Documentary Ideas for Your Next Nonfiction Film

documentary ideasWhat was once a niche market in cinema, documentary filmmaking has gained respect and acclaim over the years, even earning its own category at the Academy Awards, and is capable of making respectable earnings at the box office. Documentary filmmaking is the capturing of real life events, with the purpose of instructing its audience, telling a story, or simply keeping a record of an important event of person. With the increasing prominence of digital filmmaking, making a documentary movie has never been easier or so accessible to the average person.

If documentary filmmaking is something that may be of interest to you, but you’re having trouble coming up with a subject, we’re here to help. We’ll give you some general guidelines to start the subject-picking process, then some more specific ideas that you may want to apply to your personal experience then make a film about. If you’ve never made a movie before and don’t have the time or money for film school, this course on how to make films in 101 minutes will condense six months of schooling into just a few hours, and this article will break down the best free editing software for beginner filmmakers, so you can keep the budget down.

How to Find the Perfect Documentary Subject

There are countless subjects out there in the world to make a movie about, so how do you go about choosing the right one? These guidelines will help you whittle down all of those possibilities into something more tangible.

  1. First and foremost, make a movie about something that you’re passionate about. Whether it fascinates, frightens, amazes, saddens, or excites you, explore your passions, so that not only will it be fun for you to make the film, it will be equally enthralling to watch it, which is the whole reason you’re making a movie in the first place.
  2. Solve a problem. Why did this happen? Why does that person act a certain way? Like more mainstream narrative films, model your film similarly, with a problem being presented in the beginning, then the problem being solved by the end.
  3. Make it personal. Sometimes it’s difficult to feel in touch with something that’s happening far away, both for you as a filmmaker, but also for the audience. If there’s something happening in your hometown, or something involving a family member or a friend, or something just personally affects you, the story may need to be told to the world.

To make a truly riveting documentary that will appeal to more than just the people interested in the specific subject of your film, try to find out how the subject affects people, and how they may relate to it, and try to find underlying themes that pertain to everyone. A documentary about the reuniting of a band shouldn’t just be about them getting back together, but also about the pertinent themes, such as loss, regret, etc. Anyone can point a camera, but the filmmakers that find genuine emotions in their subjects are the ones that make great films, rather than merely good ones.

Ideas for a Documentary Film

Here are some general ideas that could make for an interesting documentary, as well as some specific ones. If the following ideas don’t do anything for you, feel free to film your own take on any of the ideas. As we said before, there are limitless ideas that would make for a fascinating documentary, and even if none of these seem particularly interesting, they might get the creative juices flowing and lead you to another idea. It may help to have a bit of background in storytelling to help your movie’s pacing, and this course on storytelling basics might do the trick.

  • Trends 

Have you noticed your friends or the people in your town or school all doing the same thing? Is there a popular fad that’s sweeping the nation, or about to, that you have unique access to, or a different spin on? Well, get out the camera and be the first to document it before it reaches pandemic status. You’ll be in the unique position to watch this trend grow, and see it spread. This type of film would take a while to produce, as the diffusion of a trend may take a while. Had someone been prescient enough to document the rise of social media, they could have made a very interesting and important film.

  • Secrets 

Is there something lurking out there that no one knows about yet? Did your friend tell you about some weird place on the outskirts of town, perhaps with an unusual history, that just needs to be explored? If you’re privy to something like this, shoot it.

  • Music 

Music documentaries will always be popular. Whether it’s a forgotten band that you love and feel everyone should know about, or a band performing their last concert ever, like in “The Last Waltz”, or maybe you’re just obsessed with people who are obsessed with One Direction, there are many ways to go with a music documentary. And with some of the classics, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme’ Shelter”, not only is the subject interesting (a free concert in 1969), but during filming, someone was murdered on film. It may not always be pretty, but you never know what you’ll film. Editing is a big part of docs, especially ones about music. If you’re unsure of your editing prowess, this course the Avid Media Composer shows you the basics of film editing.

  • News 

Open up your local paper, or go online, and you’ll find a plethora of subjects to document. Some the most popular modern stories have come from newspapers, from “The Exorcist” to “In Cold Blood”. Pick something that’s new and hasn’t been covered to death already. Again, look for something that personally affects you, and people will see that passion in the finished film.

  • Biography

Perhaps the most popular documentary subject, this one should be chosen if you have something unique to say, or someone that just needs to be seen by everyone. Whether it’s a long lost relative, or a historical figure that’s not yet known to others, this subject will test your abilities as a filmmaker. If the person is no longer living, it may prove challenging to bring someone long dead to life. You may need to spice up your film with some effects, especially if it’s historical in nature. This course on visual special effects may prove helpful.

  • Right a Wrong

If there’s an injustice in the world that must be addressed, you may be just the person to do that. Films such as “The Cove”, and the newer film “The Act of Killing” bring to light certain atrocities in unusual and original ways that were not only very powerful, but also achieved widespread acclaim and popularity. It would probably be incredibly satisfying if you can help people in addition to making a good film.

  • Document an Event

This would fall within the realm of cinema verite, where rather than creating situations to film, such as interviews, you simply point your camera at the action and hope for the best. The idea behind making a film like this is to record a potentially monumental event for posterity.

Whatever subject you happen to choose to document, be passionate about it. If you’re not excited about it, neither will your audience. Just because documentaries are easier to make than bigger budget fiction films, it doesn’t mean you should skimp on the production values. If you’re considering making your first documentary and aren’t quite sure about some of the details, this course on how to light a movie will make sure you can see everything, and this course on makeup for movies will make sure everyone looks good.