Julian Sher on narrating curious stories through documentaries

Workshop series invites students to explore documentary filmmaking

The Department of Journalism held a workshop on Nov. 18 led by Julian Sher, veteran of investigative journalism and former senior producer at the CBC, on making crime and war documentaries.

The workshop was the second of a visual series organized by Francine Pelletier, the department’s journalist-in-resident. The focus of the workshop was on using documentaries to tell stories of unfamiliar persons and nations and demystifying their lives.

Although Sher has been making documentaries for 35 years, he still finds it challenging.

“Every time you do a documentary, you get into this hellish situation in the edit room,” he said, “[where you tell yourself,] ‘This is the worst piece of crap I’ve ever made.’ And then somehow, miraculously, it turns out usually well.”

Sher analyzed three of his TV documentaries during the workshop. The first one was Steven Truscott: His Word Against History. When he was 14 years old, Steven Truscott was convicted of murder and spent 10 years in jail. Thirty years later, in 1999, Sher made a documentary about his story. “I said, ‘Steven, I’m a journalist, I am here to dig for the truth. I’m not here to prove you innocent,’” Sher said. “And [Truscott] said, ‘I have no trouble with that.’”

In 2007, Truscott’s conviction was overturned.

The film starts with scenes from the actual prison where Truscott spent 10 years. “The visuals of the prison are stunning,” Sher said. “It was one of the most — no pun intended — arresting scenes.” The film recreates some scenes from 1959, but Sher said it’s best to avoid recreation, because it would look fake. “Avoid it at all costs,” he said. “And if you have to do it, then do it in a minimalist way,” adding that, in this case, they had no choice but to recreate.

“The music should never tell you what you’re supposed to feel,” he said.

“Music is one of the trickiest things in documentary,” Pelletier added. “One of the most frequent errors is overusing music.”

The second documentary, A Mother’s Ordeal, narrates the story of Brenda Waudby, a mother accused of murdering her toddler. Sher said that to have a story, the character must go on a journey. In other words, they must grow and change over time. The difficulty is that when the documentary is being made, the character is usually at the end of their journey. So, to illustrate the journey, the trick is to ask the character to talk about their story from the beginning to the end.

“So in the pre-interview, when Brenda said ‘I was a bad mother,’ I said, ‘We have a story,’” said Sher. “We take you on a journey too, where you thought she was guilty until the end of the movie.”

The third documentary analyzed was Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, filmed in Afghanistan. Sher filmed the parts which take place in Kandahar. It was particularly challenging because of what he called the 20-minute rule.

“You can never be outside for longer than 20 minutes. Because that’s when … you could get kidnapped,” Sher said, so he had to make a very detailed list of exactly what shots he needed.

Documentaries that discuss an issue — war in this case — and have no specific protagonist are called issue documentaries. “I hate issue documentaries,” Sher said. “They can be exceedingly boring. They’re a nightmare to make.”

For character-based documentaries, you follow the story of the main character, but for issue documentaries, it can be difficult to know where to start, he explained.

Sher encouraged workshop participants to start making documentaries. “You can do your own filming and put your stuff on YouTube,” he said. “Just keep doing it until you get better.” To make good documentaries, you have to think about what makes you special, Sher said.

“[For example,] you come from a certain community that nobody has access to,” he said. “Or leave Montreal and go somewhere nobody has gone to. Think how you can be a foreign correspondent in a way nobody else could be.”

Pelletier added that there is a huge appetite for documentaries.

“There are documentary film festivals. People want to see documentaries,” she said. “The problem is it’s hard to finance”

“It’s a nightmare,” Sher agreed. “It is really hard to get financing, even when you are an established filmmaker. But don’t give up!”

The workshop was the second in a series of three. The last one will be on Dec. 9 with David Gutnick about radio documentary and podcasting.


Photo credit: Julian Sher


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