How do you become a great documentary filmmaker?
Tamika Green asked Leon Lee, director of films such as HUMAN HARVEST (2014) and LETTER FROM MASANJIA (2018) for an insight into what documentary filmmakers should consider about this very question.
“Find what you’re passionate about. Especially with documentaries, because it takes much longer than you plan. It’s very important when you’re running out of money, when people keep hanging up on you, when you don’t even know where the story is taking you, that you still find strength in your passion to continue.”
2. Be ready
“This is something that is not controlled by you, really. As documentary filmmakers will often say, it’s what is bestowed to us. Take CITIZENFOUR (an acclaimed documentary concerning Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal), all it takes is to be in the hotel room at the right time, but of course the storytelling of the film is brilliant. So, know what you’re passionate about and be ready when these things happen to you.”
3. Be creative
“Find a unique way, whether it’s an angle or it’s a storytelling device, because it’s more and more difficult for documentaries to stand out, in my view. You really have to not only find a good subject, but also be an expert storyteller to make sure the finished film stands out.”
In A LETTER FROM MASANJIA, which screened at this year’s Cambridge Film Festival, an Oregon woman finds an SOS message from a Chinese dissident in a package of Halloween decorations from Kmart, setting off a chain of events that would shut down the entire labor camp system in China and ignite the letter-writer’s dangerous quest to expose a deadly persecution.