All goods films, including documentary, are totally reliant on their characters. Without characters there simply is no story. I discovered this the hard way recently when I went out to shoot a short one minute film and my contributor for the day was a no show – I realised pretty quickly that there was only so many ‘establishing’ shots I could do before it was clear that I could not eek out any kind of story.
In the meantime two friends and I dreamt up a new idea for a documentary film, The New Age Stamp Collectors, in which stand-up comedian Peter Otway, a procrastination enthusiast, attempts to find out if the latest communications technology has just allowed us to waste time in new but perhaps pointless ways. Much like the pastime of stamp collecting, it was decided that geocaching, online blogging and flash mobbing may be regarded by some as meaningless, nonsensical and trivial activities. To find out if these activities did have meaning and value, and I’m sure they do, I needed to find and meet some people that did them. I thought it would be easy. I was mistaken.
I can’t easily get my head around new technology, I am at heart a luddite, but as so many people talk of the ease of the Internet for communication I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to quickly find some people to talk to. I tried googling ‘geocaching’ and ‘flash mobs’ and although there are a multitude of web pages about those subjects it’s not so easy to find the people that do them. The main problem I came across was anonymity. Call me old fashioned but I like to be able to pick up the phone and talk to people directly. In my attempt to track some people down I filled out countless online forms, ‘Facebooked’ people, tweeted at them, about them, to them, I tried commenting on their blogs but thus far I have received only one and a half responses. Slim pickings for a week’s work.
No one, it would seem, is terribly willing to give out their telephone number or email address. Probably quite rightly, as we’re always told not to give out personal information willy nilly, pre-warned of identity theft etc., but right now this particular detail is problematic for me. Finding a flash mob organiser was proving particularly difficult. The very nature of the activity - ’a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse’ means that the organisation is particularly anonymous. I’m currently in a very mysterious email exchange with a flash mob organiser, who’s name and gender I’m yet to learn, who leaves me short and unrelated answers to the questions I ask. This is why I’ve only counted him (or her) as half a response. Seems reasonable.
It’s not just the anonymity, I imagine many people – probably with busy lives, loving families and important jobs – don’t actually check their emails, blogs or website accounts all that often. And when they do, they probably think ‘oh, I’ll reply to that later’ and then promptly forget all about it. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve been known to reply to a text a month after I actually received the original message. It was probably from my mum, as far as I know she’s the only one that ever texts or rings me. Furthermore, I probably can’t be that surprised that people don’t respond to an email out of the blue by a complete stranger asking if they’d be interested in contributing to a documentary.
I was reaching a point of desperation – I knew that I had a great documentary idea at my fingertips – you just get that gut feeling sometimes – but I just lacked any information about the potential characters that would appear in the film. I then started to wonder what I even knew about Pete (you remember, the stand-up comedian I mentioned earlier, the main protagonist of the whole documentary idea) so I brainstormed on a piece of paper and identified only three character traits I could be sure of:
bearded, likes fried-chicken, usually broadly affable
Followed by a decline to be involved in the project from my other response from the week I reached a crisis point and decided I wasn’t a terribly good producer/director and definitely not a child of the technological revolution. What had I been thinking? You can’t just google geocaching and find someone willing to talk on camera about it. I needed a plan B, a new modus operandi if you will. Ideally I needed these characters to come to me.
I have a friend who champions the perks of online dating. He’s on numerous sites and spends a great deal of time crafting his personal ad, selecting his best photographs and searching for the right woman. At first I thought he might be alone but I soon realised that Internet dating doesn’t carry quite the same stigma that it used to and that lots of my friends utilise it. I thought perhaps I could devise my own personal ad, you know something like ‘documentary filmmaker would like meet . . .’ and see if anyone tried contacting me wanting to contribute to the film. Surely it was worth a try?
So here I am waiting for a response. Although I’ve just realised that my friend is still single, so maybe this wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.Tags: apps, blogging, comedy, communication technology, documentary, flash mob, fried chicken, geocaching, Internet dating, London, Manchester, Peter Otway, procrastination, Salford, stamp collecting