Over the years, I've had the opportunity to judge a number of documentary film competitions - a process in which a committee reviews both short and long-form films with the goal of choosing one or just a few of the best for special recognition.
Subjects and trends change from year to year, of course. Historical anniversaries and world events generate clusters of docs on subjects ranging from 9/11 to World War II, and soon, I'm sure, the Arab Spring of revolution and regime-change and the Japanese earthquake/Tsunami.
In any competition, quality ranges from the unwatchable to the emotionally stunning. Wonderful ideas that are poorly executed contrast with poor concepts and superior production value. You can usually tell in the first five minutes that a particular film won't be a contender.
Here, in no particular order are just a few of my favorite basic flaws seen in documentary film competitions:
1 - A poor script / Poor structure: It sometimes seems as if filmmakers forget that, above all, they are storytellers - and the rules of good storytelling are consistant across the ages. Above all, engage your audience - and engage them right away. Once they lose interest, they're gone.
2 - Poor Camerawork - While modern, low-cost digital equipment has democratized the filmmaking process, there are surprisingly few who understand that there is an art to creating a quality image. Basic rules of composition and even focus are ignored. Backlit interview subjects - shots in which the background behind is so overexposed that it's washed out to a solid white - are particularly disturbing. Poor lighting is another frequent visual crime.
3 - Poor location sound - It's extraordinary how many films are shot with little thought to quality audio. While modern cameras have on-board microphones, they're not meant to be a replacement for the quality of a boom microphone or lavalier mic on a subjects clothing.
4 - Poor subjects - Finding the right subject (person or topic) for a documentary is just as important as casting a narrative film. It's also quite possible to take a great subject and alienate an audience through poor presentation.
6 - Poor narration - You've seen this, I'm sure: A documentary in which the narrator informs the audience that "Bob was very surprised," followed by a shot of Bob informing us, in nearly the same words, "I was very surprised." Too often, filmmakers use narration to hit the viewer over the head with a mallet to get their point across.
7 - Inappropriate Length - I wouldn't be exaggerating to state that perhaps 90% of feature documentaries should be short films.