Docs, Writing, and the Original Meme

So recently I got a message from a friend in desperate need of help on his most recent film project. Despite being incredibly busy (so busy my blog has been in shambles with a half dozen, half started posts lingering in the unpublished section of the internet jungle) I agreed to help...mostly because it isn't everyday that one is asked to aid in a deadline completion for the latest film of Ken Burns' and his local Florentine Film Crew! The task at hand: transcription. Transcription is the type of detail I think more documentary filmmakers should embrace as it helps manage interview content, a thing that can be daunting if not handled correctly. After completing this tedious task of transcribing I asked my friend what exactly they use the finished product for, his reply was that they use them to mine for potentially usable footage and also as an early stage in script writing- yes documentaries (mostly should!) have writers!
 I've mentioned recently how I think it is important for documentaries to build a story, purpose or point around the subjects they are filming (a sore spot for me given my recent film fest screening committee time in which many a mere camera rolling in front of some real life subject tried to pass as a film...), a feeling that has been greatly reinforced by my forray into transcription! When thinking of the work of Ken Burns I think of sweeping yet detailed histories of a particular subject, subjects that are so dense and complex that they seem impossible to encapsulate through a film. But, it is the intense structuring of the information- the sweep and zoom across archival images, the questions asked of the interview subjects, thought provoking voiceover narration, humanized events, incredibly researched facts- that are able to make Burns' style move past photo album, vacation slide show or boring slapdash film category and into historical document territory.

FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES - Official Trailer from mike ambs on Vimeo.

The NY Times recently published an article about the sudden increase in writing credits attached to documentary films...and the conclusion drawn was: people are confused by it. But why? Turning a camera on a subject is one thing but shaping that subject into an interesting story, person, comment on the world is quite another. First off, editing itself is a form of writing, of building footage into something watchable, why should writing not act as an obvious extension of editing? I mean we all know that reality tv is concisely edited to portray it's characters as such- to create tension, drama- all of the things that dominant media tend towards- so why not expect the same from nonfiction films? Maybe though, it is the history of the film medium itself that creates this strange dynamic between editing and writing about reality.

Vertov fought for the Cine-Eye, the unfettered documentation of the world through film and Eisenstein was a lover of montage as he edited together two dissimilar cuts of film to create a tension full of meaning and inference but...we no longer live in a world where a camera is just a voyeur or where a simple image next to another can suffice. We now live in a society where information is accessible all the time, images splintered into micro-mediacosms where no consistent understanding of montage seems possible, and where the ability of cameras to lie is at an all time high. So, what does this mean for documentary film? Personally I think it means we should, and are (!), becoming even more reliant on words in films to be a conveyor of information. In fact, one of the best docs I previewed as a Screener consisted nearly entirely of voiceover narration that built up a complex understanding of one man's intangible personal journey, adding a deeper layer of meaning to images (much like good old Herzog and, to a certain extent, the very film this blog began as a companion to!). I have a feeling that words and writing are going to become a bigger part of the independent film landscape- especially in terms of documentaries- as the camera's abilities continue to grow and the world continues to become a more visually saturated place. Hell, even the rise of the internet meme is often a thing of pictures and words, pushing us closer to a cultural communication (the fact that English is the dominant conveyor is a whole other matter...sigh...) creating a new static form of montage! A picture might be worth 1,000 words, but a picture with 1,000 words? Think about it. All this from the tedium of transcribing for the studio of Ken Burns! Good times in the documentary world! (Side note for haters: I don't think all docs need to be narrative but I do think a more thoughtful editing process is important to crafting the history of the subject you are fact, think about it that way: A documentary film is a historical document, craft with the importance of this in mind!). Here I leave you with some interesting takes on documentary subjects and stories, with every piece of film calculated in writing, editing and beauty to leave behind a wondrous cultural relic for the future!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.