The Art of Documentary Interviews: Crafting Compelling Narratives

The Art of Documentary Interviews: Crafting Compelling Narratives
Documentary Filmmaking.

Crafting Compelling Narratives: The Art of Documentary Interviews

Documentary interviews are an integral part of the filmmaking process in the documentary genre. Documentary interviews are one of the main ways filmmakers gather information, tell stories and explore the subject matter at hand. They allow filmmakers to connect with their audiences by telling stories that can educate, inspire, or challenge viewers to reconsider their assumptions about the world around them.

Definition of Documentary Interviews

Documentary interviews involve filming a person answering questions on a particular topic or issue. Unlike traditional interviews where subjects might be asked deliberately calculated questions to elicit a specific response, documentary interviews aim to capture honest and unfiltered responses from interviewees. The interviewer is often off-camera, allowing interviewees to feel comfortable and more likely to open up about their experiences or knowledge on a particular topic.

Documentary interviews can be filmed in different settings with various types of lighting and camera setups but they all have one goal: to uncover insights into an event, personality or idea. These interviews not only provide useful information for documentaries but also give viewers an opportunity to learn from individuals who have unique perspectives on different topics.

Importance of Documentary Interviews in Filmmaking

The importance of documentary interviewing cannot be overstated when it comes to making documentaries that will engage viewers and inform them about important issues. Documentary filmmakers use these types of interviews as a means for gathering crucial information about their subject matter that might not be easily found elsewhere.

Through interviewing experts, personal witnesses or those impacted by certain events through personal experiences can provide filmmakers with clarity on the themes they wish to convey through their films. Documentaries play vital roles in educating people about social issues or politics that are often neglected by mainstream media outlets.

By capturing testimonials and other firsthand accounts through documentary interviewing techniques, documentarians offer narratives which counteract media bias and provide accurate portrayals of events. Overall, documentary interviewing is essential for any successful documentary film.

It offers a unique and intimate connection between the filmmaker and their subject while providing valuable insights into the topics being explored. Documentary filmmakers should consider interviewing techniques carefully, to create a compelling narrative that can reach audiences on an emotional level while also informing them about issues they may not have previously been aware of.

Types of Documentary Interviews

Expert Interviews: Uncovering Deep Insights from Authorities

Expert interviews are one of the most common types of documentary interviews. Experts are individuals who have a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and can provide insightful commentary on the topic being explored in the film.

Experts can range from academics to industry professionals, and their expertise may be based on research, education, or experience. In documentary filmmaking, expert interviews help to establish credibility for the topic being explored.

These interviews allow the filmmaker to present complex ideas or concepts in a way that is accessible to a general audience. They also help to contextualize events and provide historical background on specific subjects.

To prepare for expert interviews, filmmakers should conduct extensive research on potential interviewees to ensure they have credibility in their field. Interviewers should also develop a set of questions that will elicit meaningful responses from experts.

Personal Story Interviews: Sharing Emotionally Charged Narratives

Personal story interviews are another type of documentary interview that focuses on people’s experiences or perspectives related to the topic being explored in the film. These interviews are often used when exploring social issues or human interest stories. Personal story interviews add an emotional component to documentaries by allowing viewers to connect with real people who have experienced similar situations or emotions.

These types of interviews can be powerful storytelling tools because they provide insight into how everyday people have been impacted by larger social issues. To prepare for personal story interviews, it is important for interviewers to build rapport with interviewees before filming begins.

This helps interviewees feel more comfortable opening up about their experiences on camera. Filmmakers should also develop questions that encourage interviewees to share personal insights and emotions related to the topic being explored.

Witness Interviews: Exploring First-Hand Accounts

Witness interviews focus on individuals who have witnessed or experienced events related to the topic being explored in the film. These interviews add a sense of immediacy and authenticity to documentaries by presenting first-hand accounts of events.

Witness interviews are often used in documentaries that explore current events or historical issues. They provide a unique perspective on events and can add context to larger social issues.

To prepare for witness interviews, filmmakers should conduct research on potential interviewees and develop questions that encourage them to share their experiences in detail. It is also important for interviewers to build trust with interviewees before filming begins, as some may be hesitant to share personal experiences on camera.

Preparing for Documentary Interviews

Researching and selecting interviewees

The success of a documentary relies heavily on the selection of the right interviewees. It is important to research and identify key individuals who can provide valuable insights into the subject matter at hand. This involves conducting background research to identify individuals who have expertise or personal experience related to the topic being explored.

The selection process should also take into consideration diversity, as it is important to represent a broad range of perspectives in order to create a comprehensive story. Additionally, it’s important to consider how each interviewee will contribute to the overall narrative flow of the documentary.

Developing questions that elicit meaningful responses

Developing thought-provoking and meaningful questions is crucial for conducting successful documentary interviews. The questions should be open-ended, allowing for in-depth responses that can reveal new insights and perspectives regarding the topic being explored. Questions should be carefully crafted with an understanding of each interviewee’s background, perspective, and expertise.

This requires thorough research on their experiences and contributions related to the topic. It is also important for interviewers to remain flexible during interviews, allowing tangents that may lead into unexpected areas but still remain relevant towards providing new information about their subject matter.

Creating a comfortable and safe environment for interviewees

Documentary interviews can sometimes involve sensitive topics or deeply personal stories shared by interviewees. As such, creating an environment where they feel safe and comfortable enough to share their experiences is crucial.

To achieve this atmosphere, consider factors like lighting, location (e.g., choosing private spaces), time-frame (e.g., scheduling around work or personal obligations), comfort (e.g., offer seating options) are all-important factors in creating an inviting space for your subjects. Additionally empathy plays a role here as well: Unconditional positive regard can help create a space where interviewees feel heard, seen and valued.

It’s important to set a tone in interviews that is non-judgmental and empathetic, with an interviewer who is accessible and relatable. Understanding the importance of a safe and comfortable space for interviewees can lead to more honest, open responses which will be more valuable for your documentary.

Overall, thorough research on potential interviewees and the topic being explored is essential in selecting appropriate subjects for interviews. Creating thought-provoking questions that allow for a deeper exploration of subject matter is equally important as setting up a comfortable environment where your subjects feel at ease to share their stories in an honest manner.

Conducting Documentary Interviews

Setting up Equipment and Lighting

Once you have researched and selected your interviewees, it’s time to prepare for the actual filming of the interviews. The first step is to ensure that you have all the necessary equipment: camera, microphone, tripod, lighting set-up, and any other necessary gear.

Test everything in advance to make sure that everything is working properly. Lighting plays an important role in creating a professional-looking interview.

When setting up your lighting equipment, make sure that you position lights in a way that flatters your interviewee while also illuminating their face clearly. It’s important to keep a consistent look throughout the interview footage by keeping the lighting consistent from shot to shot.

Building Rapport with Interviewees

It is essential to build rapport with your interviewee before starting the actual interview. Not only does this help put them at ease but it also helps establish trust between interviewer and subject which can lead to more insightful or revealing answers. One way to build rapport with an interviewee is by introducing yourself and sharing relevant information about yourself and what led you to create this documentary project.

You can start with small talk about their hobbies or interests, ask how their day has been so far or get them comfortable discussing things off-camera before they sit down for questioning. Throughout the conversation try using open-ended questions that allow for more detailed responses such as “Tell me about…” or “How did it feel when…”.

Active Listening and Follow-up Questions

Active listening during an interview entails paying close attention not only to what your subject is saying but also how they are saying it (their tone of voice, body language). This allows you as an interviewer to probe deeper into specific topics or experiences mentioned during an answer rather than moving on immediately after hearing something interesting. Follow-up questions are a crucial component of active listening.

They provide the opportunity to clarify any unclear statements made by the interviewee and allow the interviewer to explore deeper into an area that might have been passed over initially. Additionally, follow up questions can help reveal more information or insight that otherwise may never have come up naturally in conversation.

Conducting documentary interviews successfully requires careful preparation, building rapport with interviewees, and active listening and follow-up questions during filming. By following these guidelines, you can create insightful and powerful documentaries that will captivate your audience.

Editing Documentary Interviews

Selecting the most compelling parts of the interview footage

Once you have conducted all of your interviews, it’s time to start editing. Editing is where you really begin to craft your story.

It’s important to remember that not all footage will be usable in the final cut, so it’s essential to carefully review and evaluate each interview for its relevance and effectiveness. One way to start selecting the most compelling parts of the interview footage is by transcribing, or making an accurate written record of everything that was said in each interview.

Transcribing allows you to search for specific quotes or moments that might be relevant and useful in your documentary. When selecting which parts of an interview are most compelling, consider what action or emotion is conveyed.

Focus on moments that reveal character or conflict, or give the viewer an emotional connection with the subject matter. In general, shorter clips are more effective than longer ones—viewers may tune out if they feel like they’re watching a lengthy monologue.

Arranging footage in a cohesive manner that tells a story

Once you’ve identified which portions of your interviews are most powerful, it’s time to arrange them into a cohesive whole. This can involve creating a rough cut using only selected clips from different interviews arranged loosely by theme. A documentary should tell a story through visuals and sound rather than narrative exposition (telling) – this makes arranging footage more challenging but also more rewarding when done well.

The Art of Documentary Interviews: Crafting Compelling Narratives

Consider how different sequences flow together and what sort of structure best serves your story. The arrangement should help clarify key points while avoiding repetition while also allowing scenes where emotions run high or characters develop over time to play out naturally without overediting them away entirely.

The Power of Great Editing

Documentary editing is one aspect where great filmmakers can really stand out from their contemporaries. By selecting the most powerful clips and arranging them in a way that tells a compelling story, filmmakers can engage viewers in an emotional journey that stays with them long after they have finished watching. Some of the most memorable documentaries use creative and unconventional editing techniques to create their unique style.

For example, “The Act of Killing” uses surrealistic jump cuts to show the main character’s fractured psyche while examining Indonesia’s dark history. Other documentaries use music to create an emotional connection between the viewer and subject matter.

Ultimately, the goal of editing is to create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. By carefully selecting and arranging footage, filmmakers can turn raw interviews into powerful documentaries that inspire audiences to think deeply about important issues.

Ethical Considerations in Documentary Interviewing

Obtaining Consent from Interviewees

One of the most important ethical considerations when conducting documentary interviews is obtaining consent from interviewees. Since documentary filmmaking often involves personal or sensitive information, it’s crucial to inform interviewees of how their footage will be used and obtain their consent before filming or using it in any way.

Consent forms should clearly outline the scope of the project, how the footage will be used, and any potential risks associated with participation. It’s important to note that obtaining consent is not a one-time event but a continuous process throughout the filmmaking process.

This means that any changes in the scope or direction of the project need to be communicated to participants, and their consent needs to be obtained again if necessary. Filmmakers should also provide participants with an opportunity to withdraw their footage at any point during or after filming.

Respecting Cultural Differences

Documentary filmmakers must also respect cultural differences when conducting interviews. It’s essential to recognize that different cultures have different beliefs and practices regarding privacy and confidentiality. For example, some cultures may consider it disrespectful or taboo to film certain locations or subjects.

To ensure respect for cultural differences, filmmakers should research their subjects and consult with local experts when necessary. They should also make sure that interviewees are aware of how their footage will be used so they can make informed decisions about participation.

Privacy and Confidentiality

Another ethical consideration in documentary interviewing is privacy and confidentiality. Documentary filmmakers must balance the public interest in telling a story with participants’ rights to privacy.

This means ensuring that interviewees are not exposed or exploited through editing or other techniques. Filmmakers must also take steps to protect confidential information shared by participants during interviews.

For example, they may need to redact specific details or blur faces and identifying details to protect interviewees’ privacy. Overall, ethical considerations are an essential part of documentary interviewing.

Filmmakers must obtain clear and informed consent from participants, respect cultural differences, and protect the privacy and confidentiality of interviewees. By doing so, they can ensure that their documentaries are both informative and respectful of participants’ rights.

Examples of Successful Documentary Interviews

Documentary interviews can be powerful tools in creating compelling and thought-provoking documentaries. In recent years, several documentaries have successfully utilized interviews to tell important stories that have impacted audiences around the world. Some of these documentaries include “13th” directed by Ava DuVernay and “The Act of Killing” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.


Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” explores the intersection of race, incarceration, and slavery in the United States. The documentary takes its title from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

Through a series of expert interviews with scholars, activists, and politicians, as well as personal stories from individuals who have been impacted by mass incarceration, “13th” presents a compelling argument about how systemic racism is perpetuated in America’s criminal justice system. One particularly impactful interview in “13th” is with activist Angela Davis.

Davis connects the dots between slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to show how black bodies have been exploited throughout history for economic gain. Her words are both powerful and educational, making her interview one of the most memorable moments in the film.

“The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” explores Indonesia’s 1965 genocide through interviews with some of the perpetrators themselves. The documentary shows how these individuals were able to commit heinous acts without remorse or guilt because they were not held accountable for their actions. One influential interview in “The Act of Killing” is with Anwar Congo who admits to killing over 1,000 people during the genocide.

In an attempt to come to terms with his actions, Congo reenacts some of his murders on camera. This interview is particularly impactful as it shows the audience how someone can be complicit in such atrocities and still see themselves as a hero.

Analysis of Successful Documentary Interviews

The success of documentary interviews lies in their ability to evoke emotions, educate audiences, and create a sense of empathy with those being interviewed. In analyzing successful documentaries such as “13th” and “The Act of Killing,” several key elements stand out that make these interviews impactful. Firstly, both documentaries feature interviews with individuals who have a personal connection to the subject matter.

Whether it’s someone who has been directly impacted by mass incarceration or a perpetrator of genocide, these personal stories add an emotional depth to the films that resonate with audiences. Secondly, both documentaries utilize expert interviews to provide context and analysis for the topics being explored.

By using academics and activists who have studied these issues extensively, the documentaries are able to provide a deeper understanding of complex issues like systemic racism and genocide. Successful documentary interviews are often unscripted and allow interviewees the freedom to speak their minds.

This creates an authenticity that is difficult to replicate in scripted films or talking head segments on news programs. By allowing interviewees to speak candidly about their experiences or beliefs, filmmakers can capture moments that are both raw and powerful. We wrote other articles you might be interested in reading like: Guide to Documentary Filmmaking Techniques & Strategies.

Documentary Filmmaking Interview Template.

Here are 30 most relevant questions about documentary interviews:

  1. What is your name?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. What do you do for a living?
  4. What is your relationship to the subject of this documentary?
  5. How did you become involved in this project?
  6. What are your hopes and expectations for this documentary?
  7. What are your fears and concerns about this documentary?
  8. What do you think is the most important thing that people should know about the subject of this documentary?
  9. What do you think is the most important thing that people should take away from this documentary?
  10. What do you think is the most important thing that people should do after watching this documentary?

Here are some additional questions that you may want to ask, depending on the specific topic of your documentary:

  • What were your childhood experiences like?
  • What were your early influences?
  • What were the major turning points in your life?
  • What are your thoughts on the current state of the world?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to conduct a documentary interview. The most important thing is to ask open-ended questions that will allow your interviewee to share their story in their own words. Be respectful and listen attentively, and you will be sure to get valuable insights into your subject.

Here are some additional tips for conducting effective documentary interviews:

  • Do your research. The more you know about your interviewee and their subject matter, the better prepared you will be to ask informed questions.
  • Build rapport. Take the time to get to know your interviewee and put them at ease. This will help them to feel comfortable sharing their story.
  • Be flexible. Be prepared to go off script if your interviewee takes the conversation in a new direction.
  • Be patient. It may take some time for your interviewee to open up and share their story. Be patient and let them take their time.
  • Trust your gut. If you have a feeling that your interviewee is not being truthful, trust your gut and ask follow-up questions.

By following these tips, you can conduct effective documentary interviews that will yield valuable insights into your subject matter.


Documentary interviews are a crucial component of any documentary film, as they allow filmmakers to gather firsthand accounts and expert insights on the subject matter. By carefully selecting interviewees, preparing thoughtful questions, and conducting interviews in a professional manner, filmmakers can capture compelling footage that engages audiences and sheds light on important issues.

Throughout this article, we have explored the different types of documentary interviews, including expert interviews, personal story interviews, and witness interviews. We have also discussed how to prepare for documentary interviews by researching interviewees and developing meaningful questions that elicit insightful responses.

Additionally, we explored ethical considerations in documentary interviewing such as obtaining consent from interviewees before filming or using their footage. Successful documentaries such as “13th” or “The Act of Killing” demonstrate the power of documentary interviews to reveal deep insights into complex topics.

By selecting compelling interviewees with unique perspectives and experiences related to the subject matter at hand and editing footage into a cohesive narrative structure that tells a story, filmmakers can create powerful works that provoke thought and inspire change. Overall, documentary interviewing is an art form that requires careful planning, preparation, and execution.

Through this process, however, filmmakers can create works that inform viewers about important issues while also captivating them with powerful storytelling techniques. As we continue to explore new ways of integrating technology into filmmaking processes in the years to come, it will be exciting to see how innovative approaches to interviewing will further advance this field.

I am a highly experienced film and media person who has a great deal to offer to like-minded individuals. Currently working on several exciting projects, I am a film and media practitioner for over a decade. I have achieved a great deal of success in my professional career.


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Author – Dennis

am a highly experienced film and media person who has a great deal to offer to like-minded individuals. Currently working on several exciting projects,

I am a film and media practitioner for over a decade. I have achieved a great deal of success in my professional career.