Documentary v. Narrative

I’m editing the film, and realizing something (duh, I know, but still): the process of creating a documentary film differs quite a lot from the process of creating a narrative film.

With a narrative, it all starts with the script (usually). Although many rewrites may happen along the way, and although a director may encourage improvisation on-set, the core of the project, the core of the idea, is the script.

Not so with documentary. As director of “The Hornman: It All Started With A Trombone,” my wife Jo has discovered quite a bit about how a documentary film moves forward. Most often, a filmmaker has an idea, a concept, or a person around which she wishes to make a film. Since this is a documentary, there is no script. What there must be, to start with, is footage.

I’ve got maybe 5-hours of footage (thus far) for “Meeting the Resistance!” I’m drilling down into it now (sometimes striking black gold, other times, basalt), and although I know the basic concept for the film, I don’t really know how I’m going to put it together. I think I know what I want people to get out of this film – the “take away” – but I’m not at all sure exactly how that’s going to happen.

In fact, while for a narrative film, the main bulk of the writing and story-crafting happens at the beginning, in a documentary – it happens at nearly every moment along the way.

Kinda like life, huh? 😉

Just saw an incredibly interesting film that started out as a fiction narrative film, but when the filmmaker got to the location, he realized he’d much rather make a film about what was going on in the country at the time. It was 1969, during the Democratic National Convention, and the film is “Medium Cool.” All the politics, beatings, tanks, tear gas and injuries – are real. He just walked in and shot stuff, because it was 1969, and no one really got it that someone sneaking in with a camera might make them look bad. There’s a narrative that weaves through it, holds it together. Really a terrific film.

I go forth – and shoot! (Film, that is) And then, with a documentary – I edit – and write. In fact, the editing *is* the writing.



One Response to Documentary v. Narrative

  • ianc says:

    And one other thing – it’s also very much about the “personal politics” of shooting film. As a journalist, as a cameraman – are distant from your subject? Or do you let the subject affect you personally? Are you safe, or not?

    Every place we choose to point our camera makes a statement about what we think, and who we are. Or does it? 😉

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