Saturday, August 25, 2012

Writing Credits and the Twilight Zone

Tom Roston of The New York Times published an article today on questions about the writing credit in documentary. It's a good piece, and cites confusion even within the industry about this credit.  As someone who's been credited many times as a writer on documentaries (and received an Emmy for documentary writing), it seems like a no-brainer to me.  Lowell Peterson of the Writers Guild of America East put it well -- "Writing story outlines, the way you form a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That's writing."  Producers or directors may write their own films, or they may work with a writer.  Many editors contribute significantly to the work of the writer; they also contribute significantly to the work of the director (and vice versa).  As the article notes, the titles can be fluid, but the credited writer tends to be the person focused most specifically on story and structure, whether or not the documentary has narration. (And as noted in the article, the documentary world is filled with hybrids: people who produce, direct, write, and edit, in some combination.)

While judging documentary films at a festival last year, I was surprised to hear filmmakers struggling when they saw screenwriting credits, presuming that the films must have been invented, as a fictional film would be.  Disturbingly, it did sometimes mean this.  Apparently the definition of "documentary" has become a bit fluid, and some filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of documentary away from journalism and closer to art.  It's always been a bit of both, but the general expectation of audiences is that what is presented to them as documentary is truthful and real.  At the festival, though, many of the films we were judging had unclear boundaries between what was staged and what was not, and some seemed entirely built on situations constructed by the filmmakers. This may be creative filmmaking, but unless the audience is somehow in on these choices, it's deceitful. (In other words, the creative approach should be apparent, as it was for example in Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line or Ari Folman's animated film, Waltz with Bashir.)

There is no standard, but the discussion is an important one, whether or not it's couched in terms of what it means to write a documentary.  In The New Yorker (December 19, 1970), critic Pauline Kael took Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin to task for Gimme Shelter, a feature documentary of a free concert given by the Rolling Stones at New York's Altamont Speedway the previous December.  She called the film a "cinema-verite spectacular," charging that the events  it depicted (other than the murder) were entirely set up by the filmmakers. (The Maysles convincingly denied this accusation.)  In the article, Kael asked, "If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone?  Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?" 

It's a good question, one that I kept waiting for someone to ask in 2006, when Martin Scorcese directed his own film about the Rolling Stones -- and did exactly what Pauline Kael had accused the Maysles of doing.  According to Shauna Lyon's story in the The New Yorker, Scorcese's film was heavily staged.  The choice of theater (and architectural modifications to it), the choice of songs, even the age, looks, and outfits of the audience members were carefully controlled. The result was a kick-ass concert film and a portrayal of the Stones in performance, but should it be called a documentary, if the reality it documented was so significantly altered? 

To get back to the issue of writing.  As any documentary filmmaker knows, it's almost invariably necessary to think about what the film may become even before it's filmed, because that's generally the only way to raise money (and stay reasonably within budget and schedule).  You conduct research, you consider possible narrative structures (whether the film is about a contemporary social issue or a historical event), you propose a creative approach and discuss the evidence you will use.  You write outlines and treatments that you use for fundraising and planning.  And then the shooting begins, and everything changes again and again as documentary "evidence" -- the stuff of the film -- is gathered and editing gets underway.  Documentary writers can predict a range of outcomes, but they can't control them, and as the filming and editing progress, writers use their narrative skills -- and documentary ethics -- to shape stories that are compelling and -- this is the added challenge -- truthful to the events they depict. So it's not that reality is scripted in advance, in the way that Hollywood drama is scripted.  But documentary writing is another form of screenwriting, one that often draws on the tools of Hollywood (and Aristotle) to successfully reach and engage audiences.

Which is why I think Tom Roston's article is so timely, because in asking what it means to write a documentary, he raised an even bigger issue:  How do audiences, critics, and even filmmakers today define documentaries, and what distinguishes them not only from Hollywood fiction but also from the range of staged "reality" shows that dominate the airwaves? 


  1. Alan Barker8/25/2012

    Having worked in documentary for 30+ years it seems to me that the current shift toward fictionalization and outright misrepresentation is often driven by the need to make documentaries entertaining. Documentaries that do well in festivals and at the Academy Awards are usually ones that reinforce the select audience's existing views in an emotionally compelling way. It is rare that an "audience award" film challenges viewers and leaves them with questions rather than answers. The need to entertain is expressing itself in elaborate effects, animation, musical scores, dramatic photography and simplistic narratives. These are the tools of fiction. When documentarians rely on them too heavily the facts get distorted. In the effort to entertain, complex characters and subjects are made tidy. Conflicting information is omitted. The requisites for entertainment and non-fiction are often at odds.

  2. Thanks, Alan! Excellent and thoughtful points. I think the whole conversation needs to be had --amid much greater understanding of the tremendous range possible in documentary works. So cool that you took the time to post -- thanks!

  3. Anonymous8/27/2012

    I think that staging and manipulating the visuals is much less deceitful that pretending that journalism is the truth. Journalism is opinion and that has been shed to light more recently with the general population. Staging makes the audience think, and that is what a documentary should do. I dont quite understand what writing has to do with it.

  4. Hi Sheila, an excellent post on a much-needed subject. I just sent your link to my advanced editing class here at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts. Cheers, Roberto