How to make a documentary when you don’t have a clue
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How to make a documentary when you don’t have a clue

Ben Knight reflects on the catalogue of mistakes and regrets that come with making a documentary – and trying to sell it.

Read it in Exberliner

I’ve just finished making a documentary film called We’re All Going To Die. It’s a title I threw at the film at some long-forgotten stage, and which I can’t drop now because it’s on IMDB. The title is a little on the nose, but, like the film, it’s out there now. It’s about the many people, including me, who are preparing for social and ecological collapse.

What do you want to say?

This clumsy and tortuous effort started five years ago, though the idea was much older. So old that I can no more trace its origin than I can remember when I first realised as a child that I would one day die. (I’m not the first to wonder: How come so few of us can remember that moment? It must have been a devastating realisation, and yet it’s lost.) Though the film is nominally about other people, the voiceover to the movie contains several attempts to remember the existential desperation of childhood.

The more direct spark came from stories in the German news a few years ago about the ‘Hannibal network’, a group of far-right preppers – many in the police and armed forces – who had been caught apparently preparing for a “Day X”, when some conflagration would bring down Germany’s state order.

What interested me was that, however mad those conspiracists were, their existential concerns were becoming more prevalent among people I do feel an affinity with, and whose fears I share: climate activists. After all, whether you think Europe is already being overrun by other “races” or whether you think the world’s climate tipping points have already passed, the psychological result is the same: the world is fucked. However irrational or immoral the specifics are, the fact is that many people are feeling this.

I’m retroactively imposing a purpose to several months of meandering research, but the film’s central question crystalised as: What do you do if you really, honestly think that our society is unsustainable? How do you cope once that certainty is lodged in your head?


Do the doable

But why a film? I asked myself that question a lot of times over the last five years, when I noticed how it was all getting a lot longer and more complicated and more expensive than I thought it would. I liked the idea of scenes – as in, interactions and conversations, not just some kind of discussion. And once I’d started, I had to finish it.

Many things didn’t happen the way I thought they would. Moments that I thought looked good seemed flat or forced on screen. So many scenes that turned out well happened by accident. It felt a lot like one of those game shows where the contestant stands in a wind-tunnel with banknotes flying around them. It’s a storm of treasure – but how much can you catch?

The only practical tip I have is something I learned from the mini film course I made for myself, which consisted pretty much of just working my way through all of Werner Herzog’s documentaries. I can really recommend this, for three reasons: first, he shows that it’s possible to make something transcendent about almost any subject with almost no budget. My favourite Herzog, the 1971 movie Fata Morgana, came together after the filming was over. Second, Herzog doesn’t fuck around – he films and gets out of there and moves onto the next one, which is why he ended up with about 40 documentaries. Third, if you watch all of them, you see the same visual tics and ideas and phrases repeated over and over, and you realise that the art is not unknowable, and the concept of genius is empty. Do the doable.


Here’s where I went wrong. I made an early decision not to apply for grants from the bewildering thicket of public funding schemes in Germany.

Part of this was laziness: every time I looked at the website of one of these institutions, the various “Medienboards” and the arts funding application pages, I was overwhelmed with a boredom and impatience that instantly emptied me of any enthusiasm I had about making a film.

Another part of this was social awareness: Why should I, a middle-class white man with a decent income, expect the German taxpayer to fund the artistic urges that have seized me in middle age? And another part of that bad decision was arrogance: Who are these deskbound state officials who claim the right to be cultural gatekeepers? Why should I deign to write a proposal that suits their mysterious and arbitrary criteria? I even feared in some vague way that by applying for money I’d be sacrificing my “artistic freedom”. What if the money-people set conditions? Like I said, arrogant.

But you need money, and more than you think you need. So if you want to make a film, you have to find a way to get some. Either inherit it, apply for it, steal it or do what I did: spend hours and hours on easy but soul-destroying corporate work, squirrel it all away and guard it jealously. My producer also sank some cash into it. God help him.

Not applying for money was a mistake. Persuasion is essential to any creative endeavour. At least half of the work is persuading other people that the work is good, that there is value in what you want to say. And if you can persuade a bored stranger in an office that what you are planning is worth throwing some money at, it immediately gives your work a legitimacy that extends beyond your own ego. My path was independent, but it meant that I was constantly battling with the suspicion that this might just be a vanity project (I still am). From there, it’s an easy shortcut to self-loathing.

Applying for money would’ve been good discipline. It would’ve forced me to find a structure and a method for this movie much sooner than I did. As it was, I spent at least a year filming with only a general plan in my head.

Footnote: I just read that Francis Ford Coppola has put $100 million of his own money into his latest movie, a sci-fi epic named Megalopolis. So I’m still very much on the lower end of the spectrum of hare-brained self-funded endeavours.

Collaboration and conflict

Here’s what I did right. You know when an author writes an acknowledgements page thanking all the people without whom “this book would never have happened” and you think, “Whatever – you obviously could have done it anyway.” Well, in my case, I really couldn’t have done anything without certain people, friends and filmmaking professionals who I managed to persuade to help me. There are four people without whose collaboration my film would have been literally nothing – Amit (cameraman 1), Ingo (cameraman 2 and travel companion), Lea (editor 1) and Ralf (editor 2). Sure, it could’ve been four different people, but it wasn’t, and I’m very glad about that. Each of them put a ridiculous amount of energy into this project and dug me out of many holes I ended up in (in Ingo’s case, that included a roadside ditch in Norway).

The other thing about all these people is that I fought with all of them. Things got tense and bad-tempered, and I’m very bad at dealing with conflict. I avoid it, which is a problem because there is no greater handicap for a filmmaker. If you can’t deal with people disagreeing, challenging and criticising you, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a movie set. But if you can find the key to that psychological lock – if you can convince yourself that conflict can be worth it, then you’re halfway to resolving it. That’s when the fun starts.

The fun part

Easily the best bit was the research and filming. This is also where I felt on the surest ground – if there’s one thing I can do, it’s read lots of books and find people who know things better than me and get them to explain it. This also meant that my movie involved a lot of long journeys, because I kept finding new people I wanted to talk to and new things I wanted to film. Like with any article I write, most of the people I contacted didn’t get back to me. But for over four years, from 2018 to 2021, we filmed in ever-expanding circles: Berlin, Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, London, a three-week coast-to-coast drive across the entire US, the Norwegian slice of the Arctic Circle, and then, finally, in and around the Chicxulub crater in southern Mexico (site of the Earth’s last extinction event).

One of the best moments of the whole experience was the end of the first day of filming, after I interviewed the spokesman of the German prepper community in his home in the town of Krefeld in western Germany. That was the day it dawned on me that I could film anything I liked. I could ask people to do things and they would do them, because I was supposedly in charge. For a tiny moment, I tasted the megalomania that comes with filmmaking. The moment that attends that megalomania is the realisation that you don’t know what you’re doing, but people are doing what you say anyway. It’s hard to ignore the voice inside you going, “No, what are we all doing? Stop!” It’s very exhilarating.

But I was never sure that what I was doing connected with all the other scenes I was filming. With a documentary, it’s tempting to allow the scenes to guide you, to just go out and film and see what happens, and worry later about what it all means and how it fits together. But, in fact, it’s much better to have an idea of the finished film in your head before you start – even if part of you knows that it won’t be anything like that.

I only found this out after a year of filming, when it occurred to me that my idea for the film – documenting people preparing for global disaster – was not enough to make it all hang together. An idea is not a structure. This looks so banal now that I’m embarrassed to admit I did not notice it. So after that year, I found the easiest organising principle I could think of: myself. A film about other people dealing with global dread became a film about me dealing with global dread. I hadn’t wanted to be in the film especially, but once I was in it, all the interviews became more alive. The interviews aren’t interviews but scenes: people helping, advising me, sharing their fears. One thing my film is not is one of your standard Netflix documentaries: talking heads speaking to a faceless and voiceless interviewer slightly to the side of the camera. That was key.

The low point: footage

Then came the worst bit: coming home and being alone with a hard drive full of hours of footage and no idea how to organise it all. All I had were doubts and questions: What is all this shit? What right do I have to ask anyone to watch it? What was I thinking when this happened? Why did I film this? Why didn’t I film that? What have I got myself into?

This feeling lasted months and never went away. I am an easily distracted person, and I did everything to distract myself. Looking at the footage was painful. Each interview, and I had about 20 of them, was 45 minutes to an hour long, and they all seemed to be filled with nothing but meandering talk. No one ever got to the point. No one ever finished a story. It was literally unbearable to wade through. I just stared at it, my mind blank. The thing about filmed footage is that it is just there. When I write articles, I can use words to shape the scenes, to bridge the elisions. But once something is on camera, that’s it. And when you’re making a documentary, you usually only get one chance.

Why hadn’t I tried to write a book instead? At least that would’ve been a cheaper failure.

Getting to the end

The good thing about movies, and what makes them so much fun (most of the time), is that you’re never alone. Directors are the people who have to take responsibility, but they’re not the people actually responsible. A film is the result of hundreds of decisions made by many different people, and it relies on the faith that those people have in each other.

After all the travelling and filming and the despair of staring at the footage, it was my editors who saved me (editors, plural, because by the time I decided I needed more scenes, the first one had left and moved abroad). Plus, the sudden general anxiety that arrived in the early months of the pandemic couldn’t be ignored in the theme. I had, of course, dragged myself through all the material and chosen the scenes I didn’t hate as much and which fit into the story I had figured out: “Ben prepares for disaster: first practically, then spiritually, then…” I’m not spoiling the end. But that has nothing to do with what editing a film is, and it doesn’t matter how many films you watch. Nothing prepares you for the bewildering possibilities that editing a film brings.

It was occasionally joyous to watch as my editors rearranged the footage and came up with new juxtapositions and transitions I never even considered. I was like a child being shown a magic trick. As I watched them work, in my head I was quietly weeping to myself in gratitude. It was in these two years the film acquired a form.

Now it is finished, I honestly cannot tell you whether it is a good film or not, because I know too much about it and have seen it too often. When I watch it alone, I am haunted by all the things that are not in it, the chances missed and the compromises made. But I like watching it with other people, because I’m always curious to see what they make of it. Whether it is any good or not, it says almost everything I wanted it to say. Also, I’ve got an idea for another one.