Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Mental Health: The Hidden Struggle Among Documentarians. Podcast

This week, to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of my newsletter, I’m stepping outside my business focus to explore a very unsettling topic:

  • Why do so many in the documentary community struggle with mental illness?
  • Why is it that depression and even suicides among our colleagues are not unexpected?

My podcast guests are MARJAN SAFINIA, an award-winning Iranian documentary filmmaker based in LA.  Until 2018, Marj served as Board President of the IDA – the International Documentary Association.

DOUG BLOCK is a veteran, NYC-based producer-director, and founder and co-host of the D-Word, the world’s foremost online community for documentary professionals.

It was the off-the-charts response to the D-Word‘s recent coverage of the mental stresses of working in the documentary genre that motivated me to invite Marj and Doug to join me for this pod-versation.

Podcast: Listen to Marjan Safinia & Doug Block (31′)

More on Marj & Doug

Marjan Safinia‘s films examine issues of identity, community and social justice. Her work has been supported by IDA Enterprise Fund and Sundance Institute, and she is a Sundance Catalyst Fellow. She is a co-host of the D-Word online documentary community. Read about Marj here.

Doug Block is a veteran, NYC-based producer-director who is internationally recognized as a master of the personal documentary form (51 Birch Street, The Kids Grow Up, 112 Weddings). Join the D-Word and read about Doug here.

Share / Seek Help

  • We aren’t qualified counselors.
  • If you, our listeners are struggling, we hope that you can share your feelings with friends and colleagues.
  • Seek professional help so that you can develop the resilience that will help you overcome your challenges.

More Reading

Realscreen’s Barry Walsh on the Looking Glass study: “There is a mental health crisis within the UK film and TV industry:

Based on a survey of more than 9,000 industry professionals, “workers within the UK film and television community are twice as likely to experience anxiety compared to the national average, and workers are three times more likely to have self-harmed compared to the national average. Perhaps most troubling — over half of the workers surveyed have considered taking their own life, compared to a rate of one-fifth nationally, and one in 10 have attempted to do so.

  • Here’s a clip related to the study that Marj recommends:

Podcast Associate Producer: Becca Wallance

Documentary Production Roadmap

Podcast Highlights


  • A long time and dear member of the D-Word community committed suicide, shocking the community
    • This was the catalyst for looking further into how mental illness is plaguing the documentary industry
    • There is a need to elevate the conversation as a crisis, and not just speak about it within the community
  • Shocked by how many very depressed filmmakers there are
    • Reflects the overall lack of sustainability in the profession
  • When D-Word opened a conversation on mental illness, there were 200 new registrants and posts from members – people are clearly interested and invested
  • Everybody goes by their real name on the D-Word, closed to the public, but no anonymity within the community


  • There is a lot of stigma around mental illness- don’t want funders or distributors to know where your weakness or vulnerabilities are because it makes you less hire-able
    • We were surprised by how ready people were to share
    • Set the tone for people to feel safe in this community and forum
    • People couldn’t wait to tell their stories
    • Worldwide reaction
  • Mental illness within the documentary industry is a systemic problem, it is not singular or anecdotal- ecosystem where the filmmaker takes the brunt of a lot of risk and inequities
  • Rebecca Day, based in the UK, was a critical partner in this dialogue and project
    • Former documentarian turned mental health professional

Contributing Factors

  • Underlying conditions in the documentary industry and documentary distribution that lend themselves to a rise in mental illness:
    • Dark subject matter and characters- often in endangered locations (war zones)
    • Documentarians care deeply about their subjects, become invested.
    • They face ethical issues about how far you can go and how much you can intervene in their lives
      • So busy taking care of the subjects, forget to care about yourself
    • Timeline- long time to plan, shoot, edit, wait for funding- can take years of your life
      • Documentaries take a LONG time, and the lengthy process is associated with failure (“you’re not done yet?”, “you’re still working on your documentary?”)
      • Even happy documentaries take a long time and are costly
    • Constant re-traumatizing during the editing process- vicarious trauma is absorbed repeatedly
    • The skill set that makes a good documentarian (compassion, empathy) is the same skill set that can cause a struggle with mental illness
    • Feeling that the system is rigged because without a celebrity attached or a powerful producer, it is difficult to get a festival to even screen the project
    • We live in an ecosystem where value is determined as money and exposure- begin to devalue yourself if you don’t have those things
    • Feeling of judgement from family members and friends

Zeitgeist vs Hard Reality

  • The documentary is in the zeitgeist as the most attractive art form that one can be a part of in the early 21st Century
    • More labor intensive and costly than many previous popular and highly-respected art forms
  • Broadcaster/screener’s best interest is to have a lot of choice:
    • They don’t care if a documentarian has worked on a project for 6, 8 or 10 years.
    • The buyers have little interest in the sustainability and progression of the documentarian’s career.
    • That’s unlike the Scripted sector, where buyers come to Sundance to spot talent that they can help shape for their next, hopefully breakout film.
  • Scarcity problem- there’s not enough financial support for such a large-scale documentary sector.
    • There is always a line of people who want to make documentaries because they are reacting to issues and opportunities that they are passionate about. That doesn’t mean that all these producers can successfully bring their programs to a wide audience

Last Word

  • Don’t bury the secret or perpetuate the stigma of depression, there is so much shame around mental health and admission of mental illness
    • Reach out to friends, families, colleagues, mental health resources
    • The D-Word is meant to support and be a sounding board within the profession.

Becca Wallance