Documentary Storytelling

This article is a section of my MA Dissertation - Copyrighted by me, strictly no reproduction, even in a modified form, without permission.

5) A Good Story Well Told

In the previous sections we discussing what I would referred to as story plumbing, the fundamental building blocks used to construct story. This section aims to talk about what makes good story; how do we turn these fundamentals into something which is really human. “'Good story' means something worth telling that the world wants to hear.” (McKee 199:20). “It is easy to tell people what a story is; it's very difficult to tell a story. When films tell stories, when they engage you in the process of story, then they work. (Burns)” (Bernard 2011:258).

For McKee it is the telling of the story, not the theme or subject, which is of primary importance. “Given the choice between trivial material really well told versus profound material badly told, the audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.” (McKee 1999:28) For McKee good story has many facets, for me two which seem particularly poignant documentary are:

  • A fascination with the sudden surprise revelation that bring major
    changes in life
  • A healthy suspicion that things are not as they seem (McKee 1999:21).

People don't want to see a statement. They want to see action. And action is a fight; its people fighting for what they want, and you don't know who's going to win. That's why people watch sport. For example, MAN ON WIRE (2008), we
know that Philip Pettit is going to successfully walk across the World Trade Towers, but if you break that into separate battles of his achieving that, you don't know how each thing is going to turn out.(Kim)
” (Bernard 2011:305)

The majority of the writer's labour goes into designing story. Who are the characters? What do they want? Why do I want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these questions and shaping them into story is the overwhelming creative task in drama (McKee 1999:19) These are also the key questions in documentary, and wherever possible the fundamentals of drama should also be applied.

Cohesiveness and Clarity

Obscurity is seldom a virtue, if a point is worth making them there's no harm in making it clearly. “To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film” wrote Truffaut. Failing to make a point clearly is likely to irritate and confuse an audience, because the audience need expository information in order to appreciate and understand the situation and characters they are presented with. Failing to do so may drastically weaken the audience’s enjoyment of the story. “Clarity is the communication of essentials and the exclusion of the non-essential” (Mackendrick 2004:32). There are various levels in a story but I feel you need a backbone, which is something that is easy to understand. “Even in the most experimental film you want something that the audience can connect to” (Bini B7) .

I always like to think 'If I was the audience what questions would I want answering?' and try to answer these questions “Yes I think that's a good way of looking at it, I don't think I consciously do that, like make out a list of questions, but definitely that was going through my mind. Especially on clarity issues” (Bini B5).

I see a big relationship between clarity and cohesiveness. I see cohesiveness being created through clarity. For real cohesiveness you need to be clear on all significant elements, and if an element is not significant it should not be in the story. This means you need to be clear about everything. Therefore, the more you try to bend the truth for your needs, the less cohesive you story becomes, and as the waters get muddied your story loses power.

“One thing I have learned is you can never be too simple” (Meech B22) “but to get to the simple that can be a very complex process, you can tie itself in knots. It's being deceptively simple I think that's key. Nothing just falls into place like that. But that's the real skill as well; known what to leave out and know which stories to leave out.” (Flextone B16).

Building Narrative

You can start with scenes that you think might be problematic, so you know if you can make them work, (Flextone B10) or with the characters, as that is where the story is, “Its a no brainier.” (Atkins A14) This involves cutting the sync  first, some call it the radio edit. “It’s really about getting the narrative through laid down, as the first thing from beginning to end, and that would be the first assembly without paying much attention to the visual side of it.” (Hankin A14) if you are not sure about what the structure is, one approach is to do the first assembly chronologically. “I just want to get it down, get my arms around the story, chronologically before experimenting with any other type of structural approach.” (Hankin A14). Using Paper Edits to plan a film from transcripts tends to lead to a film stuffed with wall-to-wall talking but by using
some visual material in the first assembly something different can happen (Rabinger 2009:216)

If anything can be removed, and the story still works, you should almost certainly remove it. “I love this bit, I love what they do, I love what they say, ... but do we need it, will we miss it. Then you take it out of you look at it and you don't miss any go home, that flows so much better.” (Flextone B16).

Great tools for helping with this are post-it notes, transcripts and chronologies.

The Poetic not Accountants truth

Documentary for many if not most, is the search for truth, Cinema Verité, but which truth? Herzog argues that “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth” stating “It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” but “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.“ (Herzog 1999).

Sometimes [I have an argument] with people in the audience who stand up and say, ‘why don't you just give it to us straight? Why don't you take out all this junk? ‘I feel like what they're really asking me to do is to show somebody at a blackboard with a pointer (Gibney).” (Bernard 2011:287) What Gibney is referring to here is what Bernard refers to as ‘chalk and talk' films, which tend to be dry, heavily narrated, filled with facts and painful to sit through (Bernard 2011:1).

To understand the need to go beyond is the ‘accountants truth‘ and into the ‘poetic truth' we can look at Mackendrick example of filming dancers. “The results may be a record of a fine piece of dancing, it will most probably be unsatisfactory when presented as a substitute for the experience of live and present dancers” (Mackendrick 2004:xxxivvv) And beyond even poetic art “the greatest work is ultimately interactive because it causes you to think and argue, and it doesn't necessarily give you a sealed package. (Kin)” (Bernard 2011:302).

It seems fitting that Aristotle refers to the Storyteller as The Poet. (Aristotle 1779:35).