Many of us documentary filmmakers have day jobs, families, and then our creative endeavors on top of all that. There often seems to be little time for other pursuits, let alone ones that might at first glance, seem to be a bit selfish. I get it. We have a 3.5 and a 5.5 year old. We have the Barang Films business, we have The Documentary Life podcast, we have our doc project Elvis of Cambodia.
But I am hear to reiterate to you, if you don’t pay attention to at least some of these things that I’m about to impart to you, you risk suffering down the line. And I’m not just talking your creative life here, I’m talking about your family life, your relationships, your health – both mental and physical. You name it. So you have been hereby warned, my #doclifers!! Do take heed.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone preaches the importance of some physical activity at some point throughout the day, every day. But hey, I’m certainly not going to deviate from this. And many of you already have some kind of exercise routine in your life, whether it’s going to the gym, going to yoga, running 5 miles everyday, heading out to climb in nature after work.
Part of your responsibility as a creative is to not only keep your mind in good working order – and we’ll get to that in a bit – but it’s to keep your body fluid and functioning to capacity as well. If this means forcing yourself to get away from the edit or get away from the script and go for a walk for 30 minutess so be it.
The cool added benefit to exercising is that it often spurs the brain to be more active and creative. It’s called endorphins, people. And the endorphins are what often get us excited and thinking about our documentary project. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out for a run … I’m listening to a podcast, or I’ve got some music pumping through the headphones… and I’m suddenly inspired by a new idea for the podcast, or I’ve come up with a workaround solution to a problem that I was having on an edit for a documentary project… it happens all of the time.
For me, there’s just something about lacing up the shoes, putting on the headphones, stretching, and heading outside for a run, that really shifts things for me mentally. It’s as if you’re telling yourself, ‘okay, I’m now walking away from this work or walking away from this thinking that I’ve been doing.. and I’m going to give myself a break outside. I’m going to move my body and just let go.’ And it’s uncanny that the moment that you let go, the answers to any issues you’ve been having – whether personal or professional – they just start to come to you. It’s not unlike meditation, in this way, I suppose. Running certainly feels like a form of therapy for me, at the very least. I’m able to just let my mind go, and just be fluid for 30 minutes or however long.
Don’t take the idea of exercise lightly. It’s not only important for your physical health, but I truly believe that there is a direct connection to the effectiveness of the creative mind as well.
I hope that I don’t lose a few of you on this one. If you’ve never done it, it’s not a scary thing, it’s not an uber new age-y thing – trust me, it’s not just some thing that half naked dudes in India do or hipster yogis in San Francisco preach – meditation over the past decade has become a pretty mainstream thing in the Western world. Of course, countries in the Eastern hemisphere have been embracing this form of mindfulness and self reflection for centuries, and we in the West are finally getting around to it. Or maybe I should say we are finally stopping or pausing to it.
Look, at this point, the health benefits of a meditation practice are pretty universally accepted. There are currently over 3000 scientific studies that have been done on the subject, and I suspect it’s only just the beginning. Those who meditate have 10x more the concentration of those who don’t. They have 50 percent less chance of disease. 75 percent less chance of depression (and by the way, I think that’s a big one for us creatives!). Meditation reduces stress, worry, and anxiety. It enhance self esteem and self acceptance. It improves your mood & emotional intelligence. It improves the immune system & energy level. Reduces blood pressure. Better decision making & problem solving. Better information processing. The list goes on and on, people. You can do your research on that.
I’m just hear to tell you that, even just 15 mins a day, has been scientifically proven to do what I’ve just mentioned and so so much more.
And I’m hear to tell you that meditation quiets the negative chatter. The self doubt, the nay saying. The pessimism. And these can all be very real things in our documentary lives. Living a creative life, a doc life, if you will, often consists of some ups and downs. Whether it be financial burdens, it be personal relationships, it be major creative lapses, whatever the case is, there are things in our lives that greatly impact our self value, our self belief… and that directly impacts our belief in ourselves as artists, as documentary filmmakers.
I don’t have to recite more proven scientific health benefits of meditation – again that’s easily found, should you so choose. But I can tell you that I have personally benefited from the practice. It has given me more clarity in my life and in my films. It has allowed me to calm down in certain situations where I might have before had an angry or otherwise reactionary response to a situation. I can honestly say that for me personally, starting a daily meditation practice has without a doubt absolutely affected my life in very positive ways.
If you’re looking for a primer, there’s a great book out there by Sakyong Mipham called Turning the Mind Into an Ally. It’s a joy to read. It’s not super heady at all. Very pleasant and practical. There’s also a documentary out there called On Meditation, it’s currently up on Netflix. That’s a good one to watch for a primer as well.
We all know of the importance of this one. Of having a community of loved ones that we see on a fairly regular basis. But it doesn’t mean that we all adhere to it. Hell, no. Not #doclifers. I’ve made mention many times on this show how we #doclifers can often times, by the very nature of independent documentary filmmaking, be working in fairly solitary situations. Certainly the post production phase can be like this.
But human beings, for the most part, need to be around other human beings. This is also a statistically proven fact that we have a need for love and support. That this sort of thing does, in fact, impact our well-being and overall health. And, I know that it’s probably a total surprise, but #doclifers are human beings too. We require human interaction.
Look, there are the health benefits that I just briefly mentioned, but I’m not going to sit here – actually, I’m standing – I’m not going to stand here and refute health science data related to human interaction. What I will tell you is that as an artist, I think too many times we have been told this notion that things like adversity, anxiety, depression, solitude… those kinds of things are what make the great artists. It’s this romanticized notion that we need to be experiencing drama or hardship in order to truly be an artist. I can tell you, I think that’s all bunk. And I definitely speak from some experience. I was that tortured artist type for at least a third of my life. And I can say is that a lot of it was a huge waste of time, spent on my own, feeling sorry for myself, and just generally doing the navel gazing thing. If this has described you at any point in time, you know what I speak of. Take a look at any of your work or better yet, your journals from that time. You will probably cringe.
I remember editing on Bombhunters for like five months, down in the basement of the director’s house. (And yes, I am well aware that I seemed to edit on people’s projects in their basement or attic. Reason #562 why you need a budget, guys!) Anyhow, I remember immersing myself in the Cambodian footage. And the content and story was, at times, shall we say heartbreaking. A lot of destruction and devastation from years of civil war. This material, on top of the fact that I was down in that basement six days a week, working super long hours… well, this didn’t really make me a very happy person. And certainly not very agreeable to be around. I remember my sister – who is one of my best friends – the following year telling me that I was a bear to be around and that I exhibited a lot of anger and emotion.
I know that hindsight is 20/20, but honestly, looking back, I can safely say that most of the self pity, the starving artist thing was pretty unnecessary. I don’t think it fueled my edit at all. I really don’t. If anything, I’m sure that it negatively impacted some of my editing choices. There were scenes were the director had to pull me back a bit, because I was just too heavy-handed. And I was too angry, in my story, if that makes any sense.
I’m pretty sure that if I had surrounded myself with loving people… or maybe more appropriately put, allowed loved ones to be around me and support me, I would have personally been a lot better off, but my work probably would have come a bit easier, if not a bit more objectively.
Anyhow, I’m sure you get what I’m trying to say here. A support system via your family and your friends, is actually a very needed thing for us #doclifers. Sometimes we film some difficult things. Sometimes we work a lot of hours. Sometimes we just need someone to give us a fresh and proper meal. Or tell us a good joke. I have come to learn, the hard way, that these are the things that feed you as an artist. Sometimes a break from the intense doc work is exactly what you and your doc needs.
I just mentioned a fresh meal. Yes, I’m now going to briefly talk about the virtues of a proper diet/nutrition. Sorry if that annoys you. You can always skip on to the next one, that’s okay. But diet and nutrition is a real and important thing.
Too often we artists risk our own well being for the sake of the art. I get it. Many times we have little time between shoots, or we have a less-than-satisfactory budget. And so we find ourselves in the McDonalds drive-thru checking out the dollar menu and loading up on carbs, tricky meat, and soda. It’s a quick fix, it’s cheap, it does the trick, right? I get it.
But you’ve all seen Super Size Me, right? Sure it’s a bit extreme. We’re not all taking our meals at Mickey D’s for a month at a time, but nonetheless there is an important message there. That stuff’s not really that good for you.
We already discussed the mental component, when I talked about meditation, but the more obvious component might be your general physical health, which doesn’t just mean exercise, of course, it also includes diet & nutrition. Eating some proper food and drinking some real drinks can go a long way for you. Stay hydrated. Bring lots of water to set. Consider a green juice instead of something with a lot of sugar in it. And I’m not talking about juices with added sugar, I’m talking about be aware of the kinds of fruits in your juice that are of higher glycemic content. Eat foods that aren’t processed. Otherwise you risk blood sugar level spiking then dropping while you’re working.
Also, you absolutely positively cannot mess around with feeding your crew. Especially a documentary crew, who may be working for cheaper rates, if not even for free. You cannot buy your crew fast food. And don’t bring coffee and donuts in the morning. Coffee, yes, because everyone knows there simply is not world without coffee (actually I drink decaf, but don’t tell anyone), but no donuts, please. It’s embarrassing. It just doesn’t say the right thing from the very outset of the day. So, yes, when it comes to your crew, the least you can do is show them the respect of a decent meal and snacks. I realize that there isn’t exactly a budget for a craft services person, but you would do well to get some snacks that aren’t pure sugar-based and won’t have your crew crashing mid-way through an interview.
5. Watch Documentaries
Most of you probably already do this, I’m sure. But it’s also an easy one to forget. We’re busy people. And we’re working on our own documentary films! I actually have to make a very conscious effort to watch docs. That probably seems strange, but the truth of the matter is I’m either (a) busy working on my own doc (b) working on this podcast (c) working on my business (d) being with my family (e) sleeping . I truly barely have time to read anything, let alone devote 2 hrs to watching a film. But I make myself do it. I literally schedule it out. Because it’s important.
Otherwise, I’m making films and talking about making films, without maybe knowing or seeing how others are doing the craft.
Nowadays, it seems like a new piece of equipment or a unique way to tell a story happens monthly. If I’m not watching other people’s docs, I’m not taking in how the craft is being done by my peers. And I’m potentially missing out on some great opportunities for ideas and approaches. So many times, I’ve gone months without seeing a film, then I sit down to watch one and I find myself immediately inspired. Whether it be by the story, how the story was told, or later on after I’ve done some Googling, I learn the story of the filmmaker… whatever the case, I am left feeling more informed and inspired to work on my own project.
In fact, a number of times, I’ve been faced with a particular problem in my own work, and then I watch something that totally shifts my way of thinking, into a place where suddenly I’m able to come up with a really nice creative solution to my problem. And that very likely wouldn’t have happened without the process of watching a film. And I say process, because I believe that the actual process of watching a film, in itself – apart from the actual film – the process of watching it, can be a very important practice for us as filmmakers. It allows us to see how things are.. well, how things are seen. And there are lessons to be drawn from that.
We need that reminder that someone will actually be sitting down – whether in a theater, on a television or a laptop – someone will be taking in our movie, as an experience. And so it’s good for us to be experiencing that experience on a regular basis ourselves.
So, if you’re not already doing this regularly – and I’m sure that most of you are probably way better at it than I sometimes am – make a conscious effort to be watching other documentaries.
Are these things that you are currently doing to nurture your documentary life? Or things that you feel you should do but don’t? What are your challenges? Let us know your thoughts on nurturing a documentary life in the comments below.