Documentary films tend to follow a few tried and true paths. They might retell an historic happening in a new way, unpack a social issue, or follow a dramatic event that has a clear beginning and end. Perhaps one of the most tricky types to craft is a character-based story where the film centers around the personal journeys of one or a small handful of subjects. After all, there are so many unknowns with this approach: Can this person really carry a whole film on their backs? Will audiences connect with them in the way you do? How do you know when to ever stop filming someone whose life will likely go on far beyond your production?

"I’d never let a documentary filmmaker film my life, so we have a responsibility to honor the reasons why they wanted to do that."

Despite these uphill battles, my three No Film School podcast guests today each took on this challenge, and the captivating films that resulted each played at DOC NYC last week. Their characters couldn’t be more different—one is the tough guy frontman of a New York hardcore band, one is the first female Sharia Law judge in Palestine, and one is a woman who has started a traveling circus of cats—but the lessons the filmmakers learned and advice they share is surprisingly similar and applies to any filmmaker trying to tell a good story.

In this episode, I sat down during DOC NYC with all three of these directors, Erika Cohn (The Judge), Ian McFarland (Godfathers of Hardcore), and Jacob Feiring (Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats), to discuss how they pulled off their impressive films, and the bravery it takes to embark on such a project both behind and in front of the camera.

Listen to the episode by streaming or downloading from the embedded player above, or find it on iTunes here. 

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This episode was edited by Jon Fusco.