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Writing the Doco: An Oxymoron?

Documentary writing is a complex area. Natasha Gadd shares the oddities, challenges and benefits of the craft.

“In a way you’re on a serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

Albert Maysles

shoes

On a busy New York street, a silhouetted figure slips through a manhole into the dank, dark world beneath the city. As a train rumbles past, the figure walks through a network of subway tunnels that have become home to a large community of New York’s homeless.

Watching this memorable sequence from Marc Singer’s feature length documentary Dark Days is the beginning of the kind of serendipitous journey Albert Maysles is referring to, propelling the viewer to the farthest reaches of the earth to reveal the extraordinariness of everyday life.

Welcome to the wonderful world of documentary cinema.

As a programmer for documentary film festival, Real: life on film, I spent five sweltering summers with the blinds drawn perched in front of a glowing screen as images of thousands of different characters and places flickered before my eyes.

From vodka fuelled punks working in a Russian boot factory to Japanese female wrestlers or Romanian orphans living in the underground subways of Bucharest, these films revealed both the beautiful and the wretched characteristics of the human condition.

The Documentary Landscape

Looking back through the documentary archives there have been a number of significant stylistic movements that have been shaped as much by technological developments as by the desire of documentary makers to find more effective methods for telling stories about the real.

Whilst the languid observational documentaries of the Maysles Brothers (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman) or Kim Longinotto (Dream Girls, Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law) differ vastly from the highly stylised documentaries of Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line, Fog of War) and the evocative and performative documentaries of Werner Herzog  (La Soufrière, Lessons of Darkness), they are all shaped by story.

The strength of these films lies in not just what the films are about but how the story is told.

The concept of writing for documentary seemed something of an oxymoron. How could documentary be distinguished from the realm of fiction films if the events are scripted prior to the events occurring in real life? How does this effect the representation of the real world?

For many observational documentary makers, story is largely shaped in the edit once reels and reels of footage have been viewed and catalogued. For documentary filmmakers creating more stylized or constructed non-fiction films, story can be scripted prior to filming and the shoot executed with as much control as a fiction film.

After many years viewing, selecting and writing about non-fiction film, I decided I would try my hand at making documentaries. With a bent for purist observational documentary, I assumed that once I had selected a documentary subject and worked out the angle for the story, the most intensive part of the process would be the shoot and the edit.

What I did not realize at that stage was how essential the writing process is to documentary, not only in the shaping of story, but in attracting investors, distributors and broadcasters to the project. What struck me when looking through the funding applications was the requirement of a full written treatment, script or outline of the project.

The concept of writing for documentary seemed something of an oxymoron. How could documentary be distinguished from the realm of fiction films if the events are scripted prior to the events occurring in real life? How does this effect the representation of the real world?

Next week: Writing a Treatment that Sells

Natasha GaddNatasha Gadd is a Melbourne based writer and director whose recent works include the AFI nominated documentary, Words From the City, and Anatomy – Muscle, awarded Best Documentary at the 2008 Australian Directors Guild Awards.

About the Author

Cleo Mees

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Cleo Mees is a Sydney-based writer, filmmaker and dancer. With a background across several disciplines, her interest is in finding out how these different disciplines can intersect and inform each other.

Comments 2

  1. IM ASKING THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE DOCUMENTARIES?AND TYPES OF DOCUMENTARIES IN THE SCRIPT WRITING?

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