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What is the film about? What makes it different? What makes it fresh and evocative? What is the filmmaker’s purpose or goal? Why THIS film?
What is the source of conflict in the story? What is the struggle of the main character? Who or what is pitted against them? What obstacles must they overcome? What threats do they encounter? What are the source of this threats? Do they come from others or from the character herself? By what means is this conflict presented and played out in the film?
the presenter / or main character/s
What special qualities does the presenter (or main character/s) bring to the film?
Who is the film addressed to? To whom is the filmmaker speaking? ‘Everyone’ is not sufficiently specific. Who you are talking to has a very important bearing not only on what you present but the way in which you present it.
Begin with a one-sentence description of the basic story that presents the central character and the story that the character/s, images and sounds dramatise during the film, from beginning to middle to end.
This “topic” sentence, which introduces in general terms the central character, dramatic issue/s and ultimate outcome (or resolution) of the film, may require some elaboration in the introductory paragraph.
Describe in detail the person or persons that are interviewed, the places that will be visited, the topics that will be discussed, the areas of conflict that will help to bring the story to life.
Written in the present tense. (e.g.: “Christina talks about her life as an artist…”, rather than “Christina will talk…” or “Christina was an artist for many years…”)
Hence, one might write: ‘The film opens with the central character/presenter, Christina Conrad (67), in the middle of a wild cactus garden, attired in rather eccentric, hand-made clothes. She shakes one of the large cactus plants with her hands as in VOICE-OVER we hear her tell us of an injustice that was perpetrated on her when she was in her early 20s.” … and so on..
Treatments are usually a narrative, and do not use technical language or jargon. There is no need for camera angles or similar detail. It is an outline of the content, and the emphasis should be on making it as interesting and compelling as possible.
What point does the film make? What do you want the audience to go away feeling or thinking about at the end of the experience they’ve had watching the film?
WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY SCRIPT
The script is also, often, the most underrated aspect of the documentary process. A school of thought suggests that the documentary-making process should be fluid and organic,whereby the filmmaker experiences the film as he makes it.
Many filmmakers write a "paper-edit" after shooting in place of a script. This process has and does work with many types of films. Especially when the filmmaker is recording events beyond his control like political rallies, events, natural disasters, riots and demonstrations etc. However, in most films, the filmmaker will find him/herself asking the question, "What should I shoot?" Here, it is imperative to start out with a well-written script, or narrative concept, even though it may develop and change during the shooting process. As a documentary filmmaker one often finds it is worthwhile to let the people and experiences associated with the film's story to seep into one's being, thus allowing the tory to write you simultaneously with you "finding" the story. More often than not, preparing a script beforehand can make the difference between a bad film and a good film. Or, at best, a good film and a great film.
To find out more, have a look at the PDF file that is accessible by clicking
The idea of a documentary film tends to evoke a certain perception that what we’re seeing on-screen is purely non-fiction, a “document of the truth.” But is it possible to say that any documentary encapsulates some objective idea of “truth,” as opposed to the story the filmmaker seeks to tell, albeit through footage taken from “real life” rather than a narrative fictional script?
Last week at AFI Dallas, there was a panel on “protecting real life from filmmakers” (moderated by MCN’s David Poland) that briefly raised an issue I would have liked to have seen explored in greater depth. Doug Pray, in discussing his film Art & Copy, talked about how he was unable to get any footage for his film about the advertising world in which the folks who work in that industry had anything negative to say about either the business in general, or any particular ad campaigns specifically. This made me ponder the nature of documentary film-making, and how a filmmaker decides what to shoot in telling a documentary story, and which 90 to 120 or so minutes out of perhaps hundreds of hours of footage will be used in shaping the story told by a given film.
Are documentaries journalism or storytelling, feature-length beat reporting, op-ed or color commentary — or some combination of those, or even none of the above? Is it necessary for a filmmaker to capture both sides of a given story to be fully objective? And if a documentary filmmaker unabashedly focuses his lens only on the moments or interview bytes that tell the story he wants to tell — or that his subjects want to tell — has he made what can be objectively called a documentary, or has he made propaganda promoting a particular cause or idea?
In documentary film-making, the director has a host of decisions to make, all of which affect how objective the truth is that his story will tell. What or who will the subject be? What’s the thesis the film seeks to prove or disprove? Where or on whom will she focus her lens? What will be within the shot — and what will be just outside the frame? What footage will stay or go, and in what order will it be presented? How might the presence of the camera and crew affect the actions and reactions of those being filmed, and in what way will the subjects strive to present themselves to the world? What we see is only what’s within the frame, but what’s outside that rectangle of screen may tell another story entirely. Sometimes, what the director chooses not to show us may, in fact, be more important than what we do see — or might have changed our perception entirely, had we seen it.
One of the more controversial examples of this is Roger & Me, the 1989 film that made Michael Moore a household name. In the film, Moore documented the impact of General Motors shutting down factories in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, and his attempts to speak to Roger Smith, chairman of GM, to talk to him about why the factories had been closed and the impact the loss of employment had on the 30,000 people laid off by the decision.
John Pierson, who sold Roger & Me to Warner Brothers for the unprecedented sum of $3 million and set a new bar for deals for documentary films, later published an “Open Letter” to Moore on indieWIRE in which he defended the film Manufacturing Dissent, which was critical of Moore’s methods, and accused him of having actually interviewed Smith and then chosen to omit that footage. Pierson said in part, “Did I know you had interviewed Roger Smith when “Roger & Me” caught lightning in a bottle back in 1989? No. Do I have any first-hand knowledge now that you covered it up? No. But do I fully and completely believe the testimony of people who were there with you in Flint and have absolutely nothing to gain by lying – eyewitnesses like Nader organizer James Musselman or even Roger Smith himself? Yes I do.”
Moore still (so far as I’m aware) claims he never interviewed Smith for the film. But Moore was not then and never has been a filmmaker who’s made any claims to objectivity in his work. He’s an activist at heart, and he makes films that speak to the issues he cares about — and that paint the side of the story that supports his position. The films he makes, while sometimes very good, serve more as agitprop for his particular viewpoint than objective documentation.
Albert Maysles shooting Grey Gardens
Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David has been credited with creating the cinema verite style of film-making, is an example of a documentary filmmaker who believes in, as much as possible, keeping the subject of documentary "real". In a fascinating 2006 interview with Williams Cole for The Brooklyn Rail, Maysles had this to say in talking about today’s reality shows: “A true documentary is shot with no control. You might even call it the uncontrolled cinema. Because once you begin to control the audience it’s not even the real thing.” Later in the piece, Maysles goes on to discuss the controlling of cinema through editing, "… it’s a whole range of decisions that you make. If you choose a range of decisions that get to the true character of the material itself, without violating what appears to be the case, then you control it so it won’t be changed."
Did the Maysles’ find a way to capture objective truth in a way that most other filmmakers simply haven’t been able to replicate? And have today’s documentary filmmakers strayed too far from the idea of documentaries as capturing reality, or are they merely evolving the art form to a different level?
In a 2005 piece titled “There Is such a Thing as Truth” for NPR’s All Things Considered, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had this to say, “Truth is not relative, it’s not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth. And the pursuit of truth: Trying to figure out what has really happened; trying to figure out how things really are.” (You can read the full piece, along with the rest of Morris’s writings, in the archives section of his website.)
More recent documentaries such as Trouble the Water, For the Bible Tells Me So, Dear Zachary, and Who Killed Sister Dorothy? each tell a story from a specific point of view or thesis: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the eyes of New Orleans resident Kimberly Rivers Roberts; an examination of spiritual teachings of homosexuality from a decidedly pro-gay viewpoint; an ode to a son about his murdered father with a life-is-more-tragic-than-fiction turn; and an examination of the tense political situation surrounding the murder of an activist nun, told with a clear perspective with regard to the good guys and the bad guys, from the filmmaker’s perspective.
Docs like Lake of Fire, Jesus Camp, Prom Night in Mississippi, Neshoba, Deliver Us From Evil, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Iraq in Fragments at least attempt to cover both sides of the story — or at least show their subjects in ways that allow a viewer from either perspective to find something to which to relate; it’s often the subjects in the films themselves who polarize viewers to either agree with or despise them. Lake of Fire, for instance, could be considered either pro-life or pro-choice in nature, depending on your point of view. While I cringed at the words and actions of the more violent “pro-life” activists, I know staunch pro-lifers who point to the graphic depiction of an aborted foetus and the undeniable visceral effect those images have on the viewer as proof that the film leans strongly to the right.
Then there are the agitprop docs, which might be said to be the spiritual documentary godchildren of Michael Moore. These films have stories to tell with the particular purpose of persuading the viewer to believe a particular point of view or to take some action. Documentaries such as Gayby Baby, An Inconvenient Truth, No End in Sight, Coca: The Dove from Chechnya, Fuel, RIP: A Remix Manifesto, and others aim to incite the viewer, to stimulate a visceral response to what’s being seen. Gayby Baby , an observational documentary about children growing up in families with same-sex parents, proved to resonate tremendously with its presentation about same-sex parenting and marriage equality, presenting in a very human albeit dramatic way the evidence that families are best defined by love not gender, and the incitement to those not yet convinced to reconsider their prejudices. In an entirely different manner, No End in Sight was tremendously effective at presenting a particular thesis around the war in Iraq and proving its point that we’re in up to our necks in a situation that will be very difficult to get out of without repercussion. Coca: The Dove from Chechnya presented a viewpoint of the Russian-Chechin conflict significantly ignored by the media, largely using footage captured on home video cameras and smuggled out of the country; and Fuel (which premiered at Sundance two years ago as Fields of Fuel) was pretty much propaganda for its position that biodiesel is the key to saving the world. RIP: A Remix Manifesto is a fascinating discussion of issues around intellectual property versus artistic freedom, and it does present both sides, but the perspective is so openly skewed toward the artistic side of the equation that it loses whatever objectivity it might have gained in telling the other side, particularly given all the shades of gray surrounding the issues presented.
The Cove, on the other hand, positions its story with the structure of a narrative thriller as the scaffolding to get the audience invested in the outcome, then slams us with intense, horrific real images captured by hidden cameras, of subjects acting as they normally would in going about their gruesome task, with no idea their actions were being recorded for posterity. Of these films The Cove and Coca probably come closest to being able to claim the visual capturing of real events, although you could argue that the editing of the material presented still impacts its objectivity.There are docs that set out mostly to tell a story — in which the meta-argument becomes: how much truth must be mixed in with the storytelling for a film to be a documentary? With American Teen, for which filmmaker, Nanette Burstein, took heat from some critics arguing that the film was too polished, the stories too finely tuned, the setups too obvious. Did Burstein document honestly and objectively a year in the life of these American teenagers? Or did she portray the story she wanted to tell, using bits and pieces of the lives of these real teenagers, chose because they fit the constructs of the “types” she wanted represented in her film, in order to spin her tale?
And then there’s Sacha Baron Cohen, who pretty much defied all boundaries with his film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and looks to push the envelope even further with his upcoming film Bruno. Cohen’s films could be said to fall more in the realm of the “mockumentary,” but I’d argue that Cohen is holding up a mirror to society that reflects more honestly its real moral character, its flaws and foibles, because the subjects are being more honest in their reactions than they would be within a traditional documentary framework. With Borat, and now Bruno, Cohen captures facets of racism, xenophobia and homophobia in ways that I can’t imagine being explored within the framework of what might be considered a “proper” documentary, and the end results he gets are fascinating, even if viewed purely from an anthropological standpoint, for what they say about our society.
As for myself, I’m not sure there is such a thing as pure objectivity in documentary film-making – or really, in any art form. In fact, I’m no longer even convinced that there’s such a thing as an “objective truth” to capture at all, regardless of the intent one has or the media used; every event has myriad points of view, and even if you capture the truth as one given subject sees it, aren’t you still missing the pieces of other perspectives that would add up to the whole? And even if a filmmaker believes he’s genuinely capturing the reality of what unfolds before him, is it possible to sever elements like the choices of how shots are framed and edited, which bits of dialogue are included or excised, or even what music is used where, from the end result of whether a document shows a black-and-white truth versus showing the story the filmmaker sets out to tell?
And for that matter, is the whole issue of “to be objective or not to be objective” even relevant to the art of documentary film-making at all, or should we just accept that there are many ways to tell a story, and appreciate the points of view that filmmakers present for what they are?
for My First Feature Documentary
"You've got a great idea for film, and it just so happens to be a true story. Best of all, the main character is fantastic and you can't wait to get him or her on camera! But once you start rolling, and sit back and wait for the magic to happen -- pfft. Your interview is a dud. What went wrong? Getting a person's story on camera is an elusive process, and since I just spent over five years working on a short and a feature in which I conducted over 40 interviews, I thought I'd share a list of things that I picked up along the way that might help you." READ MORE
“…consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering—this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream – but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Maya Newell’s documentary film debut, Richard : the most interestingest person I've ever met, guilelessly introduces us to Richard Blackie, former bonsai gardener, ex-part-time salt water salesman, acclaimed Michael Jackson impersonator, and, when we meet him, only partially disguised as a Sydney, vintage toy dealer, a compulsive/obsessive eccentric with a wall of madly ticking alarm clocks, inching their way to 3 am.
The film begins disarmingly enough in a graveyard – a long traveling shot among well-manicured monuments tidily arrayed in the sterile green of careful oblivion. Over this, we hear a voice-mail message – a man’s voice, stridently at the end of its tether, threatening to break.
I first met the filmmaker when she attended my Drama of Screenwriting workshop at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, Australia. As I was to discover, her short film drama, Lacuna, had won the prestigious Robyn Anderson Award, and I – or rather my workshop - was one of the prizes. Later, I was rather startled to discover she was only 17. Her poise and, dare I say, the gravitas with which she navigated the workshop and its challenges, lent a bearing that made her seem much older.
At the conclusion of the third-day’s session, she asked me if I’d like to see some footage from the film she was working on. Assuming she was about to hand me a DVD, I was surprised when she pulled a small handy-cam from her bag, flipped open the screen, and introduced me to Richard. His mounting frustration at a local council’s decision not to assist in his most-cherished dream, the creation of a toy museum, had given rise to bitterness, and there, adrift in a shop crowded with toys whose darkness no wind-up would ever keep at bay, the man railed against the hard-heartedness of the world. It was mesmerizing, naked, and extremely claustrophobic, crammed as it was onto the 2- x 3-inch DV screen.
“Is this what he’s like all the time?” I asked.
Maya, still in the midst of assembling the record of Richard’s day-to-day existence – a public but mostly private journey towards a semblance of salvation - nodded.
How strange! I thought. What a curious project: a young seventeen-year-old girl, full of hope and light, staring into the self-proclaimed cobweb of a 44-year-old stranger fighting for his life.
“You must’ve lived through some rather traumatic experiences, yourself,” I offered.
“Why do you say that?” she replied.
“Well, you seem to share some kind of affinity with him. I mean, why are you making it?” It was a question, I would later discover, would haunt her, over and over again.
Maya had been noticing Richard’s shop since she was a child. Driving home with her mother, she used to hope the lights would be red at the corner of Crystal Street and Canterbury Road so that she could peer into the front window. It had only been recently that she’d worked up enough courage to take a movie camera along and ask the owner if she might make a film about him and his toys. Originally it was meant to be a 5-minute project for her film course at the Sydney Film School, but – as is always the case with drama - it had gotten way out of hand.
It wasn’t a life of trauma that had led Maya to Richard, but her own seemingly charmed and comfortable life, and a desire for something less predictable, something more precarious, even dangerous.
I was fascinated by this odd coupling – Maya and Richard – and was interested to see where she might take this project, or, more to the point, where it might take her. I offered to help. If there was anything I could do to be of assistance, even if only as a sounding board, all she had to do was ask.
When the workshop finished I didn’t see or hear from her for a few months, long enough to be surprised when the phone in my office rang and I heard her voice on the other end. The filming was still happening, but it had become extremely complicated owing to Richard’s growing feelings for her. He had given her a six-thousand dollar ruby ring as proof of his affection, and Maya felt she should ring and tell me. She wanted to know what I thought – should she keep it? “Do you love him?” I asked. There was a pause. “No,” she said at last. She was a few weeks off turning 18. “Well, then you’ll have to give it back,” I said. Another pause. “I know. I knew that,” she said. “I just needed to hear someone say it.”
A few weeks later – unbeknownst to me – she stepped out of a ferris-wheel at her eighteenth birthday party, but only half of her was out when it started moving. Her leg caught up in the machinery, was broken in three places. Emerging from a morphine haze and several re-constructive surgeries, she was unaware Richard had been trying to contact her. Not knowing of the accident, and having grown used to seeing her pop into his shop every day or so, he’d come to think she’d finally abandoned him and the project. It was the last gasp in a life where even breathing was becoming a chore. Without the two of them ever talking again, he hung himself the same morning Maya came out of hospital. His last voice-mail message is the message that begins the film. Ironic - a film about a life that begins with a death.
Later, Maya told me what had happened.
She didn’t know that she could finish the film, didn’t know if it was right. Some of her friends and acquaintances said it was were ghoulish – exploiting the dead for her own glory. As if. Though she was unable – or, perhaps, unwilling – to show it then, I could see she was struggling with her feelings; all the emotions were mixed up with other emotions – her guilt, her shame, the sad weirdness of someone not being there anymore, and yet lingering, the sudden embarrassing realization of one’s own mortality, the weariness of memory – of knowing what one did and what one didn’t do, of what one might’ve done, if only. And continually, even now, I am reminded of the vivid, ever-changing images of a young woman at odds with herself, harboring a heart divided by fear and longing, by ignorance and anticipation.
“What should I do,” she asked.
“You have to finish the film,” I said. She looked doubtful. “You have to. Only it’s no longer just a film about Richard; it’s about your relationship with Richard. It has to be. He’s dead. You’re alive. Part of what he is is the effect he had on you, on your life. You owe it to him, and to yourself. What you do now, finishing the film, can redeem part of what’s been lost. Your relationship with him means something, doesn’t it? Whatever it means, that’s what the film is about. You can’t leave that out, can you?”
There was never a doubt in my mind that Maya would finish the film. But what would she make of it? To what extent would she reveal herself and her own journey of discovery, and would the footage that she had already shot serve her in this quest, given the fact that the relationship was never what the film was originally about?
Interestingly, all dramatic films – both fictional and factional – involve relationships between the characters and filmmakers. Affectively, what we sense when we experience a film drama is the quality the filmmakers’ relationship with the characters. In a feature film, the writer, the director, the actors, the cinematographer and editor and designers – everyone – has, to one degree or another, a relationship with the characters. Hopefully, with the same characters! The emotional energy of any dramatic film is contingent, in part, on the quality and nature of this primordial relationship.
But what would Maya choose to reveal of herself? And what would she refuse to show? Her decisions concerning these questions would be either the making or unmaking of the project. It would also mean confronting many of the doubts and insecurities she had been cultivating for most of her life. It was alright for Richard to expose himself, to lay himself bare, to expose his anguish in the eventual hope that maybe this young filmmaker/woman would love him, but to turn the camera, even metaphorically on herself? To step into the psychic frame of Richard’s unfolding catastrophe? How would she manage that?
To Maya’s credit, she made some very courageous and unflattering (to herself) choices, which, at least to the present writer, speak to her faith in something bigger than ego and that “last great infirmity of the soul”, fame. I had the good fortune to accompany her on parts of this journey, looking at various cuts and offering another in her ongoing dialogue with the material. I was happily surprised at times by what seemed an instinctive ability of hers to know not only what to shoot but how to arrange the shots in time so as to continually keep one involved in the emotional meaning of the story. I was also impressed with Maya’s judgment in deciding when and how much she should allow herself 0 her character – to leak into Richard’s world.
Once, during filming, Richard had taken the camera out of Maya’s hand and turned it on surprised filmmaker. With the roles suddenly reversed, Richard began asking her questions. Thrust uncomfortably into the spotlight. Maya half turns away, hand to her face, embarrassed that she is now the awful target of the all-seeing lens. That she decided to use this scene in the re-imagined film that evolved out of Richard’s suicide, and that she elected to place it very near the beginning of the documentary, attests to her astute, intuitive talent for dramatic film=making. It is a powerful and important moment in that it establishes her as a ‘character’, providing us with a face, grounding her relationship with with Richard in something more substantial than a mere voice. Now we know who is asking; we have a face to put to the questions and to the comments – we know from whence they spring – the flashes of awkwardness, the perseverance, the callow carelessness, the twinges of self-doubt. And all of these, and more, are wonderfully juxtaposed to an intelligence and awareness that is capable of presenting a dramatic odyssey that propels its audience intelligently and with genuine emotion to the edge of a very personal disaster and beyond.
It is the combination of innocence and experience, of naivety and wisdom, in concert with each other, that lends Mizz Newell’s film its power and its eccentricity.
As the first film of a young documentary filmmaker it shows remarkable promise of what might come. The odd coupling of Richard and Maya is reproduced in the even odder coupling of Maya’s youthful inexperience with an innate wisdom that goes far beyond her years.
As one watches this strangely prophetic film, one catches glimpses of something just out of reach, something utterly oblique but there, as if in the corner of one’s eye – a recollection of the lives one lives disguised to oneself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, as one of the ancestors.
Maya’s film is a recollection - that is a re-collecting of the details of a life - a putting-back-together of lives lived and forgotten. And in this way her evocation elegy isn’t merely a search for Richard, but a quest to discover something about the filmmaker’s own nature and identity as well.
NOTE: In response to requests from several filmmakers as well as past and present students, I am publishing the article I wrote to accompany the DVD of Richard: the most interestingest person I've ever met. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the DVD, please write to Siren Films. Visit their website at http://www.sirenvisual.com.au/
AS REPORTED IN IF Magazine :
Maya Newell wins Outstanding New Documentary Talent at AIDC
[Mon 07/03/2011 10:12:18]
By Amanda Diaz
Maya Newell has taken out the 2011 F4 Award for Outstanding New Documentary Talent for her documentary Two.
The award was presented by Australian International Documentary Conference director Joost den Hartog on the closing night of the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival.
Two was one of the four finalists selected from around 80 entries from up and coming documentary filmmakers. The film focuses on a middle-aged British man with a furry fetish living in an adult nursery outside of London.
According to F4 Jury President Gil Scrine the decision to award the prize to Two was unanimous.
"It was closely observed yet discreet and powerful in its simple depiction of this quite bizarre and little known corner of the human condition," he said.
The documentary won the Audience Choice Award at last year's Sydney Underground Film Festival.
Newell is best known for her award-winning 2006 film Richard: The Most Interestingest Person I've Ever Met.