Top Four Favorite Resources for Documentary Storytelling 

I’ve always been interested in research. I loved the library growing up and was always piling up books on various subjects in the corners of my room. As storytellers, a massive part of the journey is the research that kicks off any of our projects. It only takes a few clicks to find something out and it’s easier than ever to collaborate across timezones. 

With most of our projects, we spend as much time as we can in the “discovery” phase, where we are gathering information on the project’s goals, intentions, branding, messaging, subjects, etc. With documentary filmmaking, the more research and preparation you do, the better you are able to capture authentic and spontaneous moments. 

This got me thinking about the research I do as a documentary filmmaker and the resources I often use to keep my mind sharp. Or in other words, the practices I use to perpetuate the ongoing “discovery” session of great documentary storytelling.

So without further ado and in no particular order, below are my top four favorite resources for documentary storytelling.

  1. The International Documentary Association Newsletter & Magazine 

    The International Documentary Association (IDA) is an incredible organization that exists to serve documentary filmmakers and the documentary community. They put on educational and community events, provide funding, and put out a quarterly magazine with the latest news, research, projects, and highlights from the documentary world. Many of their events take place in Los Angeles and it’s a great opportunity for me to connect with other filmmakers as well as share stories and ideas. 

  2. Nerdwriter

    Nerdwriter is this awesome video essay series that breaks down really interesting pop-culture ideas or references and delves into the art, design, thought, or hidden messages embedded in it. He often uses movies and art to talk about really interesting topics or themes and it’s a fun way to challenge your brain and broaden your perspective. 

  3. The Moth Podcast

    The Moth Podcast is a storytelling podcast that features real people telling true stories in front of live audiences at story slams all over the globe. It’s a huge source of inspiration for me, not only because the stories are so great, but because it reminds me of the craft and power of storytelling even in it’s simplest form. (It’s also a great way to pass the time during rush hour in LA!)

  4. Short of the Week

    Short of the Week curates the best short videos from around the internet and highlights a new short every week. It’s divided into content areas so I try to watch the documentary short every week. Often they feature lesser known or up and coming filmmakers so it’s a great place to stumble upon new talent.

Audrey filming The Pamoja Project in Tanzania

Audrey filming The Pamoja Project in Tanzania

-Audrey Emerson

Audrey Emerson
The Shimelba Refugee Camp 13 years later...
Setting up interviews in the Kunama section of Shimelba Refugee Camp

Setting up interviews in the Kunama section of Shimelba Refugee Camp

On a recent trip to NYC, I happened to find myself in a conversation with a gentleman from Eritrea. I mentioned that although I hadn’t been to the Eritrea, I was very close in Ethiopia - about 30 miles from the border in the Shimelba Refugee Camp. As soon as I mentioned Shimelba, he immediately shut me down declaring “It’s fake.” I thought he misunderstood what I said so I politely replied, “What do you mean, fake? The Shimelba Refugee Camp?” He said, “Yes, yes. It’s fake.” I replied, “No, I was actually in the camp for several days on a project.” He again lectured me that it’s was a hoax - “…Shimelba is a lie perpetrated by Ethiopia to embarrass Eritrea.” Again, I tried to explain, “No, I actually followed a group of Kunama refugees from Shimelba to Rhode Island...” Again he dismissed, “Kunama are just traitors and work with Ethiopia, Shimelba is a lie...” 

I politely left the conversation and moved on, trying to wrap my head around what just happened. Unfortunately, I can understand where the gentleman’s misinformation tirade comes from. According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government's human rights record is among the worst in the world.  Eritrea has had no national elections, no legislature, independent press, or independent civil society organizations since 2001. Religious freedom is severely curtailed. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2016 found the government manifested “wholesale disregard for the liberty” of its citizens. In 2018, a United Nations Special Rapporteur reported that human rights violations “continue unabated. 

In 2006, I directed and produced the documentary “Home Across Lands,” which follows a family of Kunama refugees who had fled Eritrea and sought refuge in The Shimelba Refugee Camp in Northern Ethiopia and their subsequent resettlement to the US.  As a documentary filmmaker, we have the great privilege and honor to enter peoples lives and gather their stories.  To be able to tell their story is both humbling and horrifying at the same time.  There’s a huge amount of responsibility to be authentic, to be real, and to be objective.  Objectivity is the key - it’s that guiding principle that every decision I make has to abide by. 

This recent conversation (or angry lecture) brought my mind back to that story and I started searching for more information. I found that the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea signed an agreement on July 9th, 2018, to restore diplomatic relations, as well as reopen embassies in Addis Ababa and Asmara, and resume flights between the two countries. But, what about the camp - is it still there?

My answers are unfortunately what I thought they would be. The camp is still there: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/details/62695 The conditions and problems persist: https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/story/healing-hidden-wounds-eritrean-refugees-ethiopia and the refugee story is still the same. It’s not fake, its real. Real people’s lives. It’s real people and it’s real families. 

Watch Film Here

Please take a moment to read and learn about these issues and support the organizations working to make a difference: 

UNHCR https://www.unhcr.org

USCRI https://refugees.org

IRC https://www.rescue.org




The Story Behind the Story: Mind Over Battle

In the fall of 2015, I got the best phone call. I was in Los Angeles deep into post production on my first documentary film The Pamoja Project when John called with the magic words all producers like to hear. There was a whiff of a story and serious interest from Al Jazeera Witness.

Al Jazeera Witness is an inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. They’ve produced and acquired incredible films (including our film Leh Wi Tok in 2011) that span continents and transcend language, getting to the core of what people care about. For filmmakers, it’s a dream to distribute a film through Al Jazeera, and the opportunity was heartening.  

In most cases, independent filmmakers either stumble upon, chase, or stalk fascinating stories and subjects. They may follow a subject for a few years, then spend a few more years finishing the film, and then spend even more years trying to find distribution or self-distributing. 

In this case, we were working backwards. The story was about moving beyond gang related trauma and violence. My job? Find the subject, pitch the story, make the film. 

After hitting a dead end in Philadelphia, our Executive Producer from Al Jazeera suggested that we check out Homeboy Industries. I was familiar with Homeboys — not far from where I was living, Homeboy’s was this incredible community for formally gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. They provided classes, employment, tattoo removal, and most importantly - the Homegirl Cafe where they sold the best cinnamon raison bread in Los Angeles. 

After a few phone calls and some persistent texts, I was able to get a meeting with Hector Verdugo, the Chief Trainee Director at Homeboys, and tell him what we were up to. Hector could not have been more gracious and supportive. After a few conversations, he introduced me to Javier.

I remember walking away from my first coffee with Javier feeling like I had just met a real life Yoda (a very big Yoda with tattoos and a huge smile). I ran to my car and quickly typed up everything I could remember from our conversation. One of those notes read: “Wants people to know we are all the same. That jail or no jail, we’ve all felt pain and fear… This is the question I ask myself every day: ‘If you could wake up and be living the life exactly as you want it, what would it look like? Then I set goals and do it.’”

After that meeting the pitch came together quickly and we secured the green light to start production. Making a film is always challenging, but in working with Javier there was an inherent and welcome ease to the process. Javier was a natural storyteller and was able secure key access to locations and people all over Los Angeles. While in many ways this story was challenging to tell authentically, it was also a complete joy to film. 

Mind Over Battle aired on Al Jazeera in the spring of 2017. It is still available to watch online and recently was chosen to be featured on Al Jazeera Selects. We’ve remained friends with Javier and recently caught up with him this fall. Joking over sushi (his favorite), I remembered how much on an honor it is to tell peoples stories and how grateful I am for this one. 

-Audrey Emerson

Shooting Film
Kate Kelley with her Hasselblad
Kate Kelley Partner Devlo Media

Have you heard the sound of a Hasselblad 501CM shutter as you so delicately and steadily press the button? It makes my heart swell (all photographers reading this are now sighing). It’s the sound of your image forever etched in light. It creates a tangible image, something you can physically hold onto. Well, that being said, you are still going to scan it, retouch it, back it up across a few hard drives, size it down (like, wayyyy down), and throw it up on your website, post to social media… and on it goes.

I graduated from college just before the rise of the digital camera, which meant that when I studied photography I shot on film and I am forever grateful that I did. There is something beautiful about the torture of waiting for your film to come back from the lab... did that amazing shot come out? Did I expose it properly? Did the lab lose power when my film was in the machine?! A lot of these fears may seem irrational to most, but some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Shooting digitally, you can snap away hundreds of photos in just a few minutes and not think a thing of it. Then you can look at what you are shooting, usually referred to as chimping (not a very endearing term) and check exposure, framing, adjust, and continue shooting. You are limited by the size of your compact flash card and battery. THIS IS GREAT! Well, maybe not so much. Who am I kidding, it is really great.

Shooting film, you don’t have that instant gratification of knowing if the shot came out the way you planned. First, you only have 36 shots, or 12, or even just one. Shooting this way, you really have to take a longer look at the frame and make your editing decisions on the spot - do I keep that tree branch, how much sky does this shot need, ahhh crap I have to remember to leave room for type. And second, it takes 3 hours to run through the developing process, and that would only happen if you shot the film at the lab and handed it directly to the tech. These days it takes 3 days or up to a week to get your film back as labs will do one run a week. Today everything moves so quickly and turnaround times are crazy. We shoot, dump, process, and send - in a day. You can’t move that fast with film, which is why its great to take the time to switch things up, throw a roll in the Hasselblad, and see what happens. Its like hitting option-command-esc on your Mac when you have the spinning wheel of death, but for your brain. For those of you on a PC, well, thats cool.

There is still a time and place for film. I yearn for the days when I could take a week or two to decide what my favorite shot was from a shoot. Look, I’m not knocking technology. As photographers, we can do so much more with so much less (I’m not talking money though, duh). Film is romantic. Film is why most of the photographers working today got into this profession, it is their first love. Most students in photography programs today are not learning on film, they’ve gone straight to digital not ever experiencing the agony of waiting. BUT these students know that they are missing something. They are exploring film in all formats, craving the feeling of suspense in their work. Film is having a comeback. My younger colleagues ask me all kinds of questions about film and its made me realize that I’ve been missing it. I’m currently editing photos that I shot on FILM while on a trip to Norway, Sweden and Iceland this summer. And yes, I’m scanning them, retouching them, backing it all up, and I will size wayyyy down so that I can share with you on social media.

-Kate Kelley

Kate Kelley
Our Drone Journey

There was a time when you needed one of these to get the killer aerial photo or video. Rent one for $1,200 per hr with a gimbal mounted to the bottom of helicopter or $600 per hr for a shaky ride with three of the four doors off while you hang out the side praying the very flimsy seat belt holds! This was the fall of 2013. 

The following spring we planned another aerial shoot and it was time to rent another one - this time with a gimbal  - Then the client said a drone company had sent them a bid and there was no need for a helicopter - What? A drone? A drone company?? So then our aerial journey began… first flight August 2014. 

I found this article and it sold me. I said to Kate  - we “need” this (every guy looking to justify a new toy always starts with the “need” part… well I was right we needed it and we haven’t stoped buying them. We have had 10 drones to date. (One Phantom 1 , One Phantom 2, Two Inspire 1, Two Inspire 1 Pro, One Mavic Pro, Two Mavic Air, One Mavic 2 Pro - so far…)

These drones have given us lots of stories of great video and images, as well as some stories behind the stories - some are tragic, some are funny, some are silly… So, maybe a few vague titles will give you a hint. “Sinking at Sunset” “Lost and Found in LA” “That Shot Was Great - Let’s Try It One More Time…” “The Audrey Emerson Resume” “The Woods Hole Lighthouse Incident - When Prop Locks Don’t Lock”

Our newest drone is the Mavic 2 Pro featuring  a Hasselblad Camera with a 1" CMOS Sensor, Adjustable Aperture, 10-bit HDR Video image quality… the list goes on and on. I look back at out first one with a GoPro (and the process of having to physically turn the GoPro on before flight) the fact that you had to buy special antennas and wireless transmitters and receivers to rig up makeshift monitors, or just fly blindly… it was a challenge for sure plus you had to look at all that footage of the GoPro wide angle footage of your face as you turned on and off the camera! 

Over the last four years and 10 drones we have flown nationally over several states and Internationally in Ireland, England, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Malta, Spain, France, Denmark… and so on.

We have certainly come a long way in a short amount of time and look forward to what comes next - maybe it’s personal drones which can combine the advancement of today’s photographic and cinematic abilities with the thrills of a helicopter flight of the past! Uber’s ‘flying taxis’ will be built by these five aerospace companies.

-John Lavall

Mdina, Malta  - Devlo Media

Mdina, Malta - Devlo Media

John Lavall