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Guerrilla Documentary: Filming Without a Permit

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

On the battlefields of guerilla documentary filmmaking you may need to shoot at a moment's notice. Learn how to go about filming on location without a permit.

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    Stranger Than Fiction

    Real life documentary filming is not usually as restricted to the rules that are placed upon conventional narrative filmmaking. For narrative filmmaking you often have to be on the same location for extended periods of time, which is defined by the time that you decide to be there. Because of this you are the main focal point of the activity at that location. On a documentary you are attempting to capture a natural event, whether it is something like a riot or simply a person walking down the street. For this reason you tend to not be quite as much of a nuisance and therefore less likely to be approached by law enforcement.

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    You Are a Reporter

    News organizations do not need to get a permit usually to shoot in a public location, so keep that in mind when you are out in the field. You have the same right as a citizen to capture news footage as any news organization. If someone attempts to bother you about shooting in public remind them that you are gathering news, which you are doing in the form of a documentary film.

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    Johnny Law

    If a law enforcement officer is bothered by what you are doing and they do not have any legal recourse to stop you from filming they are likely to look for one. Make sure that you are on public land and that you are not blocking any road or pedestrian travel ways. Also make sure that you are not being loud and obtrusive to others in the area otherwise you could be considered a disturbance.

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    On The Road Again

    If you are in the same place for a long period of time, especially if you return several days in a row, you may be asked for a permit. In this case it just important to retain the ability to go mobile at a moment's notice. You will probably just be asked to leave the first couple times after you have over stayed, but after that they may attempt to damage or confiscate you equipment. The second there is unusual attention on your crew you need to communicate with everyone about moving quickly. Create an escape plan well ahead of time if you are going to have to “shoot and run.” If it does look like your equipment is going to get confiscated, or even your footage, make sure to keep a blank dummy tape on board that you can switch with the one in the camera. In this situation you may want to keep the camera running during the whole episode for footage or documentation for legal liability purposes. You may want to put a tiny strip of electrical tape of the red “record” light that is in the front of the camera. This way you will be able to say that you are not recording even when you decide to keep it rolling.

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    The Plan

    Keep in mind that camera equipment is expensive so try and take care when you are trying to leave quickly. The best way to go about this is to plan well ahead of time, shoot everything as quickly as you can, and if it is a chaotic situation you should try and remain as much in the scenery as possible. Since the best documentarians try to become a proverbial “fly on the wall” you should try this for more reasons than one.