Filmmaker, Video Editor, Motion Graphics Designer, and Photographer in Cairo, Egypt.
Keeping notes to remember.. You may consider it some sort of Documentation.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Part 1 | Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen

Major Highlights from Sheila Curran Bernard's book, "Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen".


CH1: Introduction


Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally—but not always—portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts. “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 Erik Barnouw in his 1974 book, Documentary. “Unlike the fiction artist, he is dedicated to not inventing. It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself.”

Story is the device that describes this arrangement. A story may begin as an idea, hypothesis, or series of questions. It becomes more focused throughout the filmmaking process, until the finished film has a compelling beginning, an unexpected middle, and a satisfying end. Along the way, the better you understand your story, even as it’s evolving, the more prepared you’ll be to tell it creatively and well. You’re likely to identify characters and scout locations more carefully, and the visuals you shoot will be stronger.
Perhaps surprisingly, you’ll be better prepared to follow the unexpected—to take advantage of the twists and turns that are an inevitable part of documentary production, and recognize those elements that will make your film even stronger.

At their best, documentaries should do more than help viewers pass the time; they should demand their active engagement, challenging them to think about what they know, how they know it, and what more they might want to learn.
Consider this list of the “five characteristics” that make nonfiction writing creative, as described by author Philip Gerard in his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life:
  • First, it has an apparent subject and a deeper subject...
  • Second, and partly because of the duality of subject, such nonfiction is released from the usual journalistic requirement of timeliness...
  • Third, creative nonfiction is narrative, it always tells a good story 
  • Fourth, creative nonfiction contains a sense of reflection on the part of the author. It is a finished thought.
  • Fifth, such nonfiction shows serious attention to the craft of writing.

How does this evaluation apply to documentary films?

An Apparent Subject and a Deeper Subject
There may be a deceptively simple story that organizes the film, but the story is being told because it reveals something more. Sound and Fury, on the surface, is a documentary about a little girl who wants a cochlear implant, an operation that may enable her to hear. But in telling that story, the filmmakers explore the world of Deaf culture, what it means to belong to a family and a community, how language is acquired, and more.

Released from the Journalistic Requirement of Timeliness
Even when documentaries are derived from news reports, they are not bound to tell the story while it’s still “news.” Instead, they take the time to consider events and put them in more detailed and often layered context. The financial meltdown of Enron; the abuse of prisoners at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guanta´namo; the suicide of writer Hunter S. Thompson—all, at one time, were news stories, for example, and all have been used as fodder for enduring, thought-provoking documentaries by director Alex Gibney.

Tells a Good Story
This means that a filmmaker uses the tools of creative writing to identify and shape a good story, one that accurately represents the truth. It does not mean inventing or distorting characters or plots or conflicts for the purpose of enhancing a documentary’s appeal.

Contains a Sense of Reflection on the Part of the Author
A documentary is not a news report. It is a thoughtful presentation of a subject that has been explored, researched, weighed, considered, and shaped by the filmmaker over a period of time, and then communicated outward in a voice and style that are unique.

Shows Serious Attention to the Craft of Film Storytelling
Craft is about wielding the unique tools of a chosen medium to the full and best advantage, without going too far. Told well, a story will feel seamless and inevitable, fully and actively engaging the viewer.

  • Before they shoot, while they shoot, and throughout the process of editing, filmmakers routinely address story issues: “Who are the central characters? What do they want? What are the stakes if they don’t get it? Where is the tension? Where is the story going? Why does it matter?”
  • Our stories depend not on creative invention but on creative arrangement, and our storytelling must be done without sacrificing journalistic integrity.
  • Understanding what story is and how it works to your advantage is a step toward finding your own creative and ethical voice as a filmmaker.
  • It’s not about the technology. Too often, filmmakers get caught up in the tools of storytelling. The best equipment in the world, even the best shots in the world, won’t save a film from a lack of focus.
  • Story does not have to mean three-act drama, and it definitely does not mean artificial tension that is imposed from without. Story comes organically from within the material and the ways in which you, the filmmaker, structure it.
  • Think easier. Some of the best documentaries made recently are built on a narrative train that is very basic; that’s often what allows for their overall complexity.
CH2: Story Basics

A story is the narrative, or telling, of an event or series of events, crafted in a way to interest the audience members, whether they are readers, listeners, or viewers. At its most basic, a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It has compelling characters (or questions), rising tension, and conflict that reaches some sort of resolution. It engages the audience on an emotional and intellectual level, motivating viewers to want to know what happens next.
Exposition is the information that grounds you in a story: who, what, where, when, and why. It gives audience members the tools they need to follow the story that’s unfolding and, more importantly, it allows them inside the story. 

The trick to exposition is not to give too much away too soon, and not to withhold information that’s necessary. There’s an art to giving out key information at the right moment. Too soon, and it will not seem relevant and will be quickly forgotten. Too late, and the audience will either have figured it out for themselves or grown frustrated with the filmmaker for withholding facts they feel the need to know. Offered at the right time, exposition enriches our understanding of characters and raises the stakes in their stories.

In literary terms, theme is the general underlying subject of a specific story, a recurring idea that often illuminates an aspect of the human condition. “Theme is the most basic lifeblood of a film,” says filmmaker Ric Burns. “Theme tells you the tenor of your story. This is what this thing is about.”

Themes may emerge from the questions that initially drove the filmmaking. Understanding your theme can help you determine both what and how you shoot.

The arc refers to the way or ways in which the events of the story transform your characters. In pursuing a goal, the protagonists learn something about themselves and their place in the world,
and those lessons change them—and may, in fact, change their desire for the goal.

In documentary films, story arcs can be hard to find. Never, simply in the interest of a good story, presume to know what a character is thinking or feeling, or present a transformation that hasn’t
occurred. If there is change, you will discover it through solid research and multiple strands of verifiable evidence.

All of these transformations occurred over the course of filming, and the filmmakers made sure they had the visual material they needed to show them in a way that felt organic and unforced.

Plot and Character
Films are often described as either plot or character driven. A character driven film is one in which the action of the film emerges from the wants and needs of the characters. In a plot-driven film, the characters are secondary to the events that make up the plot.

As mentioned, the difference between plot- and character-driven films can be subtle, and one often has strong elements of the other. It’s also true that plenty of memorable documentaries are not “driven” at all in the Hollywood sense.

Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries are elegantly structured but not “plotted” in the sense that each sequence makes the next one inevitable, but there is usually an organizing principle behind his work, such as a “year in the life” of an institution. Still other films are driven not by characters or plot but by questions, following an essay-like structure; examples include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Daniel Anker’s Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Some films merge styles: Super Size Me is built around the filmmaker’s 30-day McDonald’s diet, but to a large extent the film is actually driven by a series of questions, making it an essay. This combination of journey and essay can also be found in Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect.

Point of View
Point of view describes the perspective, or position, from which a story is told. This can be interpreted in a range of ways. For example, point of view may describe the character through whom you’re telling a story. Imagine telling the story of Goldilocks and the three bears from the point of view of Goldilocks, and then retelling it from the point of view of Papa Bear. Goldilocks might tell you the story of a perfectly innocent child wandering through the woods who grew hungry and went into an apparently abandoned house, only to find herself under attack by bears. In contrast, Papa Bear might tell you the story of an unwanted intruder.

By offering an unexpected point of view, filmmakers can sometimes force viewers to take a new look at a familiar subject. Point of view can also be used to describe the perspective of the camera, including who’s operating it and from what vantage point. Point of view can also refer to the perspective of time and the lens through which an event is viewed. There is also, of course, “point of view” of the filmmaker and/or filmmaking team.

Detail encompasses a range of things that all have to do with specificity. First, there is what’s known as the “telling detail.” A full ashtray next to a bedridden man would indicate that either the man or a caregiver is a heavy smoker. The choice of what to smoke, what to drink, when to drink it (whisky for breakfast?), what to wear, how to decorate a home or an office or a car, all provide clues about people.

They may be misleading clues: That African artwork may have been left behind by an old boyfriend, rather than chosen by the apartment renter; the expensive suit may have been borrowed for the purpose of the interview. But as storytellers, our ears and eyes should be open to details, the specifics that add layers of texture and meaning.

We also need to focus on detail if we write narration. “The organization grew like wildfire” is cliched and meaningless; better to provide evidence: “Within 10 years, an organization that began in Paris with 20 members had chapters in 12 nations, with more than 2,500 members worldwide.”

In their book, The Tools of Screenwriting, authors David Howard and Edward Mabley stress that a story is not simply about somebody experiencing difficulty meeting a goal; it’s also “the way in which the audience experiences the story.” The elements of a “good story well told,” they write, are:
  1. This story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible, to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).
Although Howard and Mabley’s book is directed at dramatic screenwriters, who are free to invent not only characters but also the things that they want and the things that are getting in the way, this list is
useful for documentary storytellers. Your particular film subject or situation might not fit neatly within these parameters, however, so further explanation follows.

Who (or What) the Story Is About
The somebody is your protagonist, your hero, the entity whose story is being told. Note that your hero can, in fact, be very “unheroic,” and the audience might struggle to empathize with him or her. But the character and/or character’s mission should be compelling enough that the audience cares about the outcome.

The central character doesn’t necessarily need to be a person. In Ric Burns’s New York, a seven-episode history, the city itself is the protagonist, whose fortunes rise and fall and rise over the course of the series. (Throughout that series, however, individual characters and stories come to the fore.) But often, finding a central character through whom to tell your story can make an otherwise complex
topic more manageable and accessible to viewers.

What the Protagonist Wants
The something that somebody wants is also referred to as a goal or an objective.—that drives the film’s story.

Active versus Passive
Storytellers speak of active versus passive goals and active versus passive heroes. In general, you want a story’s goals and heroes to be active, which means that you want your story’s protagonist to be in charge of his or her own life: To set a goal and then to go about doing what needs to be done to achieve it. A passive goal is something like this: A secretary wants a raise in order to pay for breast enhancement surgery. She is passively waiting for the raise, hoping someone will notice that her work merits reward. To be active, she would have to do something to ensure that she gets that raise, or she would have to wage a campaign to raise the extra money she needs for the surgery, such as taking a second job.

An exception is when the passivity is the story. In The Thin Blue Line, for example, Randall Adams, locked up on death row, is a passive protagonist because he can’t do anything to free himself, as no
one believes him when he claims to be innocent. In general, though, you want your protagonist to be active, and you want him or her to have a goal that’s worthy. In the example of the secretary, will an audience really care whether or not she gets larger breasts? Probably not. If we had a reason to be sympathetic—she had been disfigured in an accident, for example—maybe we would care, but it’s not a very strong goal. Worthy does not mean a goal has to be noble—it doesn’t all have to be about ending world hunger or ensuring world peace. It does have to matter enough to be worth committing significant time and resources to.

If you only care a little about your protagonists and what they want, your financiers and audience are likely to care not at all.

Difficulty and Tangibility
The something that is wanted—the goal—must be difficult to do or achieve. If something is easy, there’s no tension, and without tension, there’s little incentive for an audience to keep watching. Tension is the feeling we get when issues or events are unresolved, especially when we want them to be resolved. It’s what motivates us to demand, “And then what happens? And what happens after that?” We need to know, because it makes us uncomfortable not to know. Without tension, a story feels flat; you don’t care one way or the other about the outcome.

So where do you find the tension?

Note that conflict can mean a direct argument between two sides, pro and con (or “he said, she said”). But such an argument sometimes weakens tension, especially if each side is talking past the other or if individuals in conflict have not been properly established to viewers.

If we don’t know who’s fighting or what’s at stake for the various sides, we won’t care about the outcome. On the other hand, if the audience goes into an argument caring about the individuals involved, especially if they care about all the individuals involved, it can lead to powerful emotional storytelling.

Weather, illness, war, self-doubt, inexperience, hubris—all of these can pose obstacles as your protagonist strives to achieve his or her goal. And just as it can be useful to find an individual (or individuals) through whom to tell a complex story, it can be useful to personify the opposition.

Worthy Opponent
Just as you want your protagonist to have a worthy goal, you want him or her to have a worthy opponent. A common problem for many filmmakers is that they portray opponents as one-dimensional; if their hero is good, the opponent must be bad. In fact, the most memorable opponent
is often not the opposite of the hero, but a complement to him or her.

As stated earlier, it’s important to understand that you should not in any way be fictionalizing characters who are real human beings. You are evaluating a situation from the perspective of a storyteller, and working with what is there. If there is no opponent, you can’t manufacture one.

Tangible GoalAlthough difficult, the goal should be possible to do or achieve, which means that it’s best if it’s both concrete and realistic. “Fighting racism” or “curing cancer” or “saving the rain forest” may all be worthwhile, but none is specific enough to serve as a story objective. In exploring your ideas for a film, follow your interests, but then seek out a specific story to illuminate them.

Born into Brothels illuminates the difficult circumstances facing the children of impoverished sex workers in Calcutta, but the story’s goals are more tangible. Initially, we learn that filmmaker Zana Briski, in Calcutta to photograph sex workers, has been drawn to their children. “They wanted to learn how to use the camera,” she says in voice over. “That’s when I thought it would be really great to teach them, and to see this world through their eyes.” Several minutes later, a larger but still tangible goal emerges: “They have absolutely no opportunity without education,” she says. “The question is, can I find a school—a good school—that will take kids that are children of prostitutes?”
This, then, becomes the real goal of the film, one enriched by the children’s photography and exposure to broader horizons.

Note also that the goal is not necessarily the most “dramatic” or obvious one. In Kate Davis’s Southern Comfort, a film about a transgendered male dying of ovarian cancer, Robert Eads’s goal is not to find a cure; it’s to survive long enough to attend the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, a national gathering of transgendered people, with his girlfriend, Lola, who is also transgendered.

Emotional Impact and Audience Participation
The concept of telling a story for greatest emotional impact and audience participation is perhaps the most difficult. It’s often described as “show, don’t tell,” which means that you want to present the evidence or information that allows viewers to experience the story for themselves, anticipating twists and turns and following the story line in a way that’s active rather than passive. Too often, films tell us what we’re supposed to think through the use of heavy-handed narration, loaded graphics, or a stacked deck of interviews.

Think about the experience of being completely held by a film. You aren’t watching characters on screen; you’re right there with them, bringing the clues you’ve seen so far to the story as it unfolds. You lose track of time as you try to anticipate what happens next, who will do what, and what will be learned. It’s human nature to try to make sense of the events we’re confronted with, and it’s human nature to enjoy being stumped or surprised.

Telling a story for emotional impact means that the filmmaker is structuring the story so that the moments of conflict, climax, and resolution—moments of achievement, loss, reversal, etc.—adhere as well as possible to the internal rhythms of storytelling.

Audiences expect that the tension in a story will escalate as the story moves toward its conclusion; scenes tend to get shorter, action tighter, the stakes higher. As we get to know the characters and understand their wants and needs, we care more about what happens to them; we become invested in their stories. Much of this structuring takes place in the editing room. But to some extent, it also takes place as you film, and planning for it can make a difference.

You want to avoid creating unnecessary drama—turning a perfectly good story into a soap opera. There’s no reason to pull in additional details, however sad or frightening, when they aren’t relevant. If you’re telling the story of a scientist unlocking the genetic code to a certain mental illness, for example, it’s not necessarily relevant that she’s also engaged in a custody battle with her former husband, even if this detail seems to spice up the drama or, you hope, make the character more “sympathetic.” If the custody battle is influenced by her husband’s mental illness and her concerns that the children may have inherited the disease, there is a link that could serve the film well. Otherwise, you risk adding a layer of detail that detracts, rather than adds.

False emotion—hyped-up music and sound effects and narration that warns of danger around every corner—is a common problem, especially on television. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf, at
some point it all washes over the viewer like so much noise. If the danger is real, it will have the greatest storytelling impact if it emerges organically from the material.

Raising the Stakes
Another tool of emotional storytelling is to have something at stake and to raise the stakes until the very end. In the hands of a good storyteller, even small or very personal stakes can be made large when their importance to those in the story is conveyed.

Stakes may rise because (genuine) danger is increasing or time is running out. In terms of your role as the storyteller, stakes also rise because of the way you structure and organize your film: What people know, and when they know it, what the stakes of a story mean to your characters and how well you convey that—all of these play a role in how invested the audience becomes in wanting or even needing to know the outcome of your film.
A Satisfactory Ending
A satisfactory ending, or resolution, is often one that feels both unexpected and inevitable. It must resolve the one story you set out to tell. Say you start the film with a problem: A little girl has a life-threatening heart condition for which there is no known surgical treatment. Your film then goes into the world of experimental surgery, where you find a charismatic doctor whose efforts to solve a very different medical problem have led him to create a surgical solution that might work in the little girl’s situation. To end on this surgical breakthrough, however, won’t be satisfactory. Audiences were drawn into the story of the little girl, and this surgeon’s work must ultimately be related to that story. Can his work make a difference in her case? You need to complete the story with which the film began. With that said, there is never just one correct ending.

Suppose, for example, that your film is due to be aired months before the approval is granted that will allow doctors to try the experimental surgery on the girl. Make that your ending, and leave the audience with the knowledge that everyone is praying and hoping that she will survive until then. Or perhaps the surgery is possible, but at the last minute the parents decide it’s too risky. Or they take that risk, and the outcome is positive. Or negative. Or perhaps the doctor’s breakthrough simply comes too late for this one child but may make a difference for hundreds of others. Any of these would be a satisfactory ending, provided it is factual.

Ending a film in a way that’s satisfying does not necessitate wrapping up all loose ends or resolving things in a way that’s upbeat.