Documentary storytelling: Revision

imageAt all times, we are surrounded by an infinite number of stories. Our brains would explode if we entertained all of them.

Instead, we tend to focus on a couple stories based on our observations or interactions with others, and depending on the person, we either fill in the blanks of the story with our own imagination or we investigate to discover the facts.

This is one way we process our world. And as a cave man could tell you, stories are what we've always craved and thrived on.

Films are one way of sharing stories with others, and in doing so, sharing greater truths about our world and our priorities. Documentary films stake their claim on presenting those greater truths on a foundation of fact.

Within a couple months of being at TGS, most students have the skills to film moments and string them loosely together into a video form I like to call "video snapshots," pairing these visuals with audio they like in order to cast the viewer into an experience. These are lovely, and they take a particular skill set to produce well.


Creating documentaries requires another layer of skills and knowledge on top of those baseline production skills. The more this knowledge gets baked into our minds, the easier we will be able to identify those stories around us that should be captured on film. The stronger our takeaways from a place, the more meaningful our bond to its people.

So what does a TGS student need to know about documentaries? The following information was compiled from "Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: a Handbook for Making Documentaries and Ethnographic Films and Videos" by Ilisa Barbash.

Documentary terminology

imageSync sound: the reason documentaries really emerged, the ability to film video and sound at the same time on a handheld device

Subjects: who the films are about

Actors: the term for who is in the film with regard to their performative quality

Characters: the term for who is in the film with regard to how the filmmaker portrays and develops them on screen

Viewers/audience: the people viewing a documentary, the ones who interpret the meaning of the film

Pro-filmic: the term for an event that takes place in front of or around the camera and has the potential to be filmed

Filmic: what story appears on the "canvas" (on FCPX) or screen, which excludes the pro-filmic events you edited out or didn't capture, e.g. special lighting

Diegesis (pronounced DEE-jeh-sis): a film's story or the world constructed

Non-preconception: a method of discovery as a proces of filmmaking, when you don't know what story you're aiming to get before you start filming, something that can be aided by nightly logging footage and identifying trends or events to follow the next day

Extradiegetic: something that is not natural to the real world which supplements the diegesis, such as montages or soundtracks

A documentary's diegesis usually stakes claim to being completely reflective of the pro-filmic events.

Documentary styles


This style is often described as lyrical, implicatory, evocative, and stylized. The film's meaning can be oblique or unclear, open to a wide range of interpretations from the audience. They tend to highlight people's subjective feelings and are often more a reflection of the filmmaker's artistry than reality. It can be argued that most TGS student travel videos fit into this style. Vimeo calls them vidblogs.

An example of an Impressionistic Documentary: 日本 / JAPAN by Liisa Toomus


The documentary is not the mirror but a hammer.

-John Grierson

Expository documentary films talk to the viewers directly with either on-camera presenters, interviews, or voiceovers/narration. They speak about the images on screen, sometimes taking the form of an illustrated lecture. They state or argue a point verbally that is supplemented with visuals and tend to be didactic.* This style is very popular on TV because the point of view is clear and not susceptible to as much interpretation. Especially with ethnographic or cross-cultural documentaries, this style can be seen as "colonial" as it reduces the meaning of the visuals to what is stated or limits other points of view.

*It's important to note, though, that simply because a documentary is expository in nature does not make it automatically colonial, didactic, or authoritative. A gun is not murderous as is, but it is often used for murder.

An example of an Expository Documentary: Planet Earth by BBC Documentaries

Observational (direct and vérité)

It would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.

-Robert Drew

These films claim to act as a mirror of reality. They are often loosely-linked vignettes strung together into a bigger film. Observational films endeavor to depict life itself (through clearly through or own lens). This style is particularly linked to the advancement of sync sound, when suddenly cameras could follow people unobtrusively, having finally gained the ability to observe life as it is than needing to pull all the parts together in editing. They attempt to depict the "lived experience." They often include handheld camera work because it appears less meditative. There isn't a tight narrative, as they are a series of semi-connected scenes.

Direct : Vérité :: "Fly on the wall" : "Fly in the soup"

Direct observational documentary style is characterized by the lack of involvement with the subjects of the filmmaker/shooter. They aim to depict life as it's actually lived, rather than manipulating the subjects and creating different results. This is the filming style of "Big Brother."

Vérité observational documentary style (or cinema vérité) refers to the truth of the encounter between filmmaker and subject, rather than implying some universal truth. In this style, the shooter/filmmaker shows the relationship and the effects of it between them and the subjects. The interaction between subject and shooter becomes filmic.

An example of Observational Documentary (Vérité): Schooling Nomads


This style shows self-awareness of the filmmaker's creation of a documentary and its impact on the subjects/viewers/story/pro-filmic events. Films in this style are sometimes accused of being for the intellectually elite or narcissistic. To follow this style, it's important that the film be more than just a reminder that it is only a representation of reality.

In essence, Reflexive documentaries undertake a structural critique of the documentary form itself, emphasizing the constructed nature of both film and reality.

(Critical Commons, 2005)

Mockumentaries are fictional but they are a good example of this style, e.g. The Office and This is Spinal Tap.

This style is hard to really define, but maybe this juxtaposition will help. One film student attempted to tell the same story of a South African song bird named Lenny D using different formats. Here is the observational style, the performative style (yet another style which addresses the audience directly and emotionally), and the reflexive style below.

An example of Reflexive Documentary: Lenny D by Sandra Larsson