How to Tell Heartfelt Stories in Documentary Films

Benjamin Chesterton tells stories for charities and commercial clients. He reveals his experiences working for BBC, Radio 4 and the World Service, and starting his own production company.

Photo © Benjamin Chesterton

How did you become a filmmaker?

I started out in radio, living and working in a cafe/gallery in Liverpool by day, and by night making little radio features that went out on the local radio station.

Many of the stories I recorded would be about the customers who came into the cafe. They got me noticed, and within a couple of years I was making radio documentaries for the BBC. After 10 years of doing that, including running a charity for the BBC in Ethiopia, I decided to set up duckrabbit. The initial idea was to work with still imagery and documentary audio. Something we called photofilms. But slowly I got sucked into making films. Our big break was a major TV campaign for OXFAM shot in Zimbabwe, and a 3D campaign we shot for Doctors Without Borders in the Congo. Since then we've not looked back.

Tell us about your filmmaking style

Heartfelt, intensely personal storytelling. When you watch a duckrabbit film you should get a sense that the person has really given something of themselves. Topped with a bit of visual bling. But really, story is everything.

What type of films are you most passionate about making?

Telling the stories of people whose voices might not otherwise be heard. Young women like Daphine in the film we made for The International HIV and AIDS Alliance

There's this moment when the person you’ve made the film with watches it back. It's really exciting but it's also terrifying. When you get it right, and have done justice to their story, that's magic.

What makes a good story?

A good storyteller. Who is open and honest and surprising. In film, a strong visual element really helps – interesting action – but most of all someone that makes people laugh or makes people cry.

People are more important than films. Tread gently and kindly, and you'll be fine.

What is so special about storytelling through film?

I think you can get close to someone by looking into their eyes. From being thrown into their world, and out of yours, if only for a moment. That’s very special.

Tell us about a Memorable Assignment

A couple of years ago, we were asked to make a film for one of the Queen’s charities. We were working in Northern Kenya with an eye specialist called Dr Rono. He has helped develop a smartphone app that can be used to diagnose eye problems in remote places where there are no easily accessible health clinics. It was such a buzz to film people diagnosed with the app, taken for surgery and then the next day witness their bandages coming off. I’ll never forget the smiles of people whose sight was returned to them by this amazing doctor.

When he started at the hospital he worked alone with just one nurse, treating fifteen people a day. But slowly, he built a team and last year they treated 20,000 people for avoidable blindness. For me, Dr Rono is a great example of how by caring about the people around you, being motivated and working hard, you can have an incredible impact in this world. I came away inspired, and I keep a photo of him next to my desk.

What tips do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers? 

Make friends with other filmmakers and collaborate. It’s the quickest way to learn. Get yourself a really good pair of shoes. Finally, dream a lot.

Did you have a mentor?

Last year, I went on the filmmaker Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School (a man who claims he never dreams). It was very intense and eye-opening. Herzog is a great. His passion comes through in everything he does. I think his most important mantra is 'Do The Doable'. I printed that out and stuck it on my desk.

See more of Benjamin's work on the duckrabbit website

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1 Comment

  • John Suffield said

    I remember Benjamin Chesterton as a young man fresh out of University. He worked out of a bed sit in Sefton Park, Liverpool helping those who, because of personal circumstances, were unable to help themselves. Quite unknown and without any monetary reward he gave freely of his time helping anyone and everyone to strive for a quality of live that was there for the taking. There are no monuments for people like Benjamin other than the love that lives on in the hearts of those who knew him.

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