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The Ground Truth
F or a few tips on making a good documentary, I interviewed Patricia Foulkrod, the director/producer of The Ground Truth , which was on the short list of 15 documentary features considered for a 2006 Oscar nomination.
Foulkrod has worked on both documentaries and feature films, including They’re Doing My Time, a documentary about children with mothers in prison, which she produced and directed.
The Ground Truth features harrowing interviews with Iraq war vets, the parents of a vet who committed suicide, and interviews with members of support groups. These interviews fit within the general progression of the film, from boot camp to war to homecoming.
When interviewing people for a documentary, Foulkrod stresses the importance of sound. She says that picture quality can be poor, “but if you can’t understand them, forget it.” A wireless or boom microphone is essential. “Never” use the microphone that comes with a video camera.
In spite of the importance of sound, she does not mind conducting an interview where a lot is going on, for instance, in a market. The key is “to have things as quiet as you possibly can.”
Listening is an important skill for documentary filmmakers. She said, “You should always wear headsets when you interview people. Because if you don’t have headsets on you’re not really listening as well as you think you are.”
She continued, “Because I come from television, I will constantly be able to hear—I don’t know that everybody does this—when they [the interviewees] don’t incorporate the question into the answer.” If necessary Foulkrod will retake an answer, “which is a little bit of a skill because you can really piss people off. You’re asking them to basically repeat what they’ve just said.… If you don’t do that, when you get into the editing room, it can be a nightmare. And it’s worth it because people will say things that are really important, but they won’t make any sense because they’re completely out of context.
“I think you have to interview people as if you will never have narration. And sometimes when I see documentaries, it’s very clear to me that if they didn’t have narration, we wouldn’t know what anybody was talking about.”
I n addition to sound, a documentary filmmaker must work out how the video is shot. Foulkrod said that a director can’t assume that the camerapeople “know what you want or what you’re thinking, particularly in terms of angles. Because a cameraperson might think that a medium shot is really the right place to be and that’s standard in his or her experience, but for this particular person, you might want to be really tight on them for whatever reason.”
Interviews are generally intercut with B roll—additional footage, usually shot without sync sound— of people walking their dogs, etc. Foulkrod commented, “I get really bored with the idea of filming people in their kitchens or ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ And having made this film, I really see that it may seem boring at the time, but it’s invaluable in terms of being able to tell a story. All that B roll really helps.”
In The Ground Truth , some B roll of Robert Acosta, coupled with a voiceover, is particularly effective. While in Iraq, Acosta lost his right hand and his legs were shattered by a grenade. His voice- over begins as he unloads a box from a car, which he takes to his apartment: “I’m 22 and I’m all... I’m all messed up. My leg’s messed up. It’s hard to wake up in the morning. My hand’s gone. My hips are all messed up now because I’m just walking all weird. My knees hurt. Like I had goals in the military...that was all taken away.”
Without the editing of footage and sound, we would see Acosta’s physical loss, but the loss in his life would not be as explicit. As Barry Hampe wrote in his book Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos , the proper job of documentary filmmakers is “recording of good images and organizing them in a forceful way to make a statement to an audience.… We are obliged to document as well as to record.”
The distribution of documentaries is easier now than in the past. Since a number of documentaries have done well at the box office in recent years, Foulkrod said that the trend is to push that forward so that the money a documentary makes is no longer judged “by documentary standards,” but by the standards applied to any film. She thinks that Netflix is a major new form of documentary distribution. The Internet is also embracing documentaries— streaming seven minutes of The Ground Truth played a big part in increasing audience awareness of her film.
I asked Foulkrod if she thought documentaries would become a more important source of information because Americans don’t read much. She answered, “My job is not to educate someone because they don’t read. My job is to find a subject that really interests me that I think you should know about and take a point of view and tell you about it. I can’t possibly tell you everything about the Iraq war because you’re not interested in watching the news or reading the newspapers about it every day.”
Her idea of what documentaries or films can do is get people interested enough to learn more. She advises, “If you have an idea for a documentary you want to make because you want people to learn something, that’s great, but you really have to think about the way you structure it so that they’re willing to listen and to learn.”
Mike Reizman works as a technical writer, freelance writer, and bookseller.
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