In Fiction the Director is God.
In Documentary, God is the Director.

AMY_Sources-Olga-Susteriove-and-Arash-Riahi.jpg

I’m at SOURCES 2 screenwriting workshop near Stuttgart. Eight days immersion with a group of Finns, Russians, Germans, Spanish, Austrians, Iranians, Irish, Swedish, a Norwegian… Coming from the Scottish Documentary Institute and supported by Creative Scotland, Sonja Henrici and I are the only filmmakers from Britain.

I am here because I feel quite overwhelmed by my experiences at Strathcarron Hospice, and want to make the very best film I can. As filmmaker in residence, I have already filmed with patients, and discovered the amazing singing talents. With great pride I showed my sample five minutes. "Ah yes," said Arash Riahi, the outrageously successful tutor. "You love your characters and you want to show them to the audience straight away. It is sweet. Or do you want to make a film?"

AMY_Sources-doc-group.jpgOh. Ah. So the learning begins. And it is exhilarating. As we go through the nine (nine!) structural models of dramaturgy, I recognize there is one that fits the experiences of the hospice patients. As I begin to shape my material to the stages of this structure, I realize how satisfying it can be to take the time to establish each stage of the process. This is what allows the audience to feel completely involved. We plot characters’ likely progress and chart storytelling at several simultaneous levels – what is happening in the outside world, their inner process, the use of landscape and environment, and more. Because this is an ensemble film, each character does not do every single one of the story moments that take the story to the end, but each contributes to the complete dramaturgy. I have created a large page with my film characters in green, red, and blue, showing their crises and thresholds and different sorts of resolutions. Film in a box.

But – "in fiction the director is God. In documentary, God is the director." That uncertainty is why I love documentary. I will not script my patients and ask them to do things to fulfill my ideas written in red and green pens. But understanding the structure of the storytelling means I will recognize their real experiences when I am filming them as representing one stage in my red and green page. So I will make sure I have each sequence I need to tell their stories. Each sequence that the editor needs. Now all I need is God to smile.


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  • commented 2012-04-26 17:01:43 +0100
    Amy, I agree entirely with the ‘uncertainty’ that is documentary and the constant vigilance, like fishing, required to film it. However, I am wary of ‘structural models’ but agree that every film requires to find a form appropriate to its material, so that the audience is held in a dialogue. I also avoid setting anything up, but just to prove that one can be overcome by the opposite of what one believes, of one’s own approach, I saw recently one of the most beautiful shots ever in a documentary film. And clearly it was planned: in Le sens de l’âge (The meaning of ageing – see http://www.lesensdelage.com/) in which an 89 year old man, talking about his life, walks down a staircase in the late afternoon sun. We look at his shadow on a brick wall and the camera pans down as he descends, slowly, until his shadow disappears into the river which runs along the wall… I’ve never experienced any single shot as evocative of the serenity of dying as this.
    Thank you for your stimulating journey through this fundamental topic, which we will all encounter one day for ourselves.

    Jonathan Robertson
  • published this page in Blog 2012-04-19 11:43:00 +0100