07 July 2016

Lessons Learned Making My First Documentary

Chris Cotter

Congratulations! You woke up this morning and have a great idea! Now you are planning to make a film. That is awesome and you should do it, but you should know that making a film is not as easy as you may think. This is what I learned while making my first documentary.

Before I get into the details of this process, let me tell you how the story for our documentary, “Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus” came to my attention and how it inspired me to make a film with my friends here at Tailor Made Media.

My video production company primarily makes video content for businesses and nonprofits. We’ve created a variety of content, from complex medical training videos to music videos and everything in between, but we wanted to do more.

Find a Concept That Inspires You

_-100I have been a traveller for most of my life now. I’ve spent time all over the world and most of those experiences have been in developing countries. The people that I met in those countries and the culture they exposed me to made a significant and lasting impression on my life. However, I always came home wondering if I had contributed to their lives as much as they had contributed to mine. That’s when I decided my next trip out of the country was going to be one with meaning, so I started reading and researching topics across the globe.

After months of learning about various subjects, a friend of mine suggested the Eritrean refugee crisis. Until then I had never heard of the tiny African country of Eritrea. I was shocked to learn that no one was reporting the atrocities being committed against the Eritrean people by their president, Isaias Afwerki, the once hero liberator of the country. I read on and learned about the hardships the Eritreans faced when fleeing the country, including being shot at the border, kidnapping, and even having their organs harvested. I knew that this was the story we had to tell.

Whatever concept you select for your film, it needs to be something that moves you. Intensely. This will ensure your ongoing dedication to the project and also serve to connect your feelings about your subject to the audience. Your passion will become their passion.

I was excited to have my topic, but that was just the beginning. Phase one: complete.

Partner with an Organization

_-29My friend who suggested the Eritrean refugee crisis also introduced me to The America Team for Displaced Eritreans (EritreanRefugees.org), an organization that deals exclusively with Eritrean refugees in the United States and abroad. During our first meeting with John and Mike, the directors of the organization, I learned much more than my research and Google searches had ever shown me. Their experience with Eritrea was key, not only to help us fully understand this complex situation, but also to help us secure access to the refugee camps I visited in Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. Without partnering with The America Team, we would have not been able to gain this access and the footage and interviews that followed. They even helped us organize interviews with other organizations in Israel and in Washington D.C. including Anne Richard, our Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

So, if possible, try to connect with people whom have already made your topic their life’s work. They will surely bring a wealth of knowledge to your project.

Do Your Homework

We researched our story for roughly 8 months. We read countless articles, reports, and scoured the internet for anything that had to do with Eritrean refugees. We even travelled to Washington because we heard that there was a protest taking place at the Eritrean embassy. I organized my research using a website called MindMeister.com. It was very helpful for me to have everything in one place and to be able to share it with my team.

Form a Solid Team

When I started this project, I had no funding. Luckily, I had friends who saw the urgency to tell the story and appreciated the opportunity to make something bigger than anything we had done in the past. I asked Scott Miller, our intern at the time and resident cameraman, if he would like to travel the dangerous deserts of the horn of Africa with me. Scott didn’t say no, so I took that as a yes and we packed our bags for the trip.

_-30We brought on more like-minded friends for the post production including an illustrator, writer, music team, audio specialists, and colorist. Without this excellent team of professionals, the film would have never been made.

Be Prepared for Anything

We packed light for our trip and arranged to have a translator and fixer to meet us when we landed. Our gear consisted of two Canon 5D Mark III DSLR cameras, a ton of extra media cards, lots of batteries, a handful of lenses, filters, tripod, gorillapod, Zoom H4n audio recorder, shotgun mic, camera mounted ambient mic, intervalometer (for capturing time lapse), laptop, and a camera slider. It may sound like a good deal of gear, but it was the bare minimum for the type of shooting we were planning. We neatly packed our gear, boarded our plane, and thought the rest would be easy. It was not.

We had a connection flight in Germany and they asked us to check the rods to our slider. We wrapped up the three foot poles with gaff tape and slapped a luggage tag on them. I watched them clumsily roll down the conveyer belt and had a feeling that I would never see them again. They never arrived to Ethiopia.

Be Confident, but Know Your Weaknesses

_-49This was my first attempt at creating a documentary. Looking back, I think I would have been leery about starting a career in journalism with such an undertaking. Maybe I should have started with something closer to home and in my native language, but there I was lying in bed thinking about my first day in the refugee camps and wondering, “What the hell am I getting into?”

I believed I had a good plan until we had to work around lost gear and we started to conduct interviews. The story was complex and people didn’t want to talk to me out of the fear of the regime from which they had fled. I hadn’t taken that into consideration. I thought everyone would jump at the chance to speak out about the situation back in Eritrea. I didn’t sleep much that night. I was worried about whether we would ever find someone willing to talk to us and if we did would the footage be strong enough? Would the story make sense when we put it together?

The next morning Scott and I got together over coffee and discussed our shooting plan, camera angles, and audio needs. We needed to be able to set up fast and once we had our workflow understood we could move quickly. This new direction helped us organize our interviews and we were able to make the most of our time. That day we ended up finding several people willing to go on record about the horror they faced back in Eritrea and how they escaped. Because we had a plan, we were able to shoot for the entire day. What was more exciting was we had found a way to get our slider working!

The slider was our one piece of gear that was primarily to boost the production value of our film. Without that item, I felt that static shots of the camps and people wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Finding two poles exactly 100cm x 10cm in size in Ethiopia was almost impossible but thanks to the creativity of our guide, John, we found a welder that made us some pretty bad-ass, mostly straight, steel rods. They did the trick and I slept much better that night.

The Shits Happens

You are going to get sick and bad things are going to happen. Life finds a way to create detours and provide you with shitty situations to deal with. Violent diarrhea in the desert of a country that doesn’t often have toilet paper is a doozy! The stomach bug swept through just about everyone in our crew. It kept us up at night and made our days exhausting. We also had flat tires, broken gear, and a fall that nearly sent me to the hospital. But, in those situations, having a good attitude and sense of humor is important. Nobody wants to work with, or talk to, someone who is a miserable crab. If you are going to be sick, you might as well learn the diarrhea song and sing along together; after all, misery loves company.

Don’t be Afraid to Take Chances

_-89We had planned to go to the Afar region of Ethiopia for the final interviews at the refugee camps. The Afar region was a plane ride and a fourteen hour drive away. It is very close to the border of Eritrea and highly unstable. Kidnappings occurred frequently and, worst of all, there was no beer! Although that concerned me, I was more afraid of being kidnapped or robbed in such a desperate place. Because of these security concerns, no journalists had traveled to the Asyta refugee camp before. For this reason, we decided that heading to the Afar region was worth the time, money, and risk. However, we knew the dangers and were careful to keep our eyes open and took the suggestions of the locals.

Get Lucky

Scott and I said goodbye to our new friends we met in Ethiopia over a much needed beer in the airport and then flew to Israel. Our plan was to examine what happens to the Eritrean people when they left the refugee camps in search for a new life. As luck would have it, the day we arrived to Tel Aviv there was an African migrant protest happening that same weekend. It was the largest protest Israel had ever seen organized by their migrant population. Over thirty-thousand African migrants, the majority of them Eritreans, were fighting for their asylum rights through peaceful protests and work strikes. It was a perfect illustration of the ongoing struggles of Eritreans after they finally made it somewhere they thought was safe. We shifted plan yet again to cover this unprecedented event.

Find Experts

No matter how much research you have done and experience you have, there are always people who are more knowledgeable than you. While in Israel, I met up with these experts hoping they would help to clarify some of the subject matter in our film and give it credibility by hearing of their experiences.

We interviewed officials from HIAS, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, Refugee Law experts, and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel. With these interviews, along with our interview from the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, we had a solid group of experts to exhibit in our film.

Define Your Audience

_-73Making this type of documentary is not like shooting a narrative. We couldn’t storyboard our film first or write dialogue. We had to gather content and hope to find a story during the interviews. When we got back to the USA we had to start combing through the fifty hours of interviews, b-roll footage, and video journaling. The video journaling ended up being really useful for reminding ourselves about our daily events but also added a sort of personal and reflective insight to the film.

We had hoped to find one solitary refugee story during our travels that could illustrate the plight of the thousands of refugees as a whole, who were leaving Eritrea every week. We didn’t find that one story, but we did gather dozens of gripping testimonies. Not one of them was complete enough to stand on its own, so we decided to become part of the story. It was the only way we could see a through line that would speak to our audience. We wanted to strike a balance between showing me and my reactions enough for a Western audience to be able to connect with the film without making the documentary solely about me. This was tricky, but we made editing decisions to limit my screen-time in order for the refugees’ stories to always be in the foreground. We also felt that it was important to connect certain themes of the film to our own experience.

Defining the audience was also a crucial step towards making difficult decisions about the creation of the film. Once we knew the audience, it was easier to select music, editing style, and story line. We decided to make our film for people like us: American or English-speaking people who possibly had never heard of Eritrea before. We would trick them to paying attention by using a touch of humor and moving music. And before they knew it, they would learn something.

Finish the Thing

_-47My first edit of the film was two and a half hours long. I had spent months cutting it together and I was pretty excited to show it to my crew here at home. We all piled into the living room with popcorn in hand, but I noticed that half way through most of the crew was sleeping or glazed over with boredom. I thought it was long, however I didn’t expect such a snoozefest.

After we watched my first edit we all talked about what needed to be cut and what needed to be added to make it more exciting. We were out of money and I had pulled all of the favors from my friends I could. We wanted to add illustrations, reenactments, studio recording, writing, original music, and surround sound mixing. It was obvious we were not going to get this done without bringing in more budget, so we decided to create a Kickstarter campaign. We would raise the money we needed to finish the film by crowd sourcing. You can read all about our experience in another blog, but I will say that running a successful Kickstarter campaign is a full time job for everyone involved. You will have to be fully committed to your campaign and be prepared to contact everyone you know, or have ever met, to ask them for a donation.

In the end, we raised thirty four thousand dollars in thirty days from donors living around the world. That was four thousand over our goal! With that money, we were able to shoot the reenactments, hire other professionals to help with sound design, illustrations, and legal work. Because of the generosity of our donors, we were able to finish our first feature length documentary film, “Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus.”

What’s Next?

_-75We debuted the film in August of 2015 to a capacity crowd in my hometown of West Chester, PA. Since then, the film has been screened across the United States, England, and in Spain. It has helped Eritrean refugees obtain asylum status and has been a jolt of inspiration to the Eritrean diaspora in The United States and abroad.

One of the best compliments I have ever heard about our film is that they were entertained while watching the film and all of a sudden they were tricked into learning something important which inspired them to act. Boom, mic drop!

The next chapter of our story will be trying to secure distribution so we can get as many eyes on our film as possible. We will be writing more articles about the distribution process as we go.

Making a film is a challenge, but there is nothing like seeing a project go from concept to completion and knowing that without the hard work, determination, and bravery of everyone involved it would have never seen the big screen.

As storytellers, we have the power to persuade those around us. We can change social stigmas, influence politics and spread awareness to world problems. We can report the underreported or just make people smile by telling a good story. Whatever topic you choose, be genuine to yourself and persevere. If you keep these things in mind, you’ll enjoy every moment you spend making your film.

To watch the film, “Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus” order a Bluray/DVD package or stream it through our website. www.TheEritreanExodus.com