Documentary Storytelling

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

6) Conclusion

One thing that becomes clear is that there seem to be documentaries where the classic story structure is present, and there are those which require a different approach, the building of narrative from material. Karel Reisz suggests drama is concerned with creating a plot, but documentary is concerned with the exposition of a theme. (Dancyger 2011:327) Although this is an extreme view for me this is a good approach where a archplot, ainiplot or anitplot can not be found. We should not subvert the material for the sake of finding a traditional story. If one does not exist we should start looking at themes and taking the audience on a journey of discovery, a quest for the truth. Editing by many is seen as putting shots together but with some experience this becomes almost trivial. Where there is no traditional story the real skill is in demonstrating themes, or controlling ideas, by finding them in the material and structuring this material into a new type of ‘acts’. In this case the three part 'act' structure is not one of reversal but deeper and deeper exploring of a theme, the audience as the protagonist, where the reversal is a change in them. I would argue that there is a reversal in the audience . Act One is often exposition and telling the official conservative story. Act Two is going deeper and looking at the cracks in this conservative version of the trough, and with Act Three we go deeper into the complexities. The final part, which in drama is the resolution, can be trying to see what this means to us, what we have learned and possibly how we can use this knowledge.

In terms of the research questions, McKee, Mackendrick and others, have made investigating the fundamentals of story the easiest part. There has not been room to cover everything but I have included the main elements, concentrating on the ones I feel particularly relevant to documentary. Documentary storytelling does often require 'softening' of these classic drama-based theories, but does not contradict them. Talking to editors has given me some insight and helped to identify relevant differences, and some possible approaches. To understand documentary picture editing you must understand the fundamentals of storytelling and how it can be twisted, changed and extended to suit documentary. I feel that rather than exploring these classic ideas further, looking at alternative narrative construction as discussed by people like Madison
Smartt Bell (Bell 1997), and analysing successful documentaries to see how they create tension and progression of story outside classic ideas, are the avenues to pursue. Part of this could be to build a taxonomy of documentary and look at how taxa of documentary can best approach story.


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  2. Aristotle, ed. Koss, R 1997 Poetics, New York, Dover Publications Inc.
  3. Bell, Madison Smartt 1997 Narrative Design, New York, W. W. Norton & Company
  4. Bernard, Sheila Curran 2011 Documentary Storytelling, 3 rd Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  5. Brooker, Christopher 2004 The Severn Basic Plots, London, Continuum
  6. D'Agostino, Gianluca 2010 Baaria, the holocaust of Italian Cinema and the Hollywood
    narrative formula, American Chronicle, consulted 1/5/2012
  7. Dancyger, Ken 2011 The Technique of Film & Video Editing 5 th Edition, Oxford, Focal
  8. Herzog, Werner 1999 Minnesota Declaration, consulted 3/3/2012
  9. Mackendrick, Alexander 2004 On Film-Making, London, Faber and Faber Ltd.
  10. Mishler, Elliot 1991 Research Interviewing, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press
  11. Rabinger, Michael 2009 Directing the Documentary, 5 th Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  12. McKee, Robert 1999 Story, London, Methuen Publishing Ltd.

As part of the research for this essay I interviewed online (video) editors and throughout this document cite them. They are:

  • Bini, Jon - who has worked with Werner Herzog on over 15 of his films (Including Grizzly Man) and numerus documentaries and feature films (including there is something about Kevin).
  • Atkins, Mark - who has worked with nick Broomfield (Biggie & Tupac,Kurt & Courtney) and edited factual TV programmes and Feature Documentaries.
  • Sundlöf, Stefan - editor on Into Eternity.
  • Hankin, Richard- editor of Capturing the Friedmans.
  • Flextone, Daren - editor no My Life as a Turkey and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.
  • Steve, Philips - editor of David Attenborough gorillas and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.