5 Ways To Conduct Better Documentary Interviews

I’ve planned the whole day for this, but my hands still quiver. I have my laptop set up on a cardboard box, open to Zoom, awaiting my first interviewee of the day. Interview questions sit to my right, along with an introduction script to prevent me from blanking mid-sentence. Ask them about their day, thank them for their time, and find something to flatter them about. That should get the ball rolling.I’m about to interview sex-workers about the obstacles they’ve faced during COVID. The last thing I want is for them to share how they’ve been hustling harder than ever to make ends meet, and have nothing to respond besides, “That’s rough.” I want to properly value their time, and allow them to talk comfortably about sensitive topics. As I rewatch my interviews, I make note of how to handle future interviews with more grace and empathy.

  1. 1. If you’re empowered, they’re empowered

    I notice that I ask some of my questions quite hesitantly. I honestly was afraid to ask some of my questions forthright. How much do you make a night? How did your family find out you’re a stripper? However, when I ask questions with confidence, I’m more likely to get a confident answer. Garnering confidence is easier said than done, but here’s one piece of advice that consistently steadies me: “There’s no difference between being brave and pretending to be brave.” (Martha Beck

  2. 2. Go deep, not wide

    I’m struggling to pull substantial answers from an interviewee, until she mentions a huge stigma around sex work in her hometown. While I have a bunch of different topics to cover, I have to remind myself that I’m digging for a singular story. I ask her how her parents found out she was a stripper, and how she’s shed that stigma around sex work herself. We run out of time for other topics, but we’ve tapped into where she has rich stories to tell. 

  3. 3. Empathize like Oprah

    Even if the last words of an interviewees’ answer were, “We are just not treated like human beings,” I’d move right on to asking, “And what’s the best part of your job?.” Like whoa, if my friend unloaded something heavy onto me, I’d sit with their answer, and try to show them I paid attention to everything they said. I know Oprah would form some beautifully empathetic responses in these situations. I make note to acknowledge what my interviewees say by affirming or recounting their answers before moving on. 

  4. 4. Let it be a conversation

    As I progress throughout interviews, I focus on letting the conversation emerge organically rather than reading questions off a list. If something an interviewee mentions in their answer makes me think of another question, I jump to that and expand. I want them to feel like I just want to get to know them, because I do!

  5. 5. Wrap it up

    You need to incorporate aftercare–and I don’t mean the kind in a sex worker's job repertoire. After an interviewee answered their last question, I’d just say, “And we’re at the end of the interview! Thanks so much for your time, bye!” I’d sign off Zoom feeling like something was missing. In future interviews, I resolve to wrap up interviews with a brief conclusion. I want the interviewees to know I’ve taken in their every word and genuinely learned something from them–because I did.

As I write this, I have an interview with a dominatrix in a half hour. Totally not intimidated! I try to keep what I’ve learned in mind, and give myself the permission to make more mistakes. I let my focus shift from worrying about what could go wrong, to the opportunity I have to engage in another gripping conversation.