Learning the old to create the new

In this module of my master, I have been reading a number of books to understand more about the narrative is presented in the documentary, and the steps which are taken to create this in the pre-production phase.

As I have done more reading and I am not too sure that the structure assigned to the longer form documentary is necessary applicable or feasible for the documentary short, and indeed both DeJong, Knudsen and Rothewell, and Adelman talk of the short as allowing more freedom and not confined to the expected norms.

All the books I have read, but particularly Rabiger, present the classic narrative as the format documentaries should / could be delivered in.  That is the format of exposition, rising tension, climax and resolve.  This is based on some kind of plight of the central character or antagonist, rising tension created through the obstacles the face, a climax and some kind of resolve.

I cannot see that the type of films that I will be making will follow this structure.  There will be one or more antagonists: the researcher who has work which could make an impact and a patient living with a health condition.  They both face struggles of some sort: the researcher getting the knowledge generated from their research used and the patient facing the challenges of the condition.  Obviously one of these has much greater capacity for emotionally engaging the audience and therefore in the vast majority of cases I think that the patient will be the protagonist (with the researcher a secondary character).  Their challenges with their condition and how it affects their life can be appropriately and sympathetically demonstrated on screen.  However, the film ,is by necessity, going to be a snapshot in time.  There will be minimal development of story as in the protagonist trying to accomplish something and either achieving or failing.  The films are meant as a call to action to bring about a change, maybe not for that particular individual (depending on timescales) but for people like them.  In that sense then, my films cannot follow the classic narrative structure.

DeJong, Knusden and Rothwell discuss a number of sub-genres of the documentary field. If my aim is to present an issue for which a change in practice could remove, reduce or increase quality of life for an individual then the ‘day in the life of’ format from their point of view explaining how the condition impacts on their life and how the potential change that the research team have identified could make a change, is probably the way to go.

This has been one option of presenting information that has been in mind for some months one of the keys to which will be bringing together researcher, patient and stakeholders in meaningful collaboration to identify the key messages of the film.

If I already knew this then have I wasted my time understanding all the theory?  I don’t think so. As DeJong states: “To know the old is certainly necessary to create the new.” I have learnt lots about juxtaposition of information to create contrast helping with the rise and fall of tension, to consider whose point of view the film is being told from, structuring devices, storyteller characteristics etc. etc.

I feel that I have gained lots of insights in what I might want my films to be, and using Rabiger’s worksheets for generating the film’s hypothesis, a number of things that I should think about in the pre-production phase to ensure that I make the film that I want to make.  In that sense, all my reading has been a success.


Adelman, K. (2017) Making it big in shorts: Faster, better, cheaper: The ultimate Filmmaker’s guide to short films. United States: Michael Wiese Productions.
De Jong, W., Rothwell, J., Knudsen, E., Jong, (2011) Creative documentary: Theory and practice. Harlow, England: Prentice Hall.
Rabiger, M. (2014) Directing the documentary. 6th edn. London, United Kingdom: Focal Press.






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