THE NARRATIVE DOCUMENTARY

IN RELATION TO FICTION FILMMAKING 

Mary Jane Doherty

 

 

                  Narrative documentaries, also called story documentaries, are like cinema verité films of old:  they set out to reach the audience primarily on an emotional level by developing three-dimensional characters.  In this sense, they're more closely related to fiction films than to educational documentaries.

 

So, for example, NOVA producers traditionally interlace expert testimony by scientists with narration; the scientists are there in support of the driving premise of the film.  In a story documentary, however, the scientists arethe film.  So, the audience maylearn the science eventually, but they learn primarily throughtheir attachment or identification with the characters as complex human beings.

 

NarDocs (we shortened the name when, about 15 years ago, a student asked to enroll in my 'Narwhale Course') immerse the audience into a world where the audience forgets they're watching a movie.  We work without an agenda, learn how to shoot a scene on the fly, gathering sufficient footage for a seamless edit withoutdepending on the structural undercurrent of words: VO or interviews.

 

NarDocss are neither better nor worse than traditional journalistic forms; they're different, since they're pursuing different goals.  They are rare though: most producers, understandably, can't afford to work without a script or timeline. Some examples:  Seventeen, The Farmer's Wife, Happy Mother's Day, To Be and To Have, Salesman,Bombay Beach, and Only the Young.

 

John McPhee is our inspiration:  He is to writing what we are to filmmaking.  He travels the world, meets people, shares them with his readers. McPhee is the introducer, the conduit to his new world, but then he steps aside allowing us, the audience, to connect directly with his subjects themselves.  He does this through the elegance of his technique- his precise, efficient use of words.  Ourlanguage, however, is not words.  We 'speak' through: composition, movement, light and sound.

 

Fundamental to both NarDocs - and to fiction films shot this way - is the idea of relationships.  When filming strangers, this means,  the NarDoccer first 'falls in love' with her subjects, then relays that respect back to the audience through technique - through attention to form.  Ultimately the audience falls in love with the characters too.  In a fiction film, shot NarDoc style, the Director cares about her actors, forges a dance-like relationship with them built on trust. This is how the actors are then able to relay their respective characters directly to the audience.