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The Dramatic Documentary: Telling True Stories with Fact and Feeling

Documentary is, by its nature, non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dramatic. In fact, the best documentaries balance presentation of facts with entertainment to capture an audience’s imagination. In this article we’ll look at documentary as a form of drama and explore how you can use storytelling techniques in factual works.

Note, the examples in this story are taken from documentary film but they are just as true for documentary photography, too. Fundamentally, the choices faced by documentary photographers are very similar to the ones faced by documentary filmmakers.

Fact, Fiction, and Feeling

The trick of a documentary is to tell the story of something or someone that actually existed while giving a clear, balanced presentation of fact. Having said that, it’s important to also remember that documentary can never be truly objective—after all, someone has to choose what to film in the first place, how to film it, how to edit, what (if any) music to place over the visuals, and so on. All of these choices push the viewer, in way or another, into feeling a particular way. 

Reportage photographers and journalists also work with reality, but their role is to remain neutral observers. In documentary, on the other hand, your intent, perspective, values, and aesthetic style are integral parts of the story. However, like a photojournalist, as a documentarian you must also uphold a set of ethical standards in order to protect the credibility of your subjects and story. This combination of an ethical, factual approach with authorial licence and storytelling technique is in large part what makes documentary so powerful.

Docu-drama and Docu-fiction 

When all this is considered, adding other elements of drama, like re-enactments, seems a natural course. Keeping your documentary factual should never be compromised by dramatic techniques, however—never add in fictitious sequences that don’t have a basis in fact or edit interviews in such a way that you’re changing the meaning of what was said. The drama in documentary should never obscure the truth or factual nature of the subject. 

Docu-drama should also not be confused with docu-fiction. With docu-fiction, think of the many reality shows we see that follow a person or group of people in the style of an observational documentary. These people are given loosely scripted scenes to act out or are deliberately placed into scenes what will cause confrontation. In short, they are asked to perform a fictionalised version of themselves in an artificially constructed scenario. You’ll notice these shows often have a little disclaimer at the end to say that some scenes were staged for dramatic affect.

Characterisation

In the same way as a fictional film or soap opera will have ‘characters’, documentaries strive to give life and voice to their subjects. Time is linear, but choosing when to reveal information and facts to the audience is the key to achieving a high level of drama.

Reenactment

Film clip via Lonely Tower Film & Media

In the above clip we see two men drinking in the pub. Ultimately, we find out they get hit by a bus and are killed. Starting with that fact would provide little to no dramatic tension, so we start by telling the story of their last evening: the music isn’t dramatic, the narration tone is peaceful and talking about how he’s safe, he’s home from the war. The audience may think something’s coming, but won’t know what it is yet. As they leave the pub, the tone of music changes and we cut to an interview to change the pace—the interviewee talks about their fate as we see it on the screen. All the facts are there but the recreation and holding off from revealing the ‘end’ all helps to create drama and tension.

Two men walking at night in a dramatic re-enactment
A dramatic scene from Wad Thou Gan? Washington Men in the Great War by Lonely Tower Film & Media

Protagonists

Characterisation doesn’t always have to develop through re-enactment, either. Recently I was in France and Belgium where we followed a group of people retracing the journey of WWI soldiers. Initially we picked 6 couples or individuals who had particular stories to tell (they might have had a relative buried or on a memorial for, example) and decided that these people would become our ‘main characters’ through the film. It would be hard to get an audience to follow and remember 40-odd people. When you pick out half a dozen and feature them more prominently you’ll find it’s easier to get to grips with and relate to those stories.

When you show the stories intertwined, with a very definite beginning, middle and end, then you’ll find the viewer wants to watch to the end to find out what happens. It’s all about telling a story. Even though the story is factual you can use the same structures you would with a work of fiction. We could’ve just followed the group and filmed what they did and where they went en masse. You never know, it might have yielded some really interesting footage, but unless it was shaped into a story it would have little significance to an audience.

Storytelling and Emotional Investment

Whether fact or fiction, the basic elements of storytelling remain the same. A good story should have a beginning, middle and end. Although that sounds very linear you can choose to hold back key facts in a documentary until a more appropriate point in the story, as long as it doesn’t change the truth of it. 

Drama usually comes via protagonists. An audience likes to have someone with a story they can follow and someone they can become emotionally invested in. A hint of jeopardy is always welcome—a story that has no light and shade will struggle to move along and can feel boring. Likewise, too much jeopardy is a bad thing: you don’t want to create a constant tension with no relief. Balance is the key.

Actually telling the story or stories can be done in many different ways. You can have a voice-over to move the narrative along. If you’re showing an interview, using cutaways and music can help add a little something, like in this clip:

Film clip via Lonely Tower Film & Media

This interview on its own provides some great information on the use of horses in WWI. Although it would be fine as a standalone piece it could get a little boring visually. By flipping to some re-enactment pieces about the subject being discussed we've stimulated the audience’s imagination and moved the piece along in a much nicer way.

Conclusion

Some drama is essential in a documentary in order to keep the story flowing and get the viewer involved. As with all things, less is sometimes more. It’s important not to get carried away with the drama and forget that what you’re making is a documentary. Again, it’s all about balance. Here are some key points to remember:

  • Keep your piece factual, never make up fictitious scenes for dramatic effect.
  • Use characterisation to give your viewers something to invest in.
  • Tell a linear story but remember you can hold crucial facts back until a more appropriate moment to add drama.
  • Have a beginning, middle and end: a good documentary has a satisfactory conclusion, even if that conclusion is unresolved for the ‘characters’ within the documentary.
  • Use things at your disposal such as voice-over, music or re-enactments to add interest and create drama.
  • Remember that less is more.

There are no hard and fast rules when adding drama to a documentary so go with whatever feels right for your piece. If in doubt, have a test screening where you sit a few objective people down and have them watch the full film or even just a scene and then offer their honest feedback. Those people don’t have to be filmmakers, often it’s the people who don’t know the techniques or subtle nuances you’ve used who will be able to give the most useful suggestions.

Whatever elements of drama you choose to include in your documentary just remember that it is, first foremost, a documentary, and your accurate presentation of facts should always be your priority. Once you’ve established that, then telling the stories and working out how to add drama is the fun part! 

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