Monday, July 19, 2010

Want to work in documentary? Study drama.

Just back from 10 days in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive, reminded once again of the value of exploring a range of art forms to truly understand what it means to tell a story.

Documentaries -- to outsiders -- offer a parade of facts on screen. They're those 5th grade film strips that taught hygiene or bicycle safety; they're the aggressive recitation of carefully-chosen facts that provide additional ammunition to people who've already formed an opinion; they're the bland presentation of information -- about history, science, people, places, you name it -- in an order that is factually dutiful and creatively dull. No matter how interesting the basic subject matter is, if this is what you think a documentary is, the film you make will be the equivalent of a stranger's home movies.

But this is not what today's best documentaries -- or yesterday's, for that matter -- are.

Documentaries are movies that draw strength from a simple contract between filmmaker and audience, that what is being presented as the truth -- and the evidence used -- are both honest and true.

Documentary filmmakers are artists -- skilled, seasoned artists -- whose palette includes the tools of both journalism and drama. They shape stories, rather than invent them. Watch Alex Gibney's Gonzo, or Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, or Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes. Tune in to Frontline or Nova, and try not to get sucked in by the content but instead to watch the craft. Better yet, watch it once for content, and three or four times for craft. Look at where the film starts, how it's structured, how it's "cast," what themes it illuminates and explores. Look at how the filmmaker shows rather than tells. And if you don't know what that means -- study drama. Playwriting, screenwriting, creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, fiction, short stories.... The answers are there.

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