How to Make an Award-Winning Documentary

Interview by Hebe Dobson-Mouawad

Hear ye, hear ye! Submissions are officially open for Suffolk Shorts 2020!

With that in mind, one of our Best Documentary Award judges, Tracey Gardiner, sheds some light on what makes an award-winning documentary. As executive producer with over twenty years’ experience, Tracey Gardiner certainly knows what makes a great documentary. In fact, she can sum it up in four words:

‘a fresh new perspective’.

She’s talking about giving the audience a glimpse into a world you haven’t seen. Or showing you a world that you have seen a million times but from a different perspective. So that there’s a sense of freshness.


Gardiner also feels a sense of narrative is vital. She is convinced that the most important thing is to tell a good story with good characters. She cites For Sama, the critically acclaimed Syrian war film, directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, which last week also became the most nominated documentary in BAFTA history. The documentary has received 58 awards since its world premiere in March last year.

Waad al-Kateab started documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News in January 2016, while living in a makeshift hospital run by her doctor husband. Her short news films received almost half a billion views online and For Sama has been nominated for an Academy Award in the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ category.

‘In the end the technology doesn’t really matter. The most incredible story – that is what’s going to pull you in.’

Gardiner’s production company Iridescent Films recently co-produced feature doc 100 Men. Award-winning films she has worked on include: Keys to the Castle (Scottish BAFTA and RTS), How M&S Lost its Millions (Wincott Award – Best Documentary) and Send Me Somewhere Special (the Grierson Newcomer Award).

Keys to the Castle

Gardiner also teaches university students how to make documentaries and journalistic films. From all the student documentaries that she has seen, Gardiner attests that the ones that have worked have three intrinsic components.

‘Good characters in contained environments and some jeopardy. If you can get those three elements, you’re onto something.’

Behind the scenes - 100 Men
Behind the scenes – 100 Men

A long connection with Suffolk

In joining the Best Documentary Jury, Gardiner unites two of her passions: documentaries and Suffolk. Having had a long family connection to the area, she moved to Suffolk for a couple of years when completing an MA at the University of East Anglia. Despite having to be in London for work, she still has a home on the Suffolk coast.

Gardiner relishes the opportunity to be a part of a festival encouraging people to not only make short films, but to do so in Suffolk.

‘I think there is nothing better for somebody who wants to make films, drama or factual, than to make a short film. It’s the best way to learn.’

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