3 Great Documentary Ideas for Students

Filed under:
documentary filmmaking documentary ideas for students

Inspiring documentary ideas for students arise from many sources. Sometimes they reflect things the students have observed or experienced, and other times they revolve an issue of personal interest to the student filmmakers.

Documentary Making for Students

It’s possible for a young person to make a documentary as a college student at film school, as a members of a local film club, or just on their own because they have a passionate interest in documentary filmmaking.

Whatever the reason, the documentary subject must be interesting to both the filmmaker, who will spend months on the documentary film production and editing, and to a target audience whose appreciation of the finished film makes all the investment and time worthwhile.

Plus, it’s a good idea to think about possible film festival destinations at the planning stage too.

Learning the Art of Documentary Making

At the heart of documentary filmmaking is the desire to tell a story. It’s not just a series of random interviews thrown together.

If you haven’t ever made a documentary before, start with a short documentary film. You’ll learn a lot about the critical thinking skills needed to effectively develop a documentary idea, in addition to the practical skills of being a documentary filmmaker recording footage in a variety of locations and conditions and learning the craft of video editing.

Only spend your time and money on a longer documentary film once you have the extensive prior learning and critical analysis to do justice to the chosen documentary subject.

In the meantime, learn a great deal about the documentary form by watching a wide range of documentary productions and doing your own critical analysis of what worked – and what didn’t. Don’t just stick to watching every Michael Moore film on the bestseller list, but find people with different approaches to documentary practice.

Make sure you watch as many short film documentaries (especially those which have won or been nominated for film festival awards) as you can, too. That’s a key part of your student learning experience, because you’ll see first hand how video editing decisions are crucial to the success of a documentary work.

1. Student Documentaries About People

Documentary ideas for students rarely involve famous people. The right combination of contacts, time and money to develop the life of a celebrity into a documentary production is rarely in the grasp of the student filmmaker.

However, ordinary people offer a staggering wealth of inspiration for a short documentary.

You can focus on a family struggling with disability, the people running a cafe or takeaway, a local musician, volunteers running a small community service, or even the households in one street.

The important focus is to find the narrative in the situation, so a story can develop, even if it’s a simple concept.

Follow Josephine Cressy’s attempt to reconcile with her estranged mother, in the short documentary film ‘Building Bridges’, which won the RTS Student Television Award 2020 for Undergraduate Factual.

Building Bridges | RTS Student Television Awards 2020 – Royal Television Society

2. Student Documentaries About History

Someone in your family remembers the past, and has items that illustrate their stories from that time.

It ranges from times of national importance, such as a war or notably bad winter, to small, individual subjects such as how an area has changed in the eyes of a long term resident.

In ‘Hear Me Now’, the RTS Student Television Award 2018 winner for Undergraduate Factual, people recount their childhood experience of staying in Craig-Y-Nos, the Welsh Sanitorium for children with tuberculosis.

Hear Me Now | RTS Student Awards 2018 – Royal Television Society (YouTube)

3. Student Documentaries About The Workplace

If you’re making a student documentary about a type of job, or a workplace, the key aim is to find the story within the people and location.

Sometimes you can find a workplace or industry in the process of change or closure.

Other times, it’s just capturing those micro moments which build a complete and satisfying picture.

So as a documentary filmmaker you need some critical thinking about how to change a series of interviews into a story that the audience engages with.

In ‘Porters’, nominated for an RTS Award in 2014, you hear what it’s like to work in one of the NHS’s most overlooked occupations, and why the role is so important.

Collabor8te: ‘Porters’ dir. Dan Ridgeon, James Dougan & Max Cutting – Collabor8te (YouTube)

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered three great documentary ideas for students, each capable of delivering a narrative of someone’s experiences which fits neatly into the documentary genre.

Remember, at the heart of every interesting documentary is an engaging story which combines a good idea, the right subjects, decent production, and great editing to produce clear narrative that connects with the target audience.