Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vérité BS

I'm so tired of reading about "pure" vérité and how real filmmakers just go out and shoot. Inefficient, inexperienced filmmakers just go out and shoot. Talk to long-term, award-winning vérité champs and you'll learn that they actually plan for the basics of story -- a narrative baseline, characters, the promise of relevant action -- thereby laying the foundation for powerful, important vérité films. In other words, before they shoot, they choose carefully what, how, who, and where to shoot. AND then the vérité magic happens. The outline may be a page long -- or a paragraph -- but some basic story issues have been considered right from the start. And as circumstances suggest change -- characters or situations take the film in new and better directions, for example -- they are prepared to adapt and take advantage of this change.

The filmmaker who just goes out to shoot a subject (not a story), is likely to wind up with a lot (a lot!) of weak footage, lots of hair pulling, and ridiculous amounts of time in the editing room trying to then pull a story out of marginally-relevant material . Furthermore, filmmakers who "find" a story after the fact risk crossing ethical boundaries, as they ask documentary footage to represent events, ideas, and emotions that it does not, in fact, represent.

Even films that are not vérité (or that combine vérité with other forms), are never, with extremely rare exceptions, scripted. (That's an old, news-based model that went out around the time Sputnik was launched.) As with vérité, but to a greater extent, these films are planned in advance through outlines and/or shooting treatments -- whether one page or 20 -- that suggest what the story is (not the subject, the story), who the specific characters are (if not by name, at least by type), and some baseline narrative -- beginning, middle, and end -- that will focus the shooting and infuse shots, scenes, and sequences with story information. And these filmmakers, too, usually encounter the unexpected, and their films are better for it because of, and not despite, their preparation.

In other words, documentary storytelling is NOT about scripting and is as relevant to the vérité folks as it is to anyone else. It's about applying time-tested strategies for good storytelling -- structure, character, conflict, stakes, resolution -- to the modern-day world of documentary media. And that's true even if you'd rather scratch your own eyes out than write or use narration in your film.

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