Useful books – Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger

5 Mar

I’ve had Michael Rabiger’s “Directing the Documentary” for several years now, but only recently really had the time and the patience to properly digest it. It’s not so much that it’s over six hundred pages, but more because Rabiger manages to pack so much useful detail into every paragraph that it rewards slow reading and absorption.

Although the book is primarily focused on documentary film, it’s been an important influence for me because it eloquently describes the ethics and spirit you need to cultivate in order to be a good documentary maker.

In many ways Rabiger’s book feels like a kind of “The Artist’s Way” for me, particularly coming from the more restrained position of a journalist. Some of the most interesting chapters focus on identifying your artistic identity and psychological interests, by, for example, writing an inventory of the key moments in your life, making a list of fictional characters from film or literature that you identify with, or even keeping a log of your dreams. Rabiger suggests these in order to help you identify your over-riding interests, and thus subjects that would make fruitful subjects for documentaries for you – because his fundamental argument is that you cannot make good documentaries about subjects you are not passionate about.

Although I had to push myself do some of these exercises, they proved surprisingly useful, and provided clear subjects and themes for me to pursue – and  also helped explain a lot of the stories I have chosen to pursue as a freelance journalist.

Of course, there’s also plenty of useful detail about the craft of documentary making in there – for example, about the different roles for the director, editor, sound man, and producer, and the essential strength of collaboration. With my experience as a one-man-band multimedia reporter, who prides himself on being able to make radio, shoot film, handle a DSLR, edit and upload, I’ve been somewhat resistant to the idea that I should now be seeking to collaborate with other people – I think it felt like I would lose control. But since almost everything I read about documentary and feature production suggests the power and fun of creative collaboration, I’ve started to come round to the idea.

There’s also a very useful potted history of documentary film, and a list of twenty of the most influential documentaries that he recommends you watch. I’ve been steadily working my way through these, and they are amazing. If you want to get started with one, I’d recommend “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris for sheer impact, but I’ll write a little about each of them as I go.

Michael Rabiger has directed over 35 films, and is Professor emeritus at Columbia College. Indeed, when he retired from the college in 2001 in order to write,they renamed it’s documentary centre after him, and it is now known as “The Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film.” He is the author of “Directing the Documentary” and “Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics.”


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