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4 Ways Documentary Filmmaking Can Capture Real-Life Drama

By Sheila Curran Bernard

Documentary filmmakers, no less than dramatic screenwriters, strive to tell strong, often character-driven stories that have a beginning, middle and end, with something at stake, rising tension, and a narrative arc that keeps viewers actively engaged. Unlike dramatists, however, nonfiction filmmakers can't invent characters and plot points, but must instead find them in the raw material of real life. "The documentarist has a passion for what he finds in images and sounds - which always seem to him more meaningful than anything he can invent," wrote media historian Erik Barnouw. "It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself." At the same time, if the film is to be documentary and not propaganda, this creative arrangement must result in work that adheres not only to standards of good storytelling, but also good journalism.

Documentary storytelling does not refer only, or even primarily, to films that are narrated. Observational films - the "fly on the wall" style of work such as Gimme Shelter or Harlan County, U.S.A. - are also story-driven. Story helps define documentary and separate it from visual material that simply documents an actual person, place, or event. You might shoot a wedding or town meeting or a series of interviews, for example, but even if you edit the raw footage for length, what you create is not a documentary. You might set up a camera to record a "day in the life" of a local barbershop and end up with some interesting footage, but until it's been shaped and given meaning by the filmmaker - until it tells a story in some form - it's not a documentary.

This gets us to the issue of subjectivity. Like any form of communication, including journalism, documentary filmmaking involves choice-making on the part of the communicator, and is therefore unavoidably subjective, no matter how balanced or neutral the presentation. Which stories are being told, and why? What information or material is included or excluded? What choices are made concerning style, tone, point of view, and format? In answering these questions, a good documentary filmmaker follows some basic journalistic guidelines - and for good reason. Audiences trust documentaries, and that trust is key to a film's power and relevance. Betray that trust - imply that important events happened in a way that they did not, select only those facts that support your essay, bend the facts in service of a more "dramatic" story - and you've undermined the form and your film. This doesn't mean that you can't present an overt point of view, or, for that matter, that you can't create work that is determinedly neutral. It means that your argument, or neutrality, need to be accurately grounded.

So, how does a documentary filmmaker tell a story with journalistic integrity that nonetheless strives for the dramatic power of a Hollywood feature? There are no hard and fast rules; one of the strengths of documentary filmmaking is its diversity in form and style, from diary films and direct cinema to archival histories, scientific essays, and whodunits. But in seeking to merge the techniques of drama and documentary, a few basics may be applied.

  1. Tell a chronological story, but not necessarily in chronological order.

    Film is a linear medium - the viewer experiences it frame by frame in a sequence that moves forward in time. Real life also moves forward in time, with events pegged to a factual chronology that should be adhered to. But that doesn't mean that as the storyteller, you must present these events in chronological order - in fact, it's often far more dramatic to shake things up a bit. As long as the underlying chronology remains intact, you can enter and exit the story where you like. You can start in the middle, go back to the beginning, catch up with your story and then move ahead to the end. You can start at the end before moving to the beginning to ask, "How did we get here?" You can flash forward or back. You can follow two or sometimes more narrative threads, each with its own structure (as with the dramatic technique of an A, B, and C story). The only thing you can't do is change the important underlying facts.

    Suppose you've unearthed a story in the archives of your local historical society, with the following chronology: A young man becomes engaged; his older brother enlists to fight in World War II; the young man also enlists; their father dies; the young man is shipped overseas, where he learns that his brother has been killed; the young man receives a letter from his fiancée, breaking off their engagement. These events haven't happened in an order that's particularly dramatic, and there's no way to tell, on the surface, which events are linked by cause and effect. It may be that because his brother enlisted, the young man also felt obligated, but there could be other reasons. If you can verify your characters' motivations, whether through records or eyewitnesses, you can state them; otherwise, present the facts and let the audience draw its own conclusions.

    By the same token, you may not rearrange the underlying chronology to imply a more interesting cause and effect. For example, you might be tempted to present the father's death followed by the enlistment of the two sons, to create the impression that they enlisted in his honor. You might want to film a recreation in which the young man, already in uniform, proposes marriage. You might present the fiancée's letter in voice-over as the young man enlists, implying that he's reacting to the break-up. But you can't, because each of these options leads the audience to a false understanding of cause and effect. (In other words, you can't combine the facts to create something that's false.) So what can you do? You might start your film at the dramatic moment when the young man is rejected by his fiancée, and then reveal that this is another in a string of losses. Leave the father and fiancée out of the story altogether, and focus instead on the two brothers at war. Tell the story of the young man going to war and then look back at the story of his engagement. There's plenty of room for creativity.

    There will be some scenes and sequences that fall outside the chronology, either because they happen routinely (skateboard practice, Sunday church, an annual holiday), or because they're filmed for the purpose of advancing the film's themes and ideas (for example, Michael Moore opening a bank account in Bowling for Columbine). In general, these may be used as needed to build your story.

  2. Use shots and sequences to tell a story.

    As in a dramatic feature, a documentary's shots, scenes, and sequences can all convey narrative information, about time, place, events, people, emotion, point of view, and more. The better you know your story before you shoot, the better prepared you'll be to find visuals that serve that story - and the more you'll avoid spending too much time and money on spectacular photography that doesn't convey much. If your documentary is about the difficulty of getting into college and you're following a high school student named Sarah, for example, you could film her prom - it's certainly visual - but you'd get much more storytelling use out of a sequence in which she studies for and takes her SATs, waits by the mailbox for results, and then plans and carries out her resulting course of action.

    Knowing a baseline story doesn't mean that the process of filming isn't full of discovery; the best documentaries evolve in ways the filmmakers can't anticipate. But having a focus reduces the possibility that you will shoot hours of material and finding that most of it doesn't serve the story you finally decide to tell. It also helps to avoid the risk that most of what you shoot will be 'b-roll" or "wallpaper" - images that are vaguely related to the topic and are often used to "cover" a string of talking heads and narration. In moderation, b-roll can be useful, but it can also be a weak alternative to images that specifically and dynamically advance your story. With planning, you'll find the images, music, sounds effects, voice-over, and other elements you need as you layer together a story that's rich and satisfying. (Care must be taken with the juxtaposition of words, sounds, and images, however: If you cut from someone saying, "Well, who was responsible for it?" to a shot of Mr. Smith, you are creating the impression that Mr. Smith was responsible. If Mr. Smith was not responsible, this cut would have to go - you are again using facts to create a falsehood.)

  3. Present information when it best serves the story.

    If you give away too much information too soon, important details will be lost or their significance missed. Like a good dramatist, you want to introduce characters and seed information in a way that allows the viewer to anticipate the story and its tensions, and ultimately, to resolve them, hopefully before the film does (allowing the viewer the satisfaction of "getting it" and enjoying what's known as an "aha!" moment). An example of a film that successfully balances an underlying chronology with detailed supporting information is Daughter from Danang, which was broadcast on PBS's The American Experience. The film starts with a tease: an American-Vietnamese woman is going to be reunited with the mother who gave her up for adoption years earlier. The first third (roughly) of the film offers information leading up to that moment of reuniting; from there on, the film follows a present-time chronology of the reunion. But interwoven with that drama are additional details about the past, adding complexity and tension to the events as they unfold on screen. Because these details are presented later in the story, they resonate more deeply. As viewers, we become aware - before the mother and daughter - that the stakes of this reunion may be impossibly high.

    Presenting information as its serves the story also means omitting information. No film can tell everything; too many details can overwhelm and confuse the audience. Be careful, however, that your selection of details does not also involve "cherry picking" - selecting only those facts that suit your purposes and omitting others that contradict or weaken your argument, so that audiences come away with an imbalanced and inaccurate version of the full story. Better to focus your story, present all relevant evidence, and trust the audience to make its own, informed decision.

  4. Enter late, exit early.

    In documentary as in drama, you need to collapse real time into its essence. Careful shooting and editing allow you to use a minimal amount of screen time to convey a maximum amount of information. You want to enter a scene as late as possible, and leave as early as possible. This doesn't mean chopping the heart out of a scene or losing its context; it means figuring out what is the most meaningful part of that scene, and what is just treading water on screen. Suppose you've filmed a direct cinema sequence in which a mother goes to the grocery store, chats with a neighbor or two, fusses with the butcher over a choice cut of meat, waits in line at the checkout counter, drives home, prepares a meal, calls her college-age daughter to the table, and then watches as her daughter storms off, angry that her mother has not respected the fact that she is a vegetarian - a fact that the mother says she didn't know. How do you cut this into a few minutes of screen time?

    The answer depends on what the scene is about and how it serves your overall story. If you want to show the mother going to tremendous lengths to please her daughter, the grocery store scene is a useful part of an overall sequence that ends with the daughter's rejection. If you're hoping to explore the chasm between mother and daughter and their inability to communicate even basic information, the time in the grocery store is not as important as what happens after the daughter is called to the table, and you might reduce a long sequence to a single scene: the daughter is called to the table, dinner is served, and she storms off.

    The amount of time you give to a scene is also important; some scenes may be granted greater emotional (or intellectual) weight than others. For example, you might spend two minutes of screen time bringing the audience up to date on ten years of history prior to a candidate's decision to run for office, and then spend the next forty-five minutes on an eight-month campaign. You've collapsed the first part of the chronological story in order to focus more time on the drama of the campaign itself.

Documentary storytelling does not refer specifically or only to writing (and in fact, documentaries are rarely scripted before shooting, although a shooting treatment - a blueprint for production that outlines the story and its main components - is highly useful). Instead, it describes the organic approach to story and structure that begins from the moment an idea is conceived and continues through development, production and post-production. Documentary filmmakers, no less than their counterparts in Hollywood, routinely address story issues: "Who are my characters? What do they want? What if they don't get it? What are the stakes? Where is the tension? Where is the story going? What is my story about - do the parts add up to something greater than the whole?" The only difference is that they can't invent the answers.

Meet the Author: Sheila Curran Bernard