Five Ways to Give Constructive Criticism

by Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director of Docs In Progress

Docs In Progress was founded upon the principle of helping documentary filmmakers through the power of constructive criticism.  Since our very first work-in-progress screening in 2004, we have welcomed the general public to be a part of this process by facilitating a feedback session following the screening of documentary rough cuts.


Recently we had an experience at one of these screenings where a member of the audience broke the golden rule of all Docs In Progress programs -- to be constructive even when being critical.   While we were able to get back on track and many other audience members provided truly helpful feedback, it was a jarring experience for all in attendance -- the filmmaker, the rest of the audience, and me as a facilitator.  While this may be an abberration (after all, this has happened only once or twice in nine years of helping more than 100 filmmakers move forward with their works-in-progress), it made me reflect more on the elements which make up effective constructive critique for unfinished documentaries.

(1) Understand the Context

For those of you who are regular attendees of our work-in-progress screenings, you know that we show an eclectic group of films.  The topics vary widely. Most are by first- or second-time filmmakers, though we have also shown works by award-winning filmmakers and student work.  Sometimes we show films which are close to picture lock and just need that last reality check from an audience before they start submitting to festivals.  Sometimes we show films which are true "rough cuts," prior to sound mixes, music, and sometimes still missing an ending.

The key is that we show films where we believe general audience feedback would help the filmmaker move forward.  Some filmmakers have been working for many years on a project and are so close to the material that they need an audience of people they don't know to see and respond to the film.  Sometimes they may come with very specific questions about something in the cut which is not working.  They are exposing unfinished work to an audience for a reason.  We as an audience meet them where they are.

(2) Don't Focus on Like/Dislike

As much as our online lives have created more opportunities for sharing, interaction, and feedback, they have also unfortunately conditioned us to simplified responses of Yes or No.  Constructive criticism is about as far away from a "Like Button" as you can get.  At the same time, it is not the same as ranting comments on blogs masked behind the anonymity of the online experience.  This is one of the reasons we don't ask our audiences to think about whether they liked or didn't like something in a film, but instead to focus on questions like:

What stood out to you in terms of the story, a character, etc.?

Was there anything that confused you?

Was there anything you wanted to know more about?

What do you think this film was about? 

(3) Praise where praise is due, but not excessively.

Author W. Somerset Maugham wrote that "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” Indeed this can sometimes be the case.  We are conditioned as humans to want other humans to respond positively to us as individuals, and many artists cannot fully detach themselves from their creative works.  We all have been there when a filmmaker seemed ready to defend each and every editorial decision when receiving feedback from an audience.  It is much easier said than done to take my advice to just listen and make some notes rather than responding to the audience.  However, filmmakers who truly want no feedback would have no reason to submit their film to Docs In Progress.

The role of the audience through the facilitator is to provide feedback aimed at helping the filmmaker see how the film is perceived through the eyes of others.  The role is not to be excessively harsh, but neither is it to overpraise.  Afterall too much sugarcoating just leads to cavities...and we don't want that in our teeth or in our films.

(4) Put the "Constructive" in "Constructive Criticism"

It may seem to be a bit of an anomaly to think about criticism in this way.  Afterall, the dictionary definition of "criticism" emphasizes that it is about expressing disapproval.   However being constructive is about building something up, not about tearing it down.  Thinking back to the sugarcoating metaphor, we may not want feedback to be too sugary, but neither do we want it to taste like vinegar.

Even when expressing that you were confused by the structure of a film or perhaps a character didn't resonate with you because he or she was not fully developed, what the filmmaker needs to know is where you were confused or which character didn't resonate with you and why, as opposed to just receiving negative feedback which doesn't convey any potential for the filmmaker to take an action to hone the film.

(5) Resist Specific Suggestions of What to Shoot/How to Edit

OK, I will admit that even I have broken this rule.  Fellow artists often respond to art by thinking about how we would make that art.  We will often provide seemingly helpful suggestions like "Why don't you move that shot to the beginning?"  "You should go back and film some more of X."  "What if you use narration instead of title cards?" "Why don't you bring yourself in as a character?"  Too many of these kinds of suggestions can be counterproductive - the filmmaker will usually respond in one of two ways: becoming so overwhelmed trying to incorporate each and every suggestion (even when they contradict each other) or ignoring all of it.

This is one of the reasons these screenings  work best when there is a mix of fellow filmmakers and non-filmmakers.  It is important to get feedback from people who may not understand film language, but know where they were most focused/moved/confused/alienated/inspired by a film and its subjects.  The mix of feedback works well 99% of the time.

Even if you are organizing your own private screening rather than a big public one, it may be helpful to think about these suggestions. I would also invite you to share your own thoughts on what makes up effective constructive criticism.

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