A calculated gamble: Why we have to write documentaries

We’ve chosen a film! The team and I have found our story: La Casa de Carlota.

It’s only taken a month of research in a language I started learning properly a few months ago and another I’ve got no hope of learning before I leave.

A week ago, there were seven and a half contenders but no clear choices. The day before that there were ten.

We whittled things down with one main question:

“Can this subject provide us with a gripping story visually for half an hour during our production schedule?”

Can, not couldA group of young and naïve filmmakers, we can all get wrapped up in our imaginations are all susceptible to our imaginations. Even John, our veteran writer and guide, let his mind scurry off excitedly into potential narratives and promising characters. The difference was, he knew the value of his imaginings: nada.

When it’s just you and your pen, you can afford to gamble a little more. Anecdotes, yours or others, are the basis of your work. With docs, at least the ones I want to make, you need to be able to be fairly certain you’ll get the action on film.

Most decent documentaries will have their share of luck. Some of the films I’ve watched in this month, Weiner, Tickled, even Planet Earth were all at the mercy of the unpredictable. Events the directors could never have predicted became the core of the first two.

That’s not to say the guys spun a globe and took their cameras to the first place their fingers landed on. The last few months, I’ve been learning about the necessary, and often boring prelude through Papa John.

He told us about a Q&A he attended at Sheffield Doc Fest. A young filmmaker asked if the writers of Weiner wrote before they started shooting. They said they hadn’t. John’s unaffected paternal nature – a trait that has earned him his nickname – was riled at the irresponsibility of their claim.

“You shouldn’t be saying that to a room full of impressionable filmmakers. Of course they wrote!”

Papa John wasn’t suggesting the two were lying –

“I love what they do” – but he was frustrated by a lazy response that failed to present what the documentary writing really is: not writing, planning. While they might not have put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, documentary writing includes:

  • finding a relevant story;
  • identifying characters;
  • developing a clear story arc;
  • finding clear challenges, setbacks and conclusions;

Documentaries are gambles, but they need to be calculated.

Weiner – which follows Anthony Weiner as he runs in New York’s mayoral election – is an especially well-calculated film.  It has a charismatic and curious central character; campaign trails are tried and tested bases for stories, offering a high pressure situation which will almost certainly have ups and downs; these are explicitly marked and easily understood thanks to opinion polls and media reception; the challenge is laid out clearly; there’s a clear focus and election day even gives us a date for the conclusion. And they started filming 12 weeks before it. Add to this the sex scandal he was attempting to put behind him and you’ve got a classic redemption story.

They knew all this before they turned the cameras on – and built up from there. It may not be written down verbatim but they had set things up nicely before getting the show off the ground.

Far from what their off-the-cuff response suggested, Weiner actually gives us a great example of what we need to do for our own film.

We started with boring practicalities, stuff like reliability, poor timetables and limited or questionable access. This meant ruthless, and at times painful, culling.

We were left with just four:  La Mosca, ACATHI, Rafi’s Kitchen and La Casa de Carlota.

La Mosca

A group of around ten people (the numbers were often larger but there was a decent core) who are hoping to hijack the airwaves with their pirate TV channel which will apparently latch onto the region’s television signals and get onto their TVs (this wasn’t my pitch so excuse the clueless technical description). Their efforts in the past got them a 500,000 euro fine they have no intention of paying, all very Viva la Revolución. Now, under a new name, they are giving it a go with a man up in the mountains manning an antenna day and night, while the team do the legwork at the bottom.

Their idea is to allow anyone to get their work onto TV – fact or fiction – as long as they abide by the channel’s moral code (no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc.) A fun story for sure, but we just couldn’t work out their motives. It felt like they were stuck in a past where TV mattered. Nowadays, with the online democratisation of entertainment and news, a pirate TV station sort of sounds redundant.

Their clearest goal was achieving 24-hour output, but why? It’s a huge task too, something the BBC finds difficult enough, let alone a tiny group of people in a Gracia basement.

La Tele – the group’s previous manifestation – achieved a degree of notoriety, had a lot more people behind it and was as of a time where it could’ve made a difference. It still failed. I couldn’t help but feel this was a case of nostalgic radicals failing to change with the times.

A possible story in itself, or maybe just a curiosity, but that lack of clarity proved too much. Maybe there was more to find but time was our enemy – a decent lesson to learn.


A charity that supports trans-refugees, while working to change people’s attitudes towards all trans people. These guys tickled all our progressive fancies, taking on antiquated laws and challenging prejudices in creative ways, such as organising social work and dance classes conducted by trans people, forcing transphobic people to recognise their humanity.

However, while they had plenty to tell us about what they’d done, they didn’t have much in the way of concrete info on what they were doing during our shoot time and “Oh, muchos” wasn’t going to cut it.  Without a strong understanding of the likely story arc, we were shooting in the dark.

Rafi’s Kitchen

Rafi’s a samosa man. One of those guys who sell food on the street to tourists and locals alike. He’s spent years here, lived homeless, on a shop floor, was in an accident with a food truck (the irony does not escape me), from which he’s still recovering and has now set up his business with a charismatic Dutchman, bringing the food he loves making into people’s homes.

He had clear goals, his biggest being to raise enough money to go back to Pakistan and marry his fiancée.

Hardy, strong-willed and working on himself, learning Spanish, healing his leg and beating the depression that has affected him since he arrived: his life offers dynamic variety too, the streets, parties, Spanish lessons etc.

But he is just one fragile guy. Hinging everything on him would be a big risk.

We also might have missed the boat. Having a great backstory is helpful as far as it sets up what we’re going to capture now. Without wanting to sound insensitive, the most absorbing parts of Rafi’s adventure may be behind him. The business is already gaining momentum, he lives in a shared flat, the money coming in. That’s all great for him but we’re not making a history documentary. A decent story needs more than just the happy ending.

So we chose La Casa de Carlota. I can’t be telling you too much – you’ll hear about that as I do it. The story wasn’t airtight but, while there are going to be some serious challenges ahead, I think we’re on to a winner.


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