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The Eight Elements of a Compelling Documentary

Adam L. Brinklow | May 22, 2013 | Lifestyle Story Culture

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee knew he had some particularly tough hurdles to clear when he and co-director Gayatri Roshan set out to shoot their new film Elemental. Not only did the three-year project carry them across three continents, chronicling an Indian man's efforts to clean up the Ganges river, a Canadian woman's crusade to stop tar sands drilling at the mouth of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and Australian inventor's quest for a machine to stymie global warming, but then they had to figure out how to present the material in a way that doesn't alienate audiences weary of environmental jeremiads.

The key, Vaughan-Lee says, is that Elemental is not just about the issues: It's also about people. Here is his guide to an engaging documentary:

1.) Find a pressing issue: "There are huge problems here: Glaciers melting. The biggest river in India being so polluted it will kill thousands of people."

2.) Pick out the human element in it: "It's a film about people. For anybody in environmental work, there's so much information out there already about what's wrong. Our story is about people creating change—instead of just documenting the problem."

3.) And be sure to respect your audience: "We don't send the audience out with ten things they can do—you know, change your lightbulbs or drive a better car. People know all that already. I don't think there are easy answers."

4.) Find intriguing subjects: "We wanted people who all shared that Malcolm Gladwell Outliers quality, who had a story we could watch develop without it being driven by interviews. You take a leap when you choose your subjects and commit to spending the next two years following them around."

5.) Who have intriguing flaws: "A lot of the time in films like this we don't see people fail. [In this movie] we see them get frustrated, we see them get tired and hungry, and we see them being contradictory."

6.) And who are doing timely work: "When we started in 2009, tar sands were not discussed very often, but they've become a big issue. So it wasn't just our subject going through that change, the whole country was going through a change. And we wanted [to also do] a story in India, because that allows us to show how a developing part of the world faces these issues."

7.) Then promote the hell out of it: "You make this film, you do research and post-production, and then you give this sigh of relief that it's done, but in some ways you're just beginning. In the time we were making the movie, everything about the landscape of the industry changed."

8.) And don't be afraid to count on your hometown: "We opened at the Mill Valley Film Festival [last year] because I love the movies they curate, and because where better to premiere it than somewhere local? We knew we'd have that at least going for us."

Elemental opens Friday, May 24 at Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and May 31 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Go to for more info.

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