Documentaries: The Cameras that Save Lives

Picture of By Ninke Boshuizen

By Ninke Boshuizen

Last week, I saw the award-winning documentary “Shadow Game”. The film follows multiple teenage refugees who are seeking for some protection in Europe. It got me wondering, what is the impact of documentaries? And how do you get to filming a documentary in the first place? Can filming the struggles of people save their lives?

Source: Witfilm Projects

How can you make a documentary?

When talking about documentaries, the first question that pops up is, how do you even begin to make such a film? When I looked at the teenagers in the documentary being filmed I wondered, how did they do this? Did they plan their shooting days? Or did the director just show up one day with a camera and start filming?

When I did some research on this topic I found out that both options are possible when making a documentary. If you have the time and equipment to do so, you can certainly go somewhere and start filming. Some documentary producers pick a topic, find an interesting location and just start filming hoping the story will follow from there. In most cases however, this is not possible. Most documentary makers need to have a certain funding or contract before they will take the risk of starting to shoot their material. In this case, they will often need a well thought out plan that includes the researched main characters and also roughly the path they are going to follow with these characters.


With most documentaries, the makers will try to balance the good research and the flexibility of the moment as well as possible. For the film Shadow Game, good research was almost impossible to conduct, since the refugees had to leave at very unexpected moments. Therefore, it was also not possible to film too many days in a row. The making of this film turned out to be three years of improvising. When there were illegal borders to be crossed, the film makers were not even able to follow the documentary’s main characters. The boys had to film their routes themselves with their mobile phones.


You obviously want to do more than just filming, but that is impossible when you want to make a good documentary.

One of the main differences between making a fiction film and a documentary would be, in my opinion,  the engagement with the ‘characters’. When the people you are filming are real life people, I can imagine it would be hard to see them struggle. Especially when you are tackling a difficult subject like poverty, inequality or in this case, refugees looking for some sort of shelter. When you follow people like these, it is important to keep in mind that to tell your story all you can do is film their struggle. You cannot just give them the tools to fix their problem. If you would do this, there wouldn’t be a story to tell anymore. For some documentary makers, like the makers of Shadow Game, this can be hard. In an interview one of the makers, Els van Driel, has said that she is also human, and not only a journalist. You obviously want to do more than just filming, but that is impossible when you want to make a good documentary. It is hard to not just buy the teenagers you are filming a plane ticket, or help them in some other way than filming. When making documentaries, the balance of caring for your protagonists and leaving them to solve their own problems is one I can imagine to be quite hard at some points.

What is it all for?

When hearing that no more help could be offered than making a documentary about a struggle you might wonder, then what is this all for? What is the impact of documentaries and why is it so important to show your struggle in a film?

The answer is simple, documentaries hold the power to change the world. When done rightly, documentaries offer the perfect content to make people connect with the world. There is a possibility of connecting people that would, otherwise, maybe never meet in real life. It holds the power to link real life people to problems we might otherwise perceive them to be distant. Making struggles relatable and sensible can be the solution to help people understand a problem properly.

Major impact

Not many people go to refugee camps to see what kind of problems people are facing nowadays, but they might watch a movie.

When people are touched by a documentary, chances are high that they are now motivated to do something about the problem. It is therefore no surprise that more and more documentary filmmakers set up an impact project with their releasing films. Handing people the exact things they can do or change can help create a real impact in the world through documentaries.

The makers of Shadow Game have also thought about the impact they would like to make. When you go to their website, you immediately see that you can sign a manifest. They want to let the main characters of the movie speak in the European Parliament. They even feature a whole page on their website that is titled ‘what can you do?’ that offers everything you can do to help.

With tools like this, I believe that documentaries can really help save people in this world. They can offer a connection, a real understanding of a problem and the right options to help immediately. The impact of documentaries can reach wide, since so many people watch them. Reaching an audience with a film is so much easier than getting people to come and see problems in real life. Not many people go to refugee camps to see what kind of problems people are facing nowadays, but they might watch a movie. Documentaries can therefore be a great motivator for people to care about societal issues. When you get people to care about issues and you hand them the right tools to help, big changes can be made. In this case, future refugees might get more help because of all the actions taken after the film. This way, documentary makers hold cameras that can save lives.

 Cover: Adil 

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