Eamonn Matthews: keys to your perfect documentary

Eamonn Matthews, the executive producer of Unreported World on Channel 4, revealed the principal components of a good documentary to Journalism students at University of Westminster.

In case any of you missed the lecture – here’s the summary.

Picture. TV has the power of bringing alive what it’s like to be in the middle of situation. The tool is using pictures. And so reporters should always think about what they are going to film.

Actuality. “Real things happening – that’s what TV is about”

Characters. TV can put you into other people’s shoes. The tool is finding characters the audience can engage with. Think who the people are in the film and how you can shape the film around them.

Transgression. This is about “being naughty, sneaking around, causing trouble”. In other words, get to places government or someone else doesn’t want you to be, and get pictures from there.

Mr. Matthews also talked about their secret filming policy. Strict rules define the work of reporters, he said, and secret filming is undertaken only when there is prime evidence of a wrongdoing. The same applies to working under cover.

Story. A narrative is the biggest of all, it overpowers other requirements. There should be a story that is actually unfolding, developing.

Human interest. The report should be either highly relevant to the audience or cover some universal human values.

Mr. Matthews showed us some clips from Unreported World films that illustrate a good use of those key elements. But, to tell the truth, they were so depressing that the moment I saw those suffering people, I forgot all about components he was talking about.

I guess in a way that’s another indicator of a good documentary – when the key components are used in such a subtle way that you don’t notice them, yet the effect is so overwhelming that you can’t stop thinking about what you saw.

I made another discovery that evening: this kind of journalism is definitely not my cup of tea.

I was thinking about why something feels wrong about what those brave reporters do, but I can’t understand my own emotions right now.

Maybe I just don’t like them disturbing my peace of mind, because it hurts when you are being reminded that someone is suffering while I live my not perfect, but tolerable life.

Maybe I don’t like the fact that they show the “everything is absolutely and unconditionally bad” picture. And as I believe that is the easiest way to make a strong impression on the audience, it doesn’t seem like fair play to me.

Maybe I don’t trust them because I can’t understand why a sensible person, if he is not hunting for either fame or money or adrenaline, would willingly go to a place where it is dangerous or emotionally uncomfortable to be.

Maybe you just have to become older and wiser to accept it. I don’t know.

So instead of a conclusion, I thought I would rather let you enjoy some quotes of Mr. Matthews’.

“Talk to real people, not experts” (another hint to documentary reporters)
“Part of the job of a reporter is just to go to the place and shoot what’s there”
“If we pay money to people, they lie” (a very deep observation, imho)
“In a documentary, the journalist is an additional character”
“Journalist’s prime duty is to tell the truth”
“The duty of a journalist is to try to make the world better”
“Build networks. Think of ideas. Whatever you do, do it brilliantly” (an advice for young journalists)

P.S.: Советую посмотреть репортаж про русский север и выборы наши… Имхо, в некоторых моментах пересолено, но по большому счету правда.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I like your style! Sort of bullet points being woven in the article. Actually it is easier for the reader to pick up main points. :P


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