell a concept off a piece of paper but those days are in the past.

Even if it is just a Skype interview with a really fascinating character, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the slickest thing.  But you do have to show people what you have in mind.

One good thing I think is really helpful is to try niche marketing. Find people who have a natural interest in your subject.  I have a friend who made a very successful film about mountain bikes and the history of mountain biking.  Mountain bikes were developed by a bunch of hippies in Marin County, California who were just riding around the hills up there. They developed a bike with the broader tire specifically for that purpose, which has really spawned this huge industry.

The filmmakers were able to talk to all the biking magazines, bike shops, and bike meet-up groups and put together a series of screenings across the country just starting with these bike enthusiasts and then it sort of graduated out from there. The film did extremely well and it gave them enough money to start their next project.

It’s enough to start with a niche market and build out. No matter what your subject is, it’s smart to find people who will always be interested in the subject. Reach out to organizations that want to support your topic and build from there.

Joelle: What are you doing here at NYFA that makes our program unique from others?

Multer-Wellin: I want to first say that a lot of people don’t normally think of Los Angeles as a documentary town. They think of us as Hollywood, but the truth is the International Documentary Association is headquartered here in Los Angeles. Many documentary filmmakers live here, Davis Guggenheim, Werner Herzog, Jessica Yu, Rory Kennedy and Penelope Spheeris, to name a few.

So, we have access to all of that. We go to many of the IDA events. We also have documentary filmmakers here at school all the time who come and screen their films. We have access to lawyers who deal with fair use and clearance experts who deal with finding and clearing footage. Not to mention distributors, producers, cinematographers, composers who work primarily in non-fiction.  The list goes on and on. All of that exists here in Los Angeles.

We try to keep a very professional sense of what we’re doing. We have just initiated a class in the second year of the MFA program where students produce pieces for a network or production company so before they leave they’ll have a professional credit along with their thesis films. There’s a lot going on here in LA.

Joelle: Final question: Which films would you suggest future NYFA students watch before they come to school?

Multer-Wellin: That’s a really hard question because there are so many. We have a history of documentary course that shows everything from “Nanook of the North to films that came out this year.

It’s important to understand there are many different ways to make a documentary and there are many different documentaries that can be made about the same subject.

There are things you need to learn about yourself as a filmmaker. There are questions of access. We talk a lot about how to specialize something; how to make it yours. I would come to NYFA with ideas and a sense of how you can explore that idea deeply.  We’ll help you take it from there.  

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Barbara Multer-Wellin for sharing her expertise with our community. If you’re interested in learning more about the documentary filmmaking program at NYFA, click here.

Are Food Documentaries Changing the Food Industry?


While the purpose of a documentary film can vary, most documentaries are made with the intention of promoting one thing: change. By uncovering hidden truths and enlightening viewers with valuable information, a documentary filmmaker hopes to help people realize there’s a problem and do their part to fix it.

Shedding Light on Unhealthy Truths

Such is the case with food documentaries, which look to help audiences discover disturbing secrets about the very food we put into our bodies. Whether the focus is on unsanitary conditions of animals and overuse of chemicals or the complete lack of nutritional value in today’s fast food chains, these kinds of films want viewers to rethink if what they eat everyday is actually doing them good.

Of course, it’s not easy taking on arguably one of the most powerful industries on Earth. The food industry is a colossus, which means it’s to their benefit to keep unsavory facts about food production in the dark. Food documentary filmmakers certainly have their work cut out for them, but has their work actually shown signs of any impact?

You Are What You Eat

To answer that question, one must look at perhaps the most popular food documentary of all time: “Super Size Me.” This film follows a man on a 30-day diet consisting only of McDonald’s food. While eating three McDonald’s meals a day, he went from a healthy 185 pound weight to a heavy 215 pounds — all in one month.


Despite walking 2,000 steps a day, which matches the average American’s daily physical activity, the man saw his fat content rise 7 percent and cholesterol rise 65 points, essentially doubling his risk of heart disease. The three doctors featured in the film were astounded by the change and even suggested he give up the diet to avoid health problems.

“Super Size Me” became a huge success, grossing more than $11 million in box office revenue. People were flooding into theaters to learn just how unhealthy the fries and burgers they’ve been eating themselves and feeding their children actually are.

Our Food Industry

Four years later, Robert Kenner released his own food documentary, titled “Food, Inc.” This film also struck chords across America, revealing the corporate side of food production. Viewers gasped as they saw the cruel treatment and sad, short lives of the animals eventually slaughtered, packaged, and distributed at stores to eat.


The power of Kenner’s film is fueled by a simple, ugly reality: Finding meat that isn’t made from abused animals is difficult today. It was the perfect film to follow up “Super Size Me” because it helped audiences realize that just because they stopped eating at McDonald’s didn’t mean they’d solved the problem of supporting a controversial system within a controversial industry.

Making An Impact

Both of the food documentaries we mentioned managed to influence thousands of people across America. But it hardly matters if food production and consumer habits remain basically the same. So do food documentaries actually influence the food industry to change?

Between these two influential movies, the answer is yes. Change did happen. In the last decade we’ve seen more regulation of trans fats in food, including stricter nutritional labeling. Even McDonald’s has introduced healthier food options while also using their resources to educate children on eating correctly. They even cut ties with long-time egg supplier Sparboe Farms, who received backlash for alleged animal cruelty. And just this month the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed the idea of a sugar tax for sugary drinks. Food documentaries, and increased public awareness, are certainly behind this increase in conversation.


The fact that “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” alone helped create change in the world’s biggest food chain on the planet is a testament to the power of the food documentary. The fact that countless more food documentaries have been produced since them also helps prove one thing: Although slow and steady, food documentaries are making a difference.

Best of all, we’ve seen these game-changing films — and the makers behind them — have a direct positive impact on NYFA documentary students and alumni. Warrior Poets’ Matthew Galkin, is an instructor in our Documentary Filmmaking Department. This community connection to award-winning and active documentary filmmakers is only a small part of why the New York Film Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking School has been rated by Independent Magazine as among the 10 Best Documentary Programs.

What other ways have you seen food documentaries impacting the food industry? Have you personally felt influenced by a food documentary? Let us know in the comments below!

How to Prepare and Conduct a Documentary Interview


You’ve got the story of the century and some great subjects willing to bare all on camera. It’s a one-time opportunity to make some great documentary footage, so here’s how to make sure the interview goes swimmingly.

Getting Set Up

As with any shoot — not just documentary interviewing — the key to perfect footage lies in the setup. A few things to consider:

Background: You’ll want think carefully about where you place your subject, both from an aesthetic and exposure point of view. It’s worth reading up on our guide to filming in natural light for an in-depth look at how your choice background can make or break a shot.

Multiple Cameras: Having two different camera angles (or perhaps one recording wide while another does close up) will give you additional options in the editing suite, as discussed in more detail further down. It’s standard practice to have the subject looking at you and at a slight angle to the camera rather than directly into it.


Ambient Noise Level: Do a mental check of any background noise that might pose problems later on. It’s easy to overlook constant, low noises (like air conditioners) on the day, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb when you listen back!

If time allows, try to factor in some time with the subject before the interview, especially if you don’t know them — it’s good to build rapport before you start firing questions at them, and it’ll help soothe everyone’s nerves … it can be quite an overwhelming experience for those who aren’t used to being interviewed! Finding small ways to make the process as comfortable as possible for your subject is always beneficial.

And of course, the main piece of preparation you need to focus on is the questions themselves…

Interview Preparation and Conducting

A few well-worded questions are all it takes to transform an interview from “good” to “great.”


Naturally, what these questions will entail depends entirely on your subject and nature of the discussion, but some good rules of thumb on both the writing and asking of your questions include:

  • Avoid yes/no questions. Rather than, “Did you feel under pressure during the incident,” a more open-ended approach such as, “There must have been a lot of pressure on you during the incident,” will yield more usable results.
  • Have the interviewee repeat the question as part of his or her answer. You’ll find it much easier to edit afterwards since the context is built into what they’re saying.
  • Avoid interrupting. You can always make a cut when the answer goes on too long, but it’s much harder to edit around an interviewer’s interjections.
  • In fact, avoid making any sound whatsoever. Outside of actually asking the question, don’t make the mistake of adding non-verbal noises (such as “hmmm” or gasping) while listening to your subject.
  • Have a solid idea of where you’re trying to lead the interview. Think of your time with the subject as one part of the whole documentary; you’ll have a clear idea of the overall narrative, so use pointed, structured questions that’ll lead you neatly onto the next part of the film.

Knowing when to let things veer away from the prepared questions and when to bring things back is a skill that can only be learned with time and practice, but trusting your instinct will get you most of the way.


Get as Much B-Roll Footage as Possible

You may be absolutely riveted by your subject while conducting the interview, and with a bit of luck they’ll give you more useful material than you could ever hope to use in the final cut.

However, a static shot of someone talking isn’t always that appealing for long periods of time from the audience’s perspective. You’ll probably want to overlay contextual B-roll footage to illustrate what your subject is saying, give the viewer a visual break, and add a little flavor.

It’ll make your life a lot easier to get as much B-roll footage as possible ahead of time rather than heading back out during the editing phase, particularly if you want the subject to be in the footage themselves.

However, there will be moments where the interview gets really good and you don’t want to switch to B-roll, particularly in emotionally powerful moments. For that, you’ll want to use a slider.


Creating Subtle Movement

If you want to zoom in on a subject (or pan across the room) during a documentary interview, you’ve got two options: manually zoom or move the camera, or make the adjustment during post.

The latter isn’t ideal from a quality point of view, and the former is tricky to do effectively on the fly (especially when you’re trying to conduct the interview at the same time).

The solution? Use a slider.

It’s a low-cost, highly effective solution that will add a level of dynamism to your interview footage.

Never Stop Filming!

It’s not uncommon (in fact, it’s usual) for the real gold to happen outside of the interview. Keeping the cameras rolling both during the setup and long after you’ve finished asking questions may prove to be the best documentary tip you ever implement.

Hopefully you’ll have way more footage than you’ll ever need, so now the fun begins: click here to read up on how to edit your interview footage for maximum impact.

Change the World: 5 Documentaries That Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)


To change the world is a big goal, and yet documentary film can sometimes bring this goal within reach. One of the greatest strengths of the medium of documentary filmmaking is its ability to capture the cultural zeitgeist, as well as to bring an issue or a slice of society to a wider audience’s awareness.

The documentary format is generally meant to reflect impartially on its subject, but quite often the filmmaker influences events during the course of shooting … and on some occasions, the documentary itself ends up changing the world in a very tangible way. Here are five documentary films (plus some honorable mentions) that did exactly that.

*Warning: may contain spoilers.

1. “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)  

Full movie: 


Heralded by many as one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to celluloid, “The Thin Blue Line” followed the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Filmed by ex-private detective Errol Morris, the documentary showed categorically that the case was corrupt through and through.

Did it change the world?

The documentary stirred massive awareness in the public regarding the case, which caused intense scrutiny on the ruling and led to the case being reopened. A year after the documentary screened, Adams was exonerated and released. This film may have had the largest impact on the life of just one man and his family, but its greater message is clear: even in the face of the entire judicial system, one man and a camera can make a difference.

Honorable Mention: The trilogy “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” shot in 1996, 2000, and 2011, which strongly influence the real-life case of The West Memphis Three.

2. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)


This is the famous Academy Award-winning documentary charting former VP Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness about global warming to citizens across the country. Producer Laurie David took on the project after being bowled over during one of Gore’s lectures, realizing that it could go on to inspire a wider audience.

Did it change the world?

David’s prediction was a success, given that his documentary inspired an outcry of conversation about global warming not just in the U.S. but around the world. According to an Oxford University study, three out of four people who had seen the film reported to have changed their consumer habits as a result.

3. “Blackfish” (2013)


Seaworld has long been famous for its use of orcas in public entertainment, but what are the repercussions of keeping orcas in captivity? That’s the central question behind the 2013 documentary that got everyone talking — and got the Seaworld marketing staff a little hot under the collar.

Did it change the world?

In addition to countering many myths about orcas long held by the public (many of which were encouraged by SeaWorld itself), the documentary hit its mark; Seaworld profits, share values and attendance numbers tanked following the release of “Blackfish” — and SeaWorld is still struggling to revitalize its public image. While the top brass claimed this has all had nothing to do with “Blackfish,” they subsequently announced in March this year that they were ending all orca performances, and just this week it was reported that SeaWorld has official phased out its orca breeding program.

Honorable Mention: “The Cove,” which received an Academy Award for best documentary in 2010 and prompted a huge drop in Japanese dolphin fishing.

4. “Super Size Me” (2004)


In which Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for a month, ingesting three meals per day at the chain (and nothing else). When asked if he wanted that meal supersized?  He had to say “yes.”

Did it change the world?

While one critic pointed out we all already knew that fast food is bad for you and many others highlighting that nobody should consume 5,000 calories a day without exercising, the documentary showcased the dramatic effect of this diet in a way that truly captured the public imagination. This film prompted a wider public discussion about the role of fast food chains in society. After the film’s release, McDonald’s removed the “supersize” option from their menu six weeks after the film’s premiere (while claiming it wasn’t a response to the film). They also added salads to their menu.

Honorable mention: 2005’s “McLibel” documentary, a David-and-Goliath tale covering the much maligned lawsuit of the same name.

5. “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

Full movie (English subtitles): 

Not all documentaries are a force for positive change. Some are used as propaganda, which is a stark reminder of just how influential and important a documentary can be — and why it’s critical that documentary filmmakers learn and practice their craft carefully.

“Triumph of the Will” is an example of how documentary film can be manipulated for dubious ends. Starring none other than Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Viktor Lutze, and other Nazi leaders, this WWII documentary was arguably one of the most effective propaganda films ever made.

Did it change the world?

The response to the film was monumental, and immediately after its release gained the Nazi party countless numbers of additional supporters and sympathizers. Leni Riefenstahl, the director, went on to be heralded as one of the finest female filmmakers of the 20 century mainly owing to technical and stylistic innovations in “Triumph of the Will,” but she was also demonized for her associations right up until her death in 2003 (aged 101). Dubiously honorable mention: Riefenstahl’s follow up propaganda film, “Olympia,” which covered the Hitler-attended 1936 Olympic Games, and is also recognized for its technical innovation (if not the content).

For better or worse, the impact these documentaries have made remind us all of the immense power and responsibility of documentary filmmakers. Whatever stories you choose to tell, remember that your film might just change the world.

More documentaries to consider that did their part to change the world: “Making a Murderer,” “The Jinx,” “Titicut Follies” and “Gasland.”

Has your life been strongly impacted or changed by a documentary film? Do you plan on making a film to change the world? Let us know in the comments below!

7 Of The Best (And Most Disturbing) War Documentaries

Perhaps as an unfortunate reflection of the times, the theater of war has been the focus of some excellent (if harrowing) fictional movies in recent years, as well as some thought-provoking dramatization of real events.

But of course, war by its very nature doesn’t always need dramatizing and for those who prefer to not mix their fact and fiction on the same plate, there are always war documentaries…

marines in fallujah fire weapon

1. Restrepo (2010)

Conflict Covered: Afghanistan War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: A powerhouse example of cinema verite, Restrepo never falls afoul of the common war documentary pitfall of becoming bogged down in political point making. In fact, it doesn’t even attempt to offer up a commentary, and in doing so we’re given an alarmingly honest portrayal of the Afghan conflict courtesy of those embroiled in it.

2. The Fog of War (2003)

Conflict Covered: Numerous

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara and directed by Errol Morris, the documentary centers around a series of interviews with the titular former Secretary of Defense. From WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis and illustrated with archival footage and home video, McNamara holds nothing back as he discusses with great experience what can be learned from some of the most divisive and nuanced conflicts in living memory.

3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Why It’s So Good: One of the first (if not the first) documentaries to question the official narrative that was playing out in popular culture while the Vietnam War was waged, Winter Soldier is a collection of stories—and confessions—from the front lines. One of the hardest movies on this list to get through, it has an eerie and unsettling resonance with current events.

4. Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Conflict Covered: Iraq War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

Why It’s So Good: Another well-crafted expose by war documentarian Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure deftly covers one of the many ugly stories that emerged from the Iraq conflict: the torture and abuse of terror suspects held at Abu Ghraib by American troops. More importantly, it gets beneath the skin of the soldiers who were photographed committing these notorious acts, as well as examining the administrative culture which allowed them to occur.

6. No End In Sight (2007)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

Why It’s So Good: Possibly the closest a war documentary will ever get to a bona fide horror show, No End in Sight catalogs the series of decisions from within the Bush administration that culminated in the invasion of Iraq. Incredibly in-depth but accessible to any audience, Charles Ferguson’s comprehensive documentary is one that will probably cause your blood pressure to be a lot higher by the time the 100 minutes are up.

7. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

Why It’s So Good: As the title suggests, this gracefully executed documentary – packed to the brim with drama, emotion and heroism – focuses in on the final events of the Vietnam War. The suspense of the closing scenes are as utterly thrilling as anything you’ll see in fiction, cementing Last Days as one of the best PBS documentaries ever produced.

Got any other favorites that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below, and if you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of these superb war documentarians, you might want to check out our guide to staying safe while shooting in live conflict zones.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Cinéma Vérité Vs. Direct Cinema: An Introduction

Robert Capa uses a hand-held camera

From its very beginnings in 1877 when Eadweard Muybridge took sequential photographs of moving horses and animated them with the zoópraxiscope—a device he invented two years later to project the images—documentary film has taken many forms and adopted numerous styles and techniques. Most notably, was when the Lumiére brothers invented the first movie camera in 1895 that could hold fifty feet of film stock, with which they captured a train pulling up to a station. As a result, the concept of unedited documentation of real-life situations referred to as “actualities” came about. Today, the two most common methods used in the genre however, are ‘direct cinema’ (the more commonly recognized, ‘standard’ method, if you will) and ‘cinema vérité.’

Both practices were quite revolutionary in their time and were developed during the same historical period in the early ‘60s—a period where documentary cinema had become more comparable to highly edited post-World War II propaganda than portrayals of real events. Developments in technology like smaller and lighter cameras that used 16mm film stock (as opposed to its 35mm predecessor), and portable sync sound allowed for a much less obtrusive way of filming events on site as they happened. The major film crews could be significantly downsized, editing became much more unnecessary and the hand-held cameras could ensure a closer, more authentic look at the subjects in question. Although the two similar techniques came about with synonymous ideologies about championing realism in film, they do have some subtle, yet important differences.

The Maysles brothers, Albert and David Maysles of the United States were most well-known for developing direct cinema. Three of their most popular works in the genre were Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). Rather than planning a scene they wanted to shoot, the brothers would let the story unfold organically as the camera rolled. They believed the documentarian was an objective observer, a completely invisible passivist as opposed to a director or participant—a noteworthy sentiment that sets the genre apart from cinema vérité.

French for “film truth”, cinema vérité was first developed by French ethnologist and filmmaker, Jean Rouch during the early 1960s and brought to documentary filmmaking a natural dialogue and authenticity of action. But unlike its direct counterpart, the philosophy behind this technique was that the filmmaker actively participates in the film as a subjective observer where necessary; combining observational AND participatory filming in the same breath. Essentially, there is an awareness of the camera that is filming the scene, thus establishing a connection between the cameraman/filmmaker and those who are being filmed. It can also involve stylized and staged set-ups and the degree of intervention is greater than in direct cinema, with the filmmaker’s subjective involvement evoking provocation—something critics point out goes against the whole foundation of documentary as a means to portray uninterrupted truths. In its defence, famous vérité filmmaker Dan Kraus once said “no documentary can ever show you the truth, because there are multiple truths, but vérité can at least relay the truth as seen by a single observer…” Similarly, Rouch’s view about the camera provoking subjects was that provocation reveals people’s true selves as the creatures of fantasy, myth and imagination, which he believes constitutes the most authentic self.

One of the earliest and most widely known of Rouch’s films using vérité was Chronicle of a Summer (1960), which he did with fellow French filmmaker Edgar Morin. By gathering a number of Parisians, including a few supporters of a group with socialist ideologies, either through one-on-one interviews or group discussions, the film addresses topics ranging from happiness and love to colonialism and racism. True to the active role of vérité filmmakers on-camera, the action of the characters in the film seem to always be a response to an impulse by the leader of the conversation or the interviewer. Both Rouch and Morin play with their own roles within the film and are never detached or disengaged from the process of filming. They even included responses from all of the characters in the edited film after showing them the original; allowing for the luxury of self-representation in all parties that resulted in a sense of equality never achieved in direct cinema.

In comparison, both direct cinema and cinema vérité aim to uncover truth in two different ways. The former hopes to unveil truth through the camera’s observation of events and subjects; the latter uses any means possible to seek out truth and is intrinsically an internal process being gradually revealed. Nevertheless, documentary is rarely a matter of pure, untouched observation, but within both methods lies an opportunity for revelation—regardless of the degree of mediation by both the camera and the filmmaker. As such, they are viewed equally as two alternative methods of documentary filmmaking whose use of particular cinematic philosophy and new technology had a huge influence on many generations of filmmakers which is still felt today.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujam


Although female names among the incessant list of filmmakers in a male-dominated industry seem as scarce as hen’s teeth, there are quite a few females in the documentary filmmaking landscape who are thriving and have produced some magnificent work throughout the years; one of whom is Egyptian/American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim. Born in Washington D.C. in 1974 to an Egyptian father and an American mother, she was raised in Kuwait and Egypt until her family moved to Boston in 1990, where she later graduated Magna Cum Laude in Visual Arts and Philosophy from Harvard. Before graduating however, she was awarded the Gardiner Fellowship for her film Mokattam, an Arabic film she directed about a garbage-collecting village near Cairo. This was the precedent for a long and successful career directing and producing many films in the Middle East and the U.S in an attempt to create a day where the power of film could bring a global community together; allowing a new understanding of one another. The following are four of Noujaim’s most notable documentaries with which you should get well-acquainted.

1. (2000)

This film follows childhood friends and co-founders of a dot-com start-up,, Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman, during the troubled state of the Internet revolution. It uses an intimate and dynamic cinema-vérité style in personalizing the crisis through intensely private views of those involved and tells a classic story about values and friendship during the dawn of the Internet Age. The film was shot over two years on digital video and required over 400 hours of video editing—right up until its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Along with a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the festival, the film also won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary at the Directors Guild of America in 2002, among many others.

2. Control Room (2004)

This feature documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, as it covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Including interviews with military officials and both American and Al-Jazeera journalists, this film showcases the huge gap in understanding that exists between the Arab world and Americans, and the way events relating to the war have taken on significantly different meanings, weight and emotional import. Through this, it essentially asks the big question of whether America is radicalizing or stabilizing the Arab world. Among the film’s seven wins and eight nominations, it was awarded the coveted TED prize in 2006. Noujaim was the first woman and the youngest person to win the prize, which grants winners a wish to change the world.

3. Rafea: Solar Mama (2012)

This co-directed documentary with Mona Eldaief follows Rafea, a Jordanian woman from one of the country’s poorest desert villages, Bedouin, as she leaves her 4 daughters and husband to study solar engineering at the revolutionary Barefoot College in India. The college teaches rural men and women—many of whom are illiterate—to become engineers, doctors and artisans with only 2 requirements for enrollment —you must be poor and you must take what you learn to your home village. The challenges Rafea faces are ongoing, with many of the men back home (including her husband) intervening and unconvinced of her ambitions as a practical avenue for women, but her desire for a better, more sustainable future remains clear. The documentary won a U.S. Cinema Eye Honors Award in 2014 and the EDA Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in 2013.

4. The Square (2013)

This film follows a handful of Tahrir Square protesters through a 3-year course of Egypt’s political upheaval since 2011. An intimate observational documentary, it begins in the tents of Tahrir in the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall and follows the life-changing journeys of its characters as they begin the real struggle with the military regime—one that has been in power longer than the dictator they removed. The film had over 1600 hours worth of material that was edited and finalised in 2012. But after entering the Sundance Film festival a year later and winning the Audience Award, Noujaim and her crew went back to Tahrir to keep shooting after the situation on the ground had changed and the characters found themselves in the thick of things once again. As a result, the film became an even deeper and more complex story, receiving an Academy Award nomination and winning a Directors Guild Award, the International Documentary Award and an Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival—making it the first ever film to win the award at both Sundance and Toronto.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Werner Herzog

werner herzog

If there’s ever a documentarian that hires cast and crewmembers whose endurance levels match their professional skills, it’s German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. Born on September 5, 1942 in post-World War II Germany, the offbeat visionary thrives on filming in rugged and exotic places like Antarctica or the Amazonian forest and is renowned for putting his subjects to the test—both physically and mentally.

He uses his camera to unveil new layers of experience, nature and the human psyche and is well-known for his frequent collaborations with the controversial and often temperamental actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s films, like himself, are offbeat, cluttered and ecstatic and once professed that “the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” But this crazed valour is all part of his mystique—he once ate a shoe after losing a bet to fellow documentarian Errol Morris.

With over forty years in filmmaking and more than sixty films (including feature films) under his belt, to say Herzog’s had an illustrious career would be an understatement. But as far as documentaries go, if you were to watch any 5 of his works, these should be the ones.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary follows the work of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard—both of whom were mauled to death by the animal—and was pieced together using actual video footage of Treadwell’s. One of the elements that makes this film so fascinating is the contentious dialogue between Treadwell’s running commentary in the footage and Herzog’s narration; Herzog only saw the overwhelming indifference of nature in the bears whereas Treadwell believed in them as more than just killers.

Fata Morgana (1971)

A truly one-of-a-kind piece of nonfiction filmmaking that could only have come from a mind like Werner Herzog’s, this film puts together narration reciting the Mayan creation myth and stunning yet sometimes bizarre images of the Sahara Desert. The film was initially intended to have a science fiction narrative, but still contains some fascinating dystopian imagery that’s even more bizarre when accompanied by the songs of Leonard Cohen.


Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

This film is what inspired another of Herzog’s films, the narrative drama Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. Made for German television, this documentary follows German-American Dieter Dengler as he discusses serving as an American naval pilot in the Vietnam War. His stories of deprivation and struggle in the years after the war echo similar memories from Herzog’s past.


Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

This film shows how the deaf and blind struggle to understand and come to terms with a world from which they’re almost completely isolated. It does so through Fini Straubinger, the protagonist, an elderly woman who has been blind, deaf and mute since adolescence. She uses tactile sign language to communicate with people who rely only on taste, touch and smell as she helps them ease the isolation they experience because of their disabilities. It truly is an equally fascinating and touching film.


Lessons of Darkness (1992)

This film shows the disaster of the post-Gulf War Kuwaitian oil wells in flames, in a style that seems almost like it’s documented through the perspective of a somewhat alien observer. With few interviews and no explanatory narration, but only a soundtrack full of melancholy and grandiosity, this visually mesmerizing exploration of the ravaged fields sits side-by-side with its equally effective companion Fata Morgana.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Feminist Cinema Of Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto

Oprah, Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie; when talking feminism, art, and pop-culture, these are the names that immediately spring to mind. But what about the strong and talented females behind the camera that use their art to elevate women’s rights and their plight in trying to fight for them? Kim Longinotto (1952), a documentary filmmaker from the UK, is one of them and has been using her talent to highlight the oppression and discrimination of females from stifling traditions and authoritative rule for the last three decades.

Her debut film, 1976’s Pride of Place, a school project of hers during her years at England’s National School of Television and Film, was somewhat of a rebellion against her previous boarding school in Buckinghamshire, a repressive institution with absurd punishments and incalculable rules. This dark exposé used the students’ perspectives to condemn the school and resulted in it closing down a year after the film was released. This kind of observational documentation of the lives of females as they rose up against any situation that was unjust set the tone for a very long and prestigious career for Longinotto.

As an observational filmmaker, her techniques were unobtrusive—often steering away from any advanced planning, narration, scripting, or staging and yet somewhat also participatory. She would make sure that the audience would feel like they were involved, right there in the scene as her, watching what was happening through the camera. As a result, her work always exhibited her subjects with a fervent veracity that penetrated the camera lens, giving them a distinct voice and presence not always shown in other documentary genres.

Take Shinjuku Boys (1995), a candid look at the lives of three female-to-male transgender subjects working as hosts at the New Marilyn Club in Tokyo. This remarkable documentary followed the three subjects (all of whom don’t identify themselves as lesbians) at home and at work with an anthropological immersion as they entertained their exclusively heterosexual female clientele. Showcasing the complexities of sexuality in an ultra-conservative Japan, this film really thrust Longinotto into the filmmaking limelight and won Outstanding Documentary at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. This then catapulted the career of the self-confessed “lover of the underdog” as she continued to be adorned with honours—including a two-week-long career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the 14 films featured at the event was Rough Aunties (2008), winner of the Sundance documentary award for its portrayal of five South African women, aka “Bobbi Bears,” who looked after abandoned and abused children. There was also Pink Saris (2010), with protagonist Sampat Pal, a relentless vigilante battling India’s endemic rape dilemma. And Sisters in Law (2005), following Cameroonian judge, Beatric Ntuba and prosecutor, Vera Ngassa as they help women fight cases of abuse; a film that also won the Prix Art et Essai at Cannes and was awarded a Peabody.

The consistent theme behind her works could easily be misinterpreted as continuous representations of female victims and their tragic stories. But Longinotto is quick to point out that none of her subjects are victims but rather survivors. “These stories are about rebels, and those rebels are usually women, because, in most situations, men have an awful lot more power,” she says. However she also clarifies that her work empathises with all of those who struggle. “If there was a place where men were being kicked around and women were locking them in cages, then you’d focus on the men,” she says.

Her passion for those who struggle without a voice comes as no surprise when considering her own history. Born to a Welsh mother and an Italian father, a photographer who later went bankrupt, Longinotto grew up in complete fear of her father’s next “blow-up,” followed by the fear of her boarding school headmistress’ next punishment. She eventually ended up as a homeless 17 year-old where she found herself at the brink of death from illness. It was only when she discovered her love of filmmaking at the National Film and Television School, that she felt she had a calling.

True to form, her latest film Dreamcatcher won the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Following Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute and addict as she dedicates her life to saving girls on the street, it’s clear from the get-go Longinotto’s intent to truly bring the audience in through all the harrowing accounts of rape, violence and abuse. It includes everything, from the shockingly nonchalant confession of a nine-year-old rape victim having witnessed her four-year-old sister receive the same treatment, to the opening scene, where a young sex-worker recalls being stabbed multiple times by a client. And through it all, Longinotto shoots with her resolute adherence to justice through awareness. And may she continue to do so.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.