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TV Development Tips

The Poetry of Storytelling


Photo by Sebastian Fritzon

Understanding the Poetry of Storytelling by Catalin Brylla

No documentary shows THE truth. Every documentary shows ONE truth, and no matter how observational your documentary is, it always carries the bias of the filmmaker, so why not exploit this possibility to engage the audience even more? The secret of poetry is to be bold enough to express your voice by playing with or breaking conventions. Keeping that shot longer than it would take the audience to get the literal meaning. Cutting between impossible times and spaces. Using counterpoint music or voice-over to create a disconnect between sounds and image. Using colour tones to confirm or contradict assumptions. Using symbols or metaphors as motifs throughout your narrative.

This week we’re focussing on Nichol’s Poetic Mode and exploring about how you can add emotion and meaning to programme ideas that don’t have characters narrative arc. Understanding poetic forms of documentary making can give you the tools to develop and pitch a tired old subject in a fresh and exciting way.

The concepts of poetry

Poetry does not seem the obvious aesthetic choice for TV programmes, with its undertones of “abstraction”, “tranquillity”, “slowness” and “intellectualism” – which are in direct contrast with the fast-paced, immediate, literal and emotional nature of TV programmes.

However, using these stereotypes to define or approach poetry would do a tremendous injustice to a very rich, diverse and constantly evolving art form. Before we look at the style of poetic docos, we should first have an idea about the concept of poetry and poetic documentaries. What does all poetry (and poetic docos) have in common? Wikipedia gives us some significant clues:

“Poetry […] is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, it’s apparent meaning.”

So, poetic language lifts, or shifts meaning beyond the obvious, literal meaning. Using poetic jargon, one could say that denotation (literal meaning) becomes connotation (associative meaning). For example, look at the pictures below: family familypale

Both pictures denote a joyful family gathering of four generations. However, the picture on the right has a cold feel or tone to it, which almost contradicts the content of the picture, or, in the very least raises more questions. Is it a happy gathering? Are the women really emotionally attached? Does their posing seem artificial? Do they gather that close just for the sake of the picture? Are their smiles forced? Why don’t they hug each other?

It is interesting to see the consequences of a little colour correction in tint and contrast. This change evokes a different mood, and this mood creates a range of other associations which go beyond the literal meaning of the picture (connotation).

Poetry turns the spectator into active participant

Remember that a filmmaker’s arsenal consists of more than just colour: editing rhythm, sound effects, voice-over, titles, narrative structure, preceding/succeeding shot, shot size, camera angle, visual depth etc. All these elements can be used in conjunction to create alternative meanings beyond the literal. Connotation or association always stimulates the spectator’s mind (cognitive processes) forcing him/her to see and interpret. The viewer immediately becomes an active participant, rather than a passive couch-potato.

But that is not everything about poetry. Poetry uses ambiguity, symbolism and irony to create meaning, which often leaves the text open to multiple interpretations. And, multiple meanings potentially extend your target audience. Thus, one viewer might see emotional distance in the right picture above, another viewer might see strong unity in a cold society. Two valid views based on the same picture.

The filmmaker can choose the degree of ambiguity by the way he/she constructs the context (narrative structure, sound, etc.). One has to be very careful here, not to fall into the extreme pitfalls on either side of the scale: if it is too abstract and multi-dimensional, then the audience will be lost and lose interest; if it is too literal and one-dimensional, then the audience will be bored or feel patronised. In either case you would emotionally distance your audience from the film. So, always strive towards a poetic balance that does justice to you (the author), to the subject (or story) and to the viewer.

The practicalities of poetic documentaries

Now, that we have an idea about the concepts of poetry, let’s look at the practical considerations when it comes to filmmaking. Here is a list of common formal and stylistic features of poetic docos:

* Structure: fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical, organic
* Eliciting emotional response rather than conveying information
* Disruption of coherent time and space
* Explores associations and patterns by using rhythm and juxtaposition
* Usually lacking characters and character development
* Focus is rather on conceptual arguments, than specific contexts
* Author’s voice and intervention is very apparent and acknowledged

Poetic documentaries often do not employ a classic narrative structure. They surely have a narrative (or even argumentative) structure, but without characters/supporting characters, without conflict/dramatic arc, without inciting incidents. The emphasis is on a concept or idea that the author shares with us through means of visual poetry. The argument or theme is presented in an emotional way. Mood and tone are more significant than information, knowledge or persuasion.

Case studies: Night and Fog, Koyaanisqatsi

For example, in Night And Fog (1955, Alain Resnais), shows “idyllic” images of concentration camps after the war. They are shown in a very poetic way, underlining the camp buildings and facilities with a flair of countryside beauty and tranquillity. These shots of derelict Nazi camps are intercut with German archive footage, showing the atrocities that took place only 10 years before. The visuals are bound together by a pleasant voice reciting poems written by a camp survivor. This, seemingly contradictory, treatment of the concentration camps now and then creates a poignant atmosphere and foregrounds classic historical themes, such as memory, reminiscence and denial. The result is a strong emotional experience, and an understanding of history that exceeds knowledge gleaned from a history book.

The beauty of poetics is that there is no need for coherence in space or time. On the contrary, juxtaposing time and space opens up new possibilities for understanding. Look at a particular scene in Koyaanisqatsi (1983, Godfrey Reggio) where the director cuts from a static time-lapsed shot of ascending escalators at rush hour to a time-lapsed conveyor belt in a sausage factory. This “simple” comparison between crowds of people and processed sausages, coupled with the physical length of the individual shots (he keeps the static shots incredibly long), sums up the emotions and themes of the entire documentary (conformity, rigidity, consumerism and industrialisation in Western culture).

You don’t UNDERSTAND the themes, you FEEL and EXPERIENCE them. In another scene he cuts from a satellite view of an American city to an extreme close-up of a circuit board, revealing striking similarities in pattern and textures. Both scenes employ montage editing to express an idea through visually comparing similarities and differences.
These examples show that in poetic documentaries, form is more important than content. The form itself is the messenger of the author’s views.

You should not be apprehensive about using your own voice to manipulate sounds and images in a poetic way. As long as it is done in an obvious way (not as manipulative as Michael Moore), and as long as the focus is on ideas, not on characters, there is no risk of being accused of twisting the truth. Go beyond the literal!


Photo by dbking

Other examples for documentaries that are (partly) poetic are: La Jetee / Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker), Lessons of Darkness (1992, Werner Herzog), The Gleaners and I (2000, Agnes Varda), Rivers And Tides – Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2006) and The Last Peasants (2003, Angus MacQueen). Also The Fog Of War(2003, Errol Morris) uses a poetic style in its cutaways not in it’s overall treatment.

Catalin Brylla is a freelance editor, media lecturer and post-production consultant. He teaches post-production practice, film and documentary theory, and documentary production at the International Film School Wales, the London Academy of Radio, Film and TV and Insight Education.

As a film scholar his research includes narratology and cognitive film studies. His article on narrative endings has been published in Image and Narrative and broadcast on RTV Croatia.

As a practitioner he has edited a variety of documentaries (feature and short), promos and short fiction, which were selected and screened at international film festivals and broadcast on Swedish, Swiss and Brazilian TV.


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