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Developing Factual Ideas

Five Narrative Approaches to Documentary

Often when developing a film, it’s easy enough to come up with an idea or a subject for a documentary. What’s harder is to work out how best tell the story. What can be helpful, and should be part of your development process, is to look at other films to see what narrative techniques they used and to what effect. Choosing an approach early in your development process will help you to structure your idea, plan your schedule and budget more accurately and, ultimately, it will mean that you are better able to describe your film (i.e. pitch it) to potential funders.

Here’s the full menu of films I watched at IDFA 2012, roughly divided into narrative style; the films grouped at the top of the list I generally found most enjoyable and satisfying and within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so watch to make up your own mind.

Contemporary history using eyewitness testimony and archive

  1. The Uprising: Hip Hop & the LA Riots
  2. Smash & Grab – The Story of the Pink Panthers
  3. The House I Live In
  4. The Central Park Five
  5. Poor Consuelo Conquers the World
  6. Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution
  7. Bravehearts

Underdog / struggle against the odds

  1. Searching for Sugar Man
  2. Charles Bradley: Soul of America
  3. The Battle of the Jazz Guitarist
  4. Rafea: Solar Mama
  5. In the Shadow of the Sun

Investigation / quest

  1. Finding Mercy
  2. The Imposter
  3. Elena

Observational / unfolding narrative

  1. Bajari: Gypsy Barcelona
  2. Sofia’s Last Ambulance
  3. Where the Condors Fly
  4. The Queen of Versailles
  5. Mercy Mercy
  6. China Heavyweight
  7. The Last Train Home

Ensemble portraits/stories linked by place

  1. ¡Vivan las antipodas!
  2. No Burqas Behind Bars
  3. The Garden of Eden
  4. Housemaids
  5. Blind Fortune
  6. The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

View the film synopses and the full IDFA 2012 catalogue here.


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