By John Merriman
As one of the preeminent screenwriting festivals in the country, the Austin Film Festival has built a reputation for screening films demonstrating excellence in writing for the big screen. How then, one might ask, does the documentary format fit into our mission of celebrating the writer? The truth is that although there are many aspects of a documentary film that are out of your control, there are many important decisions that a filmmaker can make to discover and share his story.
There are no rules about subject matter in the documentary film world, but here are a few guidelines. When selecting your subject matter, originality is important. This does not necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do a documentary about a subject matter that has previously been presented, but it is important to have an original approach. Just because somebody else did a documentary about penguins doesn’t mean that that’s completely out of the question, but you’d better have something new to say.
US / Mexico border policies have certainly been dealt with before, but Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine followed a group of anti-immigration vigilantes offering a scathing critique of border policy and a unique and powerful approach to the problem (WALKING THE LINE, AFF SELECTION, 2005).
The documentary filmmaker is well served to avoid manipulation, but one must still discover the existing story and make intelligent decisions about how to put the pieces together. Pacing and timing affect the way the audience experiences the film. The way you structure your narrative should serve the story. Again, this doesn’t mean that one should always rely on genre standards (e.g., a sports documentary should have fast cuts), but rather to pay attention to the relationship between form and content and make editing decisions accordingly.
MUSKRAT LOVELY (AFF SELECTION, 2005) told the story of a beauty contest and muskrat skinning contest that coexisted on the same stage in a small town and relied upon a slow, steady pace that expertly reflected the dry, absurd tone of the film.
Often times documentary filmmakers fall in love with their footage. Sometimes there’s an amazing camera move or wonderful moment that the filmmaker simply must include. Problems can arise when these moments pile up and a documentary that might have been elegant at ten minutes, becomes repetitive at thirty. Again, the length should serve the story. It is the documentary filmmaker’s responsibility to trim the fat when necessary.
Last year’s RUN TO JAY’S turned the sports doc on its ear, playfully cutting footage of a group of friends as they try to beat each other’s times running to a convenience store and back to pick up a soda. At a quick 15 minutes, it was a lean excercise in restraint.
The fact of the matter is that the documentary filmmaker, though not a writer per se, tells her story using the grammar of film to create a narrative. I have touched on a few points here, but there are countless other times where the filmmaker makes choices. Where should I place the camera, how should I cover the scene? When should I show up and when should I leave. These are decisions that have a great deal of impact on the story and for me give creedence to the idea of documentarian as an author. Though not scripting dialogue or determining the outcome of the story, the documentary filmmaker makes choices that serve the story and craft the narrative.