One of my primary criticisms of movies today is either the complete absence of or the pathetic attempt to capture theme. A story’s theme is the magic we take with us after the lights come on and we return to our mundane lives. Themes can offer us a new perspective that literally changes how we view the world and even function in it. To not focus on theme in film is a betrayal of our filmmaking duty.
How do we best express a theme in a documentary film? After all, we’re capturing real life so perhaps opportunities for theme won’t naturally present themselves. Although it is true that themes can emerge organically while making a documentary, it makes more sense to figure them out in advance in order to make deliberate filmmaking choices that effectively capture it. In other words, it’s our job as filmmakers and writers to look hard and craft well when it comes to theme. Theme can be developed in a variety of ways throughout the filmmaking process. Here are some tips on how to do it:
- First, determine the theme(s) of your story.
What is your story about? Think about it in simple terms. Okay good, now you have a brief description of your subject. Next, dig deeper to form a broader articulation. What is it really about? Our documentary film, Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus is about Eritrean refugees who have escaped an oppressive regime and are now trying to survive in scattered Ethiopian refugee camps. However, the overarching theme is about having a place to call home. By drilling down to this basic understanding, we were able to craft a bookend opening/ending that both made sense and moved some audience members to tears. If you boil your idea down like this, you are then free to use the myriad of filmmaking tools at your disposal to best depict it.
- Use symbolism and metaphors.
Symbolism is when one thing represents another, which could include objects, characters, setting, actions, etc.. Suppose your theme is people choosing to hide their true selves. Depending on what the setting and subjects allow for, you might be able to express this theme a number of different ways through symbolism and metaphor.
With this theme in mind, you could make a point of capturing someone performing their makeup routine, which obscures their natural features. Maybe a subject covers themselves up in clothing, blankets, bed covers, or anything that helps them hide. Perhaps it’s shades being drawn tightly in a bedroom or security measures in a house that express the idea of keeping oneself protected. It could even be a playful game of hide-and-seek with a child. The possibilities are quite limitless. The point is, once you know your theme, you’re then able to explore ways to enhance it through symbolism and metaphors.
- Use what the setting offers.
Think about where you’re going to be shooting. Now list the details of that location. Whaddaya got? By now, you should know your theme, so what stands out as useful? In addition to weather, structures, landscapes, and any objects, there are also the actions of the subjects themselves within a setting that can be advantageous.
Suppose your theme is the depletion of natural resources mirroring the destruction of the human spirit. Knowing this, maybe you’d choose to show consumption in other forms so you select a setting to interview a subject where you can buy them food. Sure, it’s a small thank you for their time, but it’s also an opportunity for some close shots of them mauling a burger, the same way those bulldozers scraped away earth for the purpose of strip-mining in the previous scene. Again, a conscious choice to enhance a specific theme. To go deeper, one could even notice that eating, although destructive and aggressive in one sense, also helps sustain human life, perhaps a similarly presented argument made by pro-miners. This could be an interesting contradiction to explore further, but it wouldn’t be possible without having a clear grasp of the foundational theme.
- Camera angles matter.
If your theme is some type of power dynamic or imbalance, how you shoot your subjects can make a huge difference. A low-angle on a subject can make them appear more powerful and commanding, while a high-angle can have the opposite effect. Here’s where it gets really fun- if the power dynamics (or whatever your theme is) evolve during the course of the story, so too should how you shoot it. As long as it’s not too heavy-handed, it can definitely enhance your theme. The audience may not even be able to figure out why it’s working in their mind due to it being more subliminal, but you’ll be pulling the cinematic strings behind the curtain and the effect will undoubtedly resonate with viewers.
- Composition in the frame matters.
Let’s say you have a subject who is painfully awkward and out of place in social situations. You could literally shoot them out of place in the frame, never centered, and thus reflect their unique position in society. In the 2013 film, Ida, the characters often take up a small portion of the bottom frame while the top portion is open space. In the context of the German occupation during World War II, this choice of framing further emphasizes individuals being smaller and less significant than the crushing totalitarian regime reigning over them.
- Lighting matters.
Lighting reveals contrast, from the brightly lit to the unseen dark, and all gradations in between. Knowing this, what themes could be expressed with lighting? In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler is introduced in a shadow, with his face obscured. Then, he is harshly lit on one side of his face, while it’s dark on the other.
The theme being conveyed here is one of good versus evil. Schindler was both a member of the Nazi party and eventually a rescuer of over a thousand Jews. As the film progresses, the darkness is lifted from Schindler and he is better lit, thereby helping to express that this is a good man despite his superficial affiliations.
If you utilize any or all of the above tips, you are essentially winking at the audience to pay attention and connect the dots, however subtle they might be. Whether it’s the use of symbolism, setting, camera angles, framing, or lighting, there are countless ways to express themes. Settle on the right theme for your subject, then explore your creative options. Then, make deliberate decisions well in advance of production. Your documentary film will be as thematically impactful as it can be and you will avoid being derelict in your filmmaking duty.