Documentary director Nanfu Wang has made films that make extreme demands on her physical safety. Learn how she approaches dangerous situations, mitigating risk, and understanding why brave stories need to be told.
Documentary filmmaking can sometimes mean stepping into dangerous situations. Some basic first steps to telling a dangerous story are:
- Make sure you fully understand the level of risk
- Make sure your subjects fully understand the risk
- Work with people you trust
- Understand the environment as much as possible
- Be measured in your approach - don’t take unnecessary risks
- If you need to film something where a more traditional camera setup may put yourself or others in danger, engineer a way to have a smaller footprint (for example, use a non-professional camera, or skip the sound gear and tripod).
- Have contingency plans- know where to go and who to contact if you get into trouble.
- In Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu would break down her camera when she thought the police might be present
- In I Am Another You, Nanfu had a system for making sure her equipment didn’t get stolen at night.
- Keep your footage secure. Know how you are going to store your footage and how you will safely get it back home - shooting footage that cannot be accessed negates the whole point of shooting the story.
- Your story and what it requires from you may shift as events unfold - be flexible and diligent. Know when to keep going and know when to stop. Always assess the risk.
- Understand why you’re filming and have a plan for its social impact - for example, Hooligan Sparrow called attention to the imprisonment of its subjects as part of a larger civil message.
- Find a way to relieve stress and process your emotions. For Nanfu, filming a video diary was a way to preserve her safety while taking the edge off of stressful, isolating experiences.
- If you choose to pursue a dangerous story, you’ll need to manage your fear so that you can complete the work and share it with the world. But only pursue this work if you have the right support systems in place to help mitigate the risks you’re taking.
- Dangerous work can be difficult, but use your passion as fuel to keep moving forward. Be brave: your story needs to be shared.
Nanfu Wang is a Chinese filmmaker based in New York City. Wang’s feature debut HOOLIGAN SPARROW premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016 and was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Her second feature documentary I AM ANOTHER YOU premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2017.