3 Rules for Making a More Cinematic Documentary from 'Purgatorio' Director Rodrigo Reyes

Trying to make a cinematic experience out of shooting subjects and locations on the fly can be very challenging. But if you set rules for yourself and follow them, you can be on your way to making a documentary that advances storytelling just as much as any narrative.

Rodrigo Reyes first sat down with No Film School at the Los Angeles Film Festival to explain how strict rules helped him create what Variety called a "starkly beautiful documentary ode to the netherworlds surrounding the U.S.-Mexico barrier" in his documentary debut Purgatorio. Check out three takeaways from our interview for the film, which is finally out for your viewing please on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon!

Decide on Strict Shooting Rules

While many people think of documentary as an anything-goes realm of cinematography, it doesn't have to be. Deciding how you want to capture your images and sticking to that no matter what is one way your documentary can become a more cinematic story. According to Rodrigo:

We set up rules and that helped me a lot. The absence of limitations is the worst enemy, right? According to Orson Welles at least. So we set up limitations for our shoot on how to capture a moment. Most of us have a tendency to grab the camera, and just get as close to the action as possible, and just get everything. I decided what I needed was to lock it down, force myself to compose a shot, and make a commitment to the point-of-view in the scene. At the end of the day, it worked because it gave the film a homogenous style...This isn’t a slight against handheld, but [for this film] I didn’t want the camera adding emotion to the frame.

Script Out Your Characters Before You Find Them

While you can't know who your characters will be and how they will behave when you capture them, you can sketch them out ahead of time in order to give the documentary the creative freedom you would get with a rough script.

Documentarians are not supposed to used a script anymore, they are supposed to go out and find a story. I did the opposite. I scripted it all out. I knew i would have four weeks, and I know it would take four weeks to get certain archetypes. Those archetypes are two-dimensional on paper, but once you get out there, you leave them breathing room so they can become a complete character.

Don't Chase the Facts

You don't have to take a political position on your subject, and you don't have to be a moving fact sheet.

Right now the most interesting films being made that are advancing the form are documentaries...they are films with many different points of view about our reality. The most interesting ones are the ones driven by ideas. "We want to explore this, have this conversation, go into this world." Why chase the facts?

Thank you, Rodrigo!

If you want to hear more about the production, watch our original interview with Rodrigo Reyes, and check out Purgatorio for yourself to ruminate on your own rules for making a compelling, visually coherent documentary.     

Your Comment


Interesting article! Definitely some good advice, I just find it hard to compose shots when things are happening right in front of you and if you don't hit record you'll miss it.

July 19, 2015 at 2:14PM

Austin Crow

Austin I am beginning to delve into documentary too and seem to stumble upon the same issue sometimes. What I am learning though is a few rules.
1. Be there early
2. Engage your subject allow them to understand what you're doing ask them to either
a. Wait until your ready
b. Do what they just did again.
If you cant do that then well just shoot it. The rules Rodrigo offers are great but they cant always apply. However look at VICE I think they capture great cinematic "doc" style work and a lot of the reason they can do that is pre planning. But yeah often you just gotta go with it and hit record.

July 20, 2015 at 5:00PM


Awesome thanks!

July 22, 2015 at 9:22AM

Austin Crow

Great article!

July 22, 2015 at 5:41AM