Less storytelling, please: why documentaries will benefit from getting real

“Main character. Three acts. Heroic journey. Climax. Resolution. Nothing else seems to suffice in today’s documentary marketplace. A good story reigns supreme,” writes the Toronto-based film-maker Brett Story in an essay for World Records Journal about “story” as documentary’s hottest commodity. She’s not wrong: looking back at the highest grossing nonfiction films of the last 15 years or so – films such as March of the Penguins, Amy, Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, Three Identical Strangers e Free Solo – they all adopt flashily “cinematic” structures. Whether they’re character studies or social issue films, each follows a familiar arc with three distinct components: setup, confrontation and denouement. It’s telling that the Netflix-produced My Octopus Teacher, which casts a Hollywood love story between film-maker Craig Foster and his cephalopod instructress, captured the hearts of Oscar voters, winning best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.

With the intellectual property market booming, there is pressure on those who work in nonfiction – film-makers, long-form journalists, audio producers – to shoehorn the lives of real people into the tried and tested template of classic storytelling. In his 2014 bestselling book on screenwriting Into the Woods, BBC TV producer John Yorke says that “storytelling is hardwired into human perception”. This shape, we’re told, is how we naturally make sense of the world.

In her essay, Story argues that “story” is only as natural as capitalism. It’s easier to sell a neat, narrativised nugget of information – but to become reliant on story as an organising principle is to lose something unique to the documentary form. “To centre an individual and their story is also to centre, in our cinema, empathy over solidarity,” she writes. In other words, we praise the rhetoric of story for its supposed universality, but the ability to map our experiences on to another person’s life is no radical act in and of itself.

Documentary films have the power to make viewers understand their subjects rather than to simply identify with them. Some of the most striking and moving documentaries I’ve seen over the last few years have been less concerned with the certainties of story than they are with the possibilities of form. Films such as Garrett Bradley’s Time, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson and Story’s The Hottest August use associative editing, collaging together images from different moments in time. Through their juxtapositions, these film-makers are able to ask questions, convey scale and create emotional resonances that reflect the mundanities, digressions and complexities of real life.

I’ve been thinking about story (and Brett Story), sifting through this year’s Sheffield DocFest programme. I was struck by Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere, an ambitious essay film about the fallibility of the human eye. Dispensing with a protagonist or linear narrative structure, the film instead makes chilling connections between different blind spots, linking the 1874 transit of Venus to body cameras, in which a limited perspective is engineered into the product to better protect the police officer (“the frame of the body camera erases the officer from view” reads the film’s voiceover). As an antiracist challenge to policing, it’s as effective as any conventional “story”.

Yet there is, credo, a way to centre a story without commodifying it. They Won’t Call It Murder is a short film by Ingrid Raphaël and Melissa Gira Grant, that is set in Columbus, Ohio; it centres five women who have all lost loved ones as a result of police brutality. In each occurrence, the officer was in plain clothes. The camera glides coldly over institutional spaces such as hospitals and courthouses, switching to a looser, more intimate handheld style when inside the homes or cars of its subjects. Bearing witness to their stories, which have been ignored by mainstream media, is something the film takes seriously. “This ain’t gonna get far out there,” says Maryam Malone at a vigil for her 16-year-old brother, Julius Tate Jr. It’s moving to see the film-makers amplifying her voice, understanding that sometimes the unembellished truth speaks for itself.

Documentary-makers have a responsibility to their subjects as well as their stories. Delphine’s Prayers, from Cameroon-born, Belgium-based film-maker Rosine Mbakam, also gives voice to an underserved narrative. Its charismatic main character, Delphine, is a mother and sex worker, also from Cameroon, with an acid sense of humour and perpetual cigarette. She recounts the tumultuous, often traumatic events of her life with mesmerising force and clarity. “Nobody is stopping this story being told – not as long as I’m the pilot of this plane,” she tells the camera. What’s interesting is the way Mbakam allows real life to intrude on and puncture the dramatic shape of Delphine’s narrative. We see the emotional toll that the telling takes on Delphine. She has to take breaks. She is interrupted by her children. At the film’s climax, she begs both God and her father for forgiveness. There’s catharsis, ma, unlike in fiction, there’s no satisfying or tidy resolution. The film is as much about Mbakam’s deep listening as it is about Delphine’s journey.

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