When I watch a film, I always search for a performance, a theme or quote, even a facial expression that provokes within me an emotional response. When this happens and I have some visceral reaction to what is onscreen, I am no longer a receiver of the material only but am engaged in dialogue. The filmmaker has made a personal connection with me and I am offering up my feelings to his or her work in return. We are communicating, now; and the conversation will survive past the film's running time.
Be it a film based on truth, of fiction, a documentary or comic sketch, something in the on screen display must ring true to common experience in order to evoke the type of inner conversation described above. The challenge for the filmmaker is thus connecting with what is real. One could construct a surrealistic technical-masterpiece that makes David Lynch seem primarily concerned with plot, but if there is no connection to the viewer's experience of reality therein, symbolic or otherwise, then an audience's appreciation of the product will likely be minimal.
If the most beautifully painted canvass does not tug on something inside the observer, does it truly shine? Is it beautiful or just well painted, demonstrating expertise in color combination and shading? How do artists reach inside their audience? First, they pull their work outside of themselves, their honesty and passions, and then bare it for the world to see. Building a personal connection through film, then, means building your own personal connection to the material.
When crafting your sets and planning frames and depths, do not forget to film something real. If there is one thing that brings to life an emotion within you, then that will often carry over to the audience and translate into their personal experience as well. This does not necessarily mean finding something specific in common experience that we all go through. Of course this works too, which is why death and love are immensely common in art. But here I am less concerned with those things we all experience firsthand, and am suggesting that you put into your film something that is strongly relatable. Not all of us have experienced racism firsthand, for example, but the reality of racism lives within our common experience, enough so that we can relate to the pain caused by racism and be empathetic. We are not indifferent to the subject matter. We feel something.
Your personal connection to the material does not have to be so concrete an issue as racism, though, or anything that is regularly acknowledged. In fact, the less publicly discussed your personal connection, the better. My ideal form of making a personal connection through film is when it causes the viewer to feel as if they are being spoken to directly, like a good sermon. In such a case, the filmmaker has tapped into some common human-experience that is normally perceived as private or even secret to the individual. This sort of connections is the most personal of all, resulting in the viewer's realization that they are not the only person who does that, thinks that, or went through something similar. They are not alone. Once you find that connection, you can then emphasize it through transitions or other techniques.
Jonny Havey, COO of VP Legacies says “to make a personal connection through art that you have to find yourself in it or figure out why your story matters.” Figuring out why the story matter will avoid the film coming-off as flat. This is a great strategy to ensure you do not end up with a hollow final product, but not entirely necessary. I believe in a process more abstract: a film can matter without one being able to put a finger on why it matters; and you can put yourself into art without finding yourself in it. Again, you must locate a piece of your film that resonates as emotionally valid, meaning something you can relate to enough to care about. This translates to the viewer as truth. They might not know why they feel something for the material or how it relates to them artistically, but nonetheless there they are within it, and it matters.
Roger Deakins states that film is personal because "it's experiencing life." A film fails if it comes off as imaginary. The viewer should forget, momentarily, that they are watching a production. The actors and camera movement must achieve the paradox in which something real is being conveyed through what has been scripted and rehearsed. Always ask yourself during the creative process of filmmaking: how strong is my relation to this work? Am I married to this scene, this line, or can I let it go? Am I friendly with this frame, or does the way it portrays this character speak to who I am within him or her? Ultimately, do not seek to find yourself in the film, just recognize when you appear. Film honestly.