400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Every year critics are subjected to who knows how many dozen documentaries; most probably don't bother to see them all, and others will be reluctant to admit that most of them are the same. Oh, the subjects are different. One may be about war in Asia and one will be about war in Europe and another is about politics in the U.S.A., but they're the same in structure and tone and rhythm. We usually get the big three: talking heads, stock footage and photographs, and sometimes some "re-creation footage."
Here are some pointers for future documentarians. 1) Don't do that thing where, if the subject starts crying, you discreetly keep the camera rolling, and then use that footage in the final film. If your cutting is otherwise neat and smooth during the rest of the film, then if you suddenly pause over a weeping shot for the first time, it's annoyingly obvious why you're doing it (see My Architect). 2) If the police or someone else tries to make you turn your camera off, pretend to comply and leave it on. It's very cool and it gets the audience on your side (see Street Fight). 3) No fancy graphics, unless your movie is funny (see Bigger, Stronger, Faster). Animation is still cool -- see Chicago 10 and Waltz with Bashir (208 screens) -- but it could get old, fast, so approach with caution.