Stepping Into Another Culture: On-site and Societal Research Considerations of a Documentary Film Director


Research for a documentary film production includes both traditional content analysis as well as examinations of legal issues, budgetary requirements, ethics, interpersonal interaction, historical overview, examination of media precedents and impacts and distribution modes and consumption tendencies on the part of the viewer. Associate Professor Melinda Levin, Chair of the Department of Radio, Television and Film discusses some case-specific documentaries she has directed and produced.

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    As a professor and a documentary film director and producer, research is key to the success of my work. At times this research is fairly traditional: classic library and web research, reading, critiquing, absorbing, and analyzing the work of others. At other times, it is much more nuanced and subtle, sometimes occurring on location with experts and at other times in delicate observation of human interactions and storytelling modes. The nature of documentary media production allows for in-depth, often intense, and prolonged insertion into the lives and histories of other cultures. Being allowed into others’ lives requires that you gather and understand as much about the people and communities you are filming as possible.

    Research is often done on multiple fronts. Technology is ever-changing in my field, and it is critical that these tools (high definition digital cameras, postproduction software, etc.) are understood and used properly. Documentary crews and accompanying support groups change according to the subject matter, and human interaction and working needs must be analyzed, understood, and communicated, because it is critical that the documentary team work in tandem. Misunderstandings or frustrations that might be dealt with easily in an office setting could have quite devastating results in the field. I was once in Northern Israel directing a documentary about Arab Muslim women in several small villages. We were literally just miles from the Lebanon border when the 2006 Israel/Lebanon conflict began, effectively trapping us in an active war zone. It was critically important that my crew, which included two Israelis and a UNT graduate student, have a high level of trust and communication in one another during an extremely tense and dangerous few days before we were evacuated out of Tel Aviv. 

    While I now work principally in environmental documentary, I have directed an award-winning film on a homeless man in New York City that required me to literally live in homeless shelters and on the streets of Manhattan for periods of time in order to gain his trust, access the larger homeless community, get a better understanding of the regular pacing and well thought-out scheduling of his day, and interact with homeless advocates, city officials, and New York City police. I also shot a film, commissioned by a PBS affiliate, which documented the last year of my father’s life as he battled lung cancer that had spread to his brain. Clearly, research on indigency, politics, personal safety, medical issues, family dynamics and distribution modes were critical to these films. In both of these cases, however, personal ethics and morals were at the forefront of my mind. I consider ongoing self-analysis and open communication with those you are filming to also be an important part of the “research process” for the documentarian. This is not what one often thinks of when discussing academic research, but is critical to the success of those working in my field. I posit that research is done minute-by-minute for a documentarian, sharing similarities with the work of journalists, anthropologists, social workers, and others. 

    While at times quite similar to the role of a journalist, documentary filmmaking differs, in that there is not the understanding and tradition of balanced communication. The documentarian may be a “fly on the wall” observer, may be an artistic and biased storyteller, may insert her own story into the unfolding narrative, may include music and voiceover, and could work in new media modes, including social networking venues or even online virtual worlds. For the documentary director, discovering the most effective way to communicate the issue or story at hand is critical.

    The Necessity for Background Research

    Well before my crew members or I pick up a camera, there are months of investigation; we investigate the mythology, history, personal biographies, conflicts and controversies, and current state of the people and topics of the intended documentary production. There are three recent films that I have either directed or produced that indicate the wide range of topics and examinations that one might have to deal with.

    The Global Rivers Project, for which I serve as lead Executive Producer, is an international, collaborative, high definition production that explores the history, culture, environment, and politics of several major world rivers, including the Ganges, Mississippi, Danube, Rio Grande, Amazon, Los Angeles, and Mekong. We had crews shooting in Serbia, Slovakia, India, Thailand, Brazil, and the United States, with the goal of pulling out key thematic elements, including work, death, ritual, play, and politics. This production required in-depth analysis of various cultures living on these rivers, and required research into the ecology of each location. In India we had to get community permission to film the burning of human corpses before their ashes were spread into the holy Ganges River. On the Rio Grande, we interviewed a Congressman and were cleared by both the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Office of Homeland Security to accompany Marines on border security runs along the Laredo Sector of the river. In Thailand we worked with villages to document the devastation caused to the Mekong by damming taking place upriver in China. In Slovakia and Serbia we worked with fisherman who celebrated the river as something that no longer serves as a political border but as a source of food, recreation, and accessible beauty. Similar kinds of permissions, research, and location filming were accomplished on the other rivers included.

    The Mayan Dreams of Chan Kom, for which I served as Director, Cinematographer, and Editor, was done in collaboration with Dr. Alicia Re Cruz, the Chair of the UNT Department of Anthropology. Dr. Re Cruz is a recognized and published expert in Maya tradition and culture, with particular emphasis on outmigration and changing definitions of true Maya identity. This film was shot over a period of four years on location in Chan Kom, a rural peasant Mexican village, and in Cancun, the international tourist destination. For this film, I was required to do in-depth investigation on not only the history, but on community dynamics, political tensions, the role of women in families that chose to remain in the village, and those whose family members chose to spend part or all of the year working in the tourist industries of Cancun, while living in the outlying barrios of that city. While book, article, and media research was accomplished, much of my own understanding of how and what to document occurred on location, and after the community members developed a deep level of trust in me, an outsider with a camera. 

    A third film recently completed is Living with the Land: Sustainable Ranching in the American West. I served as Director, Cinematographer, and Editor on this film, in close collaboration with Dr. Irene Klaver of UNT’s Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies. Dr. Klaver is an expert in water issues and we both became very fluent in the role of cattle ranchers who use the very things that seem to devastate brittle Western landscapes – cattle and fire – to actually improve watersheds, wildlife migratory routes, and the health of grasses, trees, and soil. While only three of the ranches we filmed on ended up in the PBS 30 minute film, we documented ranches, ranchers, and experts in Mexico, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and California. Words like herbivory, riparian zones, managed fires, invertebrate conservation, soil litter, and rotational grazing became a part of my daily vocabulary on location, requiring a deep understanding of terms, techniques, and activities that we were documenting. This required many off-camera interviews with content experts, academics, ranchers, and government officials. This somewhat controversial subject matter also prompted me to research those who disagree with the techniques used, so that I had a good grasp on the larger context, both in the United States and in pastoral communities in other countries. 


    As someone trained originally in the art of cinema, the opportunity and privilege of delving deeply into other cultures, communities and traditions of those very unlike my own is something I do not take for granted. Documentary filmmaking allows me to spend months or years learning about and documenting parts of the human story, and how we interact with each other and with our planet. It is a pleasure to be supported in these endeavors by my colleagues and students at the University of North Texas.