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Old December 14th, 2009, 07:54 AM   #1
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Documetary writing question ...

I'm working on an outline for a documentary and after doing a little research online about how to write the outline, i'm finding that EVERYONE says that you need to have a hero, a conflict and a resolution ... or some sort of antagonist vs. protagonist sort of story. (Even if it has to be manufactured.)

However, in my opinion ... when i see documentaries written like that ... unless the conflict is true and significant ... it ABSOLUTELY discredits the subject (and creator) of the film due to the fact that the story becomes so biased and ridiculous. In almost every situation the desire to "find" a conflict for the story results in this petty argument that just makes me think that there are more useful things i could be doing with my time.

My topic is not about one party vs. another party ... but rather it's about culture and history and passion for a particular art form. And following one family who's been part of that culture for the last 100 years and helped to establish that culture in american history.

And more than that, it's about how they do what they do ... why they do it ... and telling the story from their perspective ... not about some petty problem that they had to overcome.

This documentary is supposed to be informative and inspiring, I don't want to muddy the waters with some manufactured story.

I just want to make a film that shows this family at there finest and allow the viewer to listen to their story and learn more about this art/culture. I want the viewer to walk away with a sense that they have received a look into something special.

Can someone please link me to some resources that will help me to outline this story without trying to make it some "corporate america vs. the little guy" or "government vs. the little guy" piece of dribble!
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Old December 14th, 2009, 09:23 AM   #2
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Hi George,

out of curiosity, I just googled you:
if the art form you want to do your documentary about
is what I think it is, you should have no problem whatsoever.
Just go for it and do it!
I wouldn't worry about all the "protagonist vs. antagonist" thing
and the "fifty obstacles to be overcome" and all that stuff...
(well, given the very nature of this particular art form - if it is
what I think it is - I'm pretty sure there's enough drama and tension
already built into the story: no need to make stuff up, I presume...)

BTW: if you feel like it, PM me or give me a call
(you'll find everything needed on our ridicolously humble website...).
I hope to be in the Pittsburgh area shooting a short story
sometime in January or February (again: hopefully...): we might meet
and have a chat - just for the fun of it!

All the best

Vasco
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Old December 20th, 2009, 04:43 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by George Tasick View Post
EVERYONE says that you need to have a hero, a conflict and a resolution.
I agree with them. And if you look, you'll see that you have all of those elements in your story without having to manufacture anything.

A hero is simply the people in the story a viewer will identify with or root for. The conflicts are the obstacles your subjects encounter. Don't mistake conflict for confrontation. The conflict doesn't have to be a Superman vs. Lex Luthor showdown. It can be something as subtle as how the subjects' worldview, lifestyle or tastes conflict with what is widely considered normal.

The resolution is just how things turn out. That could be a happy marriage still ongoing at the time of the story's telling. It could be that the business that someone once struggled to build is now thriving and growing. Or it could be something bad. Someone battled a disease but died despite a valiant fight.

My production company focuses on telling people's life stories. Most of them do not have an obvious bad guy. But there are things to overcome along the way. A teenage couple has a shotgun wedding and grows into adults while already raising children. A wife wonders what to do with her life after her children have grown and the family business is sold. A father's police career effectively ends after heart bypass surgery.

These are all conflicts of a sort that add elements of suspense or drama to a story. I didn't have to contrive them. They were all natural parts of their story.
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Old December 20th, 2009, 04:58 PM   #4
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Here's a link to an article that might encourage you.

It calls the idea that "if you donít have a conflict you donít have a film" a myth.

Documentary Doctor, Fernanda Rossi, debunks the myth of conflict in storytelling | The Independent
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Old December 20th, 2009, 05:11 PM   #5
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Companies like Discovery are responsible for this kind of thinking. It's what they specify.
It's a formulaic approach that has spread right through the TV industry.
However, if a documentary isn't telling a story it's going to struggle to hold an audience.
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Old December 20th, 2009, 05:49 PM   #6
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Unfortunately, the article is a big disappointment, as it doesn't really prove the case. I was all set to love it and I read it eagerly, because I love contrarians and I'm on the same page as the rest of you when it comes to the phony, amped-up "conflict" in Reality TV.

But the writer doesn't actually give any specific examples to prove her point; her argument consists of simply saying "no, it isn't." She re-defines the word "conflict" to something it isn't just to bolster her argument, and then admits that good documentaries require "conflictive issues," which to me is gutless academic-speak at best, and undercuts her thesis. She makes a sly reference to "penguins" as a doc that has no conflict, but if it's the one she's implying, what's a bigger conflict than the struggle to survive?

Ironically, she calls for "backing up arguments with data" but yet fails to do so. She recommends substituting the phrase "issues at stake" for "conflict," but after all, isn't that exactly what dramatic conflict is?

Sadly, no sale here.
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Old December 20th, 2009, 06:27 PM   #7
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A documentary needs a good story and this requires some kind of conflict and resolution.
The formulaic approach has been centred on making the story character driven, usually centered around a hero (ie go out and find charismatic, camera-friendly ......)
Nothing wrong with that in itself unless you try to impose in on all situations and exclude the magic that can arise from a more original and nuanced treatment.
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Old December 21st, 2009, 03:07 PM   #8
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We usually talk about it in terms of conflict/resolution but I think 'conflict' is maybe the wrong term - it tends to imply confrontation of some sort. Resolution may be the more important part - which to me implies you need a question, an unknown of some sort, that draws the audience in and keeps them engaged by leading them to the resolution of that unknown. That unknown may in fact be a conflict of some sort, but it also might be a question, a mystery, a search, a test, exploration, history, etc - that drives the direction of your film and brings the audience along with it. Without something like that your film is simply a montage or collection of facts, which isn't necessarily terrible but does raise the question - why would an audience watch it from beginning to end?
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Old December 21st, 2009, 03:47 PM   #9
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This makes sense. I agree.
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Old December 21st, 2009, 04:05 PM   #10
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Conflict is the essence of drama. And not coincidentally - comedy as well.

Don't get hung up on the word 'conflict'. As others have said - you could simply substitute the word "Problem" or "Obstacle" or "Challenge" - without these - then there is not much of a story to tell.

YOUR challenge is to find your character's challenge - which is often unique in a documentary setting - and make their struggle UNIVERSAL so that others who might not inhabit that world, or dwell in those conditions - will find them interesting, engaging and compelling.

Pursuade, Entertain, Inform - you get to decide how much of each goes into it.
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Old December 24th, 2009, 05:19 AM   #11
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I have to disagree that a documentary always needs a story and an obstacle, challenge, conflict, resolution, issue or whatever you want to call it. Some of my favourite docs have none or very little of any of this - yes, they fall into the montage-style impressionistic world but what exactly is wrong with that if it is done well? Films like that can have a greater long-term impact on the viewer as they can really get inside a subject in a way more 'conventional' approaches cannot. True they are a bit harder to watch / get into and so won't be as popular as story-based films but is that the primary factor always?

Good examples are Ruttman's 'Berlin a City Symphony', Vertov's 'Man with a Movie Camera and especially Jenning's 'Listen to Britain'. All made a very long time ago and before the near total dominance of anti-aesthetic, journalistic / 'realistic' documentary style. One thing that drives these films in place of narrative structures is a concentration on the aesthetic / poetic properties of filmmaking which are almost considered a dirty words in documentary but in my view, still have great potential especially in the creative treatment of sound.
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Old April 12th, 2010, 06:21 PM   #12
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I've seen some great veritae documentaries that have absolutely no story at all. That being said, the "hero, conflict, resolution" idea does make a documentary more interesting for most people. But there is still a big audience outside of most people. On the other hand, some people say that you're not doing your job as a documentarian if you impose a false narrative.

I say do what YOU want to do and have fun!
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Old April 19th, 2010, 10:06 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Childs View Post
On the other hand, some people say that you're not doing your job as a documentarian if you impose a false narrative.
I don't disagree but the interesting thing is, look at all the animal wildlife docs we all saw as kids (ok, I'm dating myself here) like Lorne Green's Wild Kingdom where all of a sudden badger families had names and "adventures" with a story arc. Definitely a false narrative and at the time, those were considered to be "high art". Do I agree? Well......
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Old April 20th, 2010, 02:45 PM   #14
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Shaun and Steve - Interesting points re 'false' narratives. I'd add, what is a true narrative? Sure, one can create a genuinely false and misleading story by selective editing alone and I'd never defend that, but that aside aren't all docs 'false' in the sense that filmmakers want to give the impression that what the viewer is seeing and hearing is somehow some kind of objective truth which we all know is often far from the way it really is due to a whole host of reasons not least simply what one choses to point the camera at in the first place! I'm not knocking the aim for objectivity and truthfulness but I sometimes find it more honest when the filmmaker is perfectly clear that the work is subjective and / or impressionistic. Ironically I find this can lead to a deeper and more telling depiction of reality rather than simple actuality which is all an 'objective' camera image can ever give you.
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Old April 21st, 2010, 04:52 PM   #15
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Re: documentary filmmaking / objectivity / reality

I've already used this example in another thread on another subforum,
but I think it's worth repeating:
check Renť Magritte's painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a Pipe")

( File:MagrittePipe.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia )

It's also worth noting that the painting's alternative title is
"La Trahison des Images" ("The Treachery of Images")

All the best

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