From the day you decide to make a documentary, you open yourself up to emotions and experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise have. You walk into it knowing full-well that there are a wealth of challenges that lay out before you. If you don’t know that, you soon will. The passion that drives you to begin a film project becomes the very emotion that carries you through. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are going into a film; issues will arise. The trick is building the experience along the way that teaches you how to duck, dodge, and leap over the hurdles that seemingly pop out of nowhere. Since beginning our first documentary in 2013, I’ve gone to the school of hard knocks. In those nearly 6-years, I’ve become somewhat of a ninja (probably the wrong term) in overcoming these obstacles and doing it with finesse that, at times, makes it look effortless to family and friends. It doesn’t develop overnight. There is a ton of effort involved.
One thing that is more difficult to prepare for is the ending of your film project. As you learn about a person, their circumstances, and life stories, you become an extension of that person. Good, bad, or indifferent, you’ll come to know that person intimately and rightly so - you’re going to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours studying and re-living their life circumstances and then organizing them into a professional presentation where you’ll continue to re-live them both in the editing studio and in front of audiences. In the case of my new feature-length documentary, we’re dealing with a young man, a Deputy, who was murdered in the line of duty 21-years ago. If he were still alive, he’d be twice the age he was when he was murdered. I’ve had my share of sleepless nights and challenges that arose on this film, some of which I’ll discuss later. But what I couldn’t prepare for was the ending; finishing the story. When you’re making the documentary, you’re writing the book. Yes, the history has already happened, but you’re documenting it and bringing it back to life for others to experience. However, there comes a time when you reach the last page of that book and your mission changes from one of intimately acquainting yourself with a stranger, to tying the package up in bows and getting it out the door. Forgive the cold expression, but this is how it feels. It happened with my first feature-length film and it happened with my second. There’s a sense of letting a family member go, as you indeed will become family with those who become the subjects your films. I’m not sure what to liken it to other than experiencing the end of your favorite TV show. In the first episode, they were strangers. You watched them grow. You experienced their loves, losses, challenges, joys, and heartaches. Then, in the last episode of the last season, you and your TV family parted ways to have no new experiences together. You can only re-live what has already happened and ruminate on what might have been.
You shouldn’t be discouraged by any of the above, but instead, encouraged to reconcile your role in the telling of their story. It’s a big responsibility to take on a subject-focused feature-length documentary, especially when that person is no longer here to tell their own story. When you reach the end of that big project that was years in the making and stare back at the path which has come to an end at your feet, there are some things that you can do to help it make sense and do justice to the project that has become your every-waking thought for 2-years (my case).
Don’t finish the film until you’ve done the best job that you can. That doesn’t mean the best job that you can later. It means the best job that you can now. If you’ve given it your all, you’ll have nothing to regret as you continue growing as an artist and person. There will always be things you look back on and say ‘If I only knew then what I know now.’ So do it the best you can now and be confident in your work.
Affirm your role in the telling of a stranger’s story. You picked up the torch and shined light on something that was left in darkness. You brought a new way of looking at and understanding acts of the past and made them accessible to a new era. You became a new champion for a story that wasn’t even yours, but you integrated yourself into it and you carried it forward with a new and better understanding.
Acknowledge your own efforts. You took on this project out of passion, endured the hardships of making a full-length film, and continued to press forward. Where others would have walked away and maybe you almost did, you did not. You sacrificed time, money, and other opportunities to do justice to a story that you cared about. Sleep well knowing you cared enough to give away part of yourself.
Carry it forward like a trophy and a battle scar. You’ve endured. You’ve overcome. And you’ve created. Finishing the story doesn’t mean that you’re walking away. It just means that this part is done. As you move on in your career, no matter what happens, you’ll be able to look back and always know that you committed and saw through the creation of an important film project that will outlast even yourself.
Tell their story. Just because the capturing of film, designing the story, editing and sequencing of the video and audio, and mastering the final picture-locked copy is finished, doesn’t mean that your job is. Now, you become another voice to help tell their story and, where you can, effect positive change. Bring it to audiences. Get people together. Remember and help others to remember them, even if it’s a new memory. You are now an advocate for someone who is no longer here to advocate for themselves. For better or worse, you have become a loudspeaker for everyone in your film.
It’s not easy to visualize the end of a film; especially when you’re making a documentary. As much as we like to think we’re building a story, we’re just capturing, organizing, and presenting it. It’s passion that leads you to create a film and it’s passion that drives you on. As you yourself become part of history, it’s important to remember that you also played an important role; that of historian. Reminding yourself of that as you produce and edit your film can help you stay on track. Knowing, going into your film project, that it will eventually come to an end will help you be a better filmmaker and make it easier to say goodbye to your new favorite characters as you usher in the end of their story - or at least your telling of it.
Patrick W. Shaver
Patrick W. Shaver is a former Atlanta Police Officer and current Deputy on special projects with Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia. He’s a police instructor, speaker, and award-winning filmmaker known for his documentaries ‘Officer Involved’ and ‘Dinkheller.’ The themes of his work focus on the human side of public service. His upcoming documentaries ‘Composite’ and ‘Honor Chair’ further shed light on the humanity of those working in and around law enforcement.