Jill Godmilow – Group 2

By in Discussion on November 22, 2014

In response to Jill Godmilow’s texts and her presentation for Understanding Media Studies, we have created a documentary film doctrine. Each student was tasked with writing manifesto points, and we have organized them into a visual roadmap. This illustration provides a collection of ideas about documentary filmmaking and offers a critical view of Godmilow’s own dogma published in her paper “Kill The Documentary, As We Know It,” printed in the Journal of Film and Video in 2002. Our roadmap demonstrates the multiple decisions documentary filmmakers face in their practice and the many diverse approaches to the form. While some of us will heed Godmilow’s warnings about what to avoid and what to embrace in filmmaking, others will remain firmly opposed to her approach. Our doctrine reflects views that are consistent with Godmilow’s, as well as ideas that contradict her ideology. We hope that this roadmap will enhance the debate Godmilow sparks in her tenacious criticism of the form.


  1. Understand your medium: use it to reinforce meaning. Know that every cinematic decision shapes the story. Craft your method carefully so that your message is purposefully reflected in the medium. Construct a cohesive audiovisual concept and thread it through all the elements of your film.
  2. Don’t think about mass appeal. Make the film that you want to make, not the film you think people will want to see. You will find your audience; if you don’t, perhaps they don’t exist yet. Many great and necessary works are never recognized or recognized long after they have been created.
  3. Being provocative is not an end in itself. Resist the impulse to create works that only raise difficult questions but do not at least attempt to answer them.
  4. Be bold: experiment and take risks. Challenge yourself to find new means of storytelling in cinema. When faced with obstacles, find creative ways to surmount them. Limitations often lead to unexpected triumphs and new insight into how to break the rules.
  5. Know your subject. Speak to individuals affected by the subject and get to know the communities around the subject. Gain a clear understanding of your subject by exploring every side of the story. Those with real life experience are your experts.
  6. Try to look beyond your own geographical, political, historical and cultural borders. Converse with the work of your predecessors and contemporaries. Look at the ways others are doing and saying things. Be original, but don’t create in a vacuum.
  7. Real footage is not the only way to report a story, but it definitely helps. The audience wants to see who was involved, where, and when.
  8. Do not exploit your subjects. Don’t construct caricatures out of real people. Don’t distort their words while editing, and be careful when constructing sound bites. Don’t reinforce stereotypes.
  9. Expose yourself as a filmmaker: be honest about your perspective. Objectivity is a myth. There are many creative ways to make yourself known. Establish trust with your audience. Do not deceive them by pretending to be an all-knowing all-seeing supernatural filmmaker: be yourself and acknowledge your limitations.
  10. Film music should only con sometimes.  It shouldn’t “swindle, manipulate or cajole” but it should deliver a fourth synonym of con: Your music should persuade.  The right music can take a film to entirely new levels. The wrong music can be distracting and dilute the power of your story.
  11. Try to tell your story without resorting to violence or graphic sensationalism—it may stretch you into new creative territory. Could showing a burning dead rat be as impactful as a running child on fire?  Would your message be delivered more effectively if you chose the subtler image?
  12. Do not try to own the narrative. Attempt to involve real people in the co-creation of the story. The less possession you feel over the story the more likely you are to create a work that doesn’t exploit them.
  13. Find refreshing ways to uncover your subject’s complexity and narrative that move beyond the savior complex: a psychological construct and notion of saving someone from something. Do not approach filmmaking with the idea that your art and film will save the subject’s life or bring awareness to it.
  14. Allow for your audience to come to their own conclusions. Do not use your film as propaganda. If you push your opinion on a subject, the audience might feel forced to agree with you due to lack of information that would allow them to form their individual opinion.
  15. When it comes to editing and production, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The most important thing is the story; if the story cannot stand on its own then you probably should tell another story.
  16. Films can create empathy and moments of understanding, but do not expect that this alone will change lives. Begin by caring about what happens after you finishing making your film. Try to make films that push toward action by holding individuals, politicians, corporations and nations accountable on camera and off. Use the medium as catalyst for change.
  17. Attempt to make history, maybe not in the global sense, but strive to improve upon your past work. The world has many issues that need exposure and attention. There is always room for a unique or new subject that has not been shown.
  18. Use your parents. Whether your parents bestowed psychic scars or whispered superlatives in your ear every night before you drifted off to sleep—use it to add to your project. It’s cheaper than therapy. Sometimes.

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