What makes for a successful documentary?

Talal Jabari
Sep 13, 2018 · 4 min read

In 2008, five years into my documentary career of making films for other people as a cameraman or a field producer, etc I decided to make my directorial debut. I had an idea for a film called Water Wars (which I have yet to make, but which sadly becomes more relevant every year rather than less), but without any directorial samples under my belt, I thought it best to direct a short first; something I can show to the funds as a sample.

I was living in Jerusalem at the time and I had heard some things in the press about the possible dangers of cell phone radiation and independent research being conducted. I had also heard about this Druze village in the Carmel mountains near Haifa (northern Israel) where the villagers in a unified show of opposition, burnt down every tower in the village. I thought to myself, this is it! This will be my first short: the opposition in Israel to cell phones.

Being someone who is handy with a camera and being married to a very talented documentary editor, I decided it would be faster for me to just self-fund this film so I can get it out of the way (at the best possible standard, of course) and really dig into my feature documentary idea, Water Wars. And that’s what I did. I researched the film myself, started contacting a variety of names that were constantly popping up, shot some solid interviews and verité, and then somewhere along the line got sucked into a vortex. At some point, while making this ‘short’, my directorial debut, it occurred to me, that being the global idea that this was, that a short wouldn’t do it justice. And I don’t want to say that I lost focus of the bigger picture, Water Wars, but rather, I gained a new focus, whereby there was a message that needed to be heard, and nobody was making it heard, and as a documentary filmmaker, it was my job to do that.

flagrant self-promotion image

I ended up filming Full Signal in 10 different countries, making a whole bunch of mistakes along the way, winning awards at a number of film festivals, signing three distribution deals, making more mistakes, selling thousands of DVDs and turning a 5-figure profit — independently. I didn’t make Sundance, I wasn’t picked up by Magnolia, but I consider Full Signal a successful directorial debut.

But what made Full Signal feel truly successful was getting embraced by an entire network of people around the world who made sure I got into Film Festivals even though the lineup was chosen. People who took time out of their lives to host me, to feed me, to cart me to various media outlets to talk about the film and about the issue at large. People who sat down and went through the arduous task of creating subtitles in their native tongues so that people in their countries would be able to understand the message. The issue had made me into somewhat of a celebrity and it made me realize the burden I now carried with respect to these grassroots movements that I now had to dedicate myself to making their voices heard.

Yep…it’s another one

And this, to me, is where the real success of Full Signal lies. We had a screening for Congressional aides at Congress. I gave a joint press conference with a member of parliament in Lithuania. I spoke to state representatives and city representatives in a number of towns across the United States. But perhaps my single biggest success as a filmmaker so far, came when I gave testimony at the Portland Oregon city council. And that is where the truth, the independent science, scored its biggest victory. And 8 years after that event, the effects of that day continue to survive. This is part of an e-mail I received this week from a leading activist in the Portland grassroots movements:

I am grateful to you every time I pass the corner where the cell tower would have been. We successfully defeated that siting and others. The company left town.

And to me, this is my greatest success as a filmmaker.

Nowadays, I mainly work as a producer and I get pitched projects on a regular basis. In one recent cold pitch, the director spoke about getting on Netflix with more passion (in my opinion) than he did about the film itself, which prompted me to ask his motivation; “to make a lot of money” he said point blank, and for me, that was the end of the conversation.

Yes, as filmmakers we should all be able to earn a proper living doing what we love the most. And yes, I consider a Netflix, an HBO or an A&E deal a sign of success. But to me, the real success continues to lie in the reason I started doing this job in the first place: To give a voice to the voiceless and underrepresented.

Talal Jabari is a Creative Producer specializing in documentaries on social issues as well as the Middle East. His recent credits include DP — Naela and the Uprising (IDFA 2017), Director — Enemies of the South (AlJazeera 2015), and Co-Producer — Speed Sisters (Hot Docs 2015).

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