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Developing Factual Ideas

Five Documentary Storytelling Styles Seen in 2013

In 2013 I had the pleasure of attending an interesting range of film festivals: IDFA (surrounded by canals); Sheffield Doc/Fest (immersed in the city), Cannes (stretched along the beach), Open City (sitting in a university lecture theatre), Italian Doc Screenings (on an island) and Quadrangle (found in a field). All were enjoyable in their different ways.

Here’s a list of some of the most memorable documentary films I saw, 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 you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film.

However, whether you agree with my selection or not, we can learn from the different narrative approaches chosen by the filmmakers you may find inspiration to help you develop and shape your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea to potential funders (and ulimately the audience) more effectively, and also help you keep on track schedule- and budget-wise.

Contemporary/Personal History Constructed With Eyewitness/Participant Interviews and/or Archive Footage

Twenty Feet From Stardom (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

    1. Twenty Feet From Stardom – the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century
    2. The Stuart Hall Project – uses TV and radio archive to create a portrait of Stuart Hall, a leading intellectual and cultural theorist in the UK, alongside an exploration of the cultural identity of his adopted country.
    3. Muscle Shoals – the story of the legendary FAME Studios located by the Tennessee River in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which was is the source of some of the most creative music recordings in American history
    4. The Armstrong Lie  – explores the event surrounding the Lance Armstrong doping scandal
    5. The Crash Reel – an intimate family portrait that follows the recovery of a young snowboarder who suffered a life-threatening head injury
    6. The Spirit of ’45 – Archive and interviews tell the story of the birth of the British welfare state 1945.

Dramatization of Real Life Events

The Act of Killing (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof)

  1.  The Act of Killing – in which the unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads re-enact some of their many murders in the style of the American movies they love
  2. Just the Right Amount of Violence – in which director Jon Bang Carlsen recreates the dramatic moments when teenagers are snatched from their beds to be taken to a behavioural correctional facility. He describes his approach as ‘dramatized verite’.

Use of Alternative Creative Genres to Help Protagonists Express Their Emotions

Cutie and the Boxer (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof)

  1. Cutie and the Boxer – the portrait of a marriage that uses Noriko Shinohara’s animated illustrations of her alter-ego Cutie
  2. Hidden Wounds – a pop video style interactive film in which injured military veterans join in song to tell their stories
  3. Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humour – stand up comedy lessons for injured military veterans

Investigation / Quest

Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars (Photo courtesy of IDFA, Credit: Paul Wilson)

Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars (Photo courtesy of IDFA, Credit: Paul Wilson)

  1. Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars – the story unfolds as main character pursues her dream of being an astronaut
  2. Father Figures – the story unfolds as the filmmaker sets out to unravel a family problem when her father falls in love with a younger woman
  3. Blackfish the story unfolds as by the filmmaker interviews a number of witnesses to tragic events at SeaWorld
  4. Jingle Bell Rocks! – the story unfolds as the filmmaker sets out to increase his collection of Christmas music
  5. Sex My British Job – the story unfolds as a journalist sets out to uncover illegal activity in a London brothel
  6. InRealLife – the story unfolds as by the filmmaker collects a series of case studies of people adversely affected by their relationship with the internet

Observational / Unfolding Narrative

Twin Sisters (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

Twin Sisters (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

    1. After Tiller – two decades after Dr George Tiller was gunned down in a Kansas church, two courageous women doctors  attempt to carry on their working lives, determined to help the desperate women who need late term abortion
    2. Killing Time – a family gather to find out if their relative on death row will get a last minute pardon, as one of his victim’s describes his crime
    3. Displaced Perssons – what happened when a man moved his family from Pakistan to Sweden; not everything goes as planned
    4. Twin Sisters – twin sisters are adopted from a Chinese orphanage; one to Norway and the other to the USA. This film follows them as they grow up and try to forge and maintain a relationship despite their cultural differences
    5. Song From the Forest – American Louis Sarno built a life in an African rainforest with the Bayaka pygmies; 25 years later he takes his young son to visit NYC
    6. Fuck for Forest – a group of idealistic activists attempt to save the world by selling homemade porn movies; it turns out the world doesn’t want to be saved
    7. One Mile Away – follows the conflict between two warring gangs in inner city Birmingham, UK.

Portraits of People Who Tell Their Story Retrospectively in their Own Words

The Life and Times of Doris Payne (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

The Life and Times of Doris Payne (Photo courtesy of IDFA)

  1. Menstrual Man – How an uneducated man from rural India became a sanitary napkin entrepreneur
  2. Which Way is the Front Line From Here? – a postumous portrait of photographer Tim Hetherington, told through his images
  3. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne – the story of a career criminal, told in her own (unreliable) words
  4. The Secret Life of Uri Geller – Psychic Spy? –  a perplexing portrait of an enigmatic man (another unreliable narrator)
  5. To Be a B-Girl – a short film that follows the fortunes of a street dancing girl in a B-Boy’s world
  6. A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times –  Jayson Blair, a former reporter at the world’s leading broadsheet paper, the New York Times, attempts to explain his part in a plagiarism scandal that rocked journalism.

Ensemble of Experts – Talking Heads Take Turns Telling a Complex Story

The Gatekeepers

  1. The Gate Keepers –  six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service tell the inside story of the secretive organization
  2. The Trouble With Aid questions the validity of humanitarian interventions in the late twentieth century.


You can view more documentary storytelling approaches here.



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