Considering Documentary

From guest blogger Leilani Holmes at the London Screenwriters Festival 2010

This afternoon began for me with HAVE YOU CONSIDERED A DOCUMENTARY workshop with Chris Atkins, James Collie and Jon Walker. I was keen to be at this particular session because I do on occasion get talked to about documentary shorts and it’s an area I’d like to know more about as from a writing point of view I believe that documentary can be made less expensive by having structured a story in the right way from the beginning. Right off the bat as we were acquainted with the three men’s work it was clear to see that there are many approaches to the way a documentary can be told.

First up was Independent Producer James Collie, who runs November Films, and has had excellent success with his feature length Documentary BEYOND BIBA – A Portrait of Barbara Hulanicki. Barbara founded the BIBA fashion phenomenon of the 1960’s and 1970’s and the beautifully shot film follows her to today’s Miami where she works as one of America’s most respected interior designers. James speaks very passionately about how to make documentary visual and cinematic and had a lot of great advice to give about this form of filmmaking and an easy succinct way of imparting information.

The documentary focuses on the character driven aspect of Barbara’s story, her beginnings, her legacy, her cultural impact both in past decades and today, told in the main, through her own interviews and footage about her life then and now. Intended to be a feature documentary for cinema release from the start, the film is cinematic, stylish and has both a niche market of fashion and a wider human interest story to tell about this incredible woman’s life. The film has been distributed with about 60+ event screenings in the UK and internationally where the documentary profile of Barbara Hulanicki has been augmented by her coming along to talk about her work. Stylishly designed DVD special edition packs have been sold at the same time allowing the film to be continually available to view as word of mouth and press attention spreads word of the incredible life of Barbara that the film has documented. It’s like a rolling snowball that gathers more audience interest as it goes along.

Next up was Jon Walker an editor who has worked on dozens of documentaries on a wide range of subjects for BBC, ITV, C4, Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel. He had brought along some clips from KRAKATOA, a historical drama documentary made following the 2006 Indonesian Tsunami and focusing on the recurring event of tsunamis by a mixture of dramatising and factualising the tsunami that followed the Krakatoa volcano eruption in 1883. The documentary was made up of facts, scientific commentary and drama and produced for television at a time when the recent tsunami disaster was a focus in the mind of the world and had both a dramatic excitement and fear to it plus a human interest angle as people were attempting to understand such a massive natural tragedy that had wiped out a large number of people in such a short space of time.

Jon brought along some handouts with an Editors perspective on writing for Documentary and there was lots of excellent advice in that in addition to the insights he gave into how documentary is made from the edit perspective, the large amounts of footage being dealt with and his experience when working with people who are not filmmakers but want to impart information through film, such as scientists.

Finally came documentary film maker Chris Atkins who has won numerous awards and nominations and much festival acclaim for his work. After watching an extract from his documentary STARSUCKERS, I can see why. It’s got a broad appeal that speaks to ordinary people about the liberties that get taken by the media in feeding the pubic celebrity stories and lack of journalistic integrity involved. A journalistic documentary maker with good principles of honesty and openness, Chris spoke both about this work and also his film TAKING LIBERTIES around Tony Blair’s governments affect upon the erosion of civil liberties in the UK. The documentaries take a critical and perhaps controversial angle on things that have an unsanctioned affect upon our day to day lives in the country we live in. But they are delivered with a sense of fun, a snappy manner of imparting facts and a lot of national interest in the direct impact upon the lives of the viewer. In addition Chris spoke of the fact that because his films are attacking a lack of integrity in the way people act toward the public, his filmmaking in creating the documentary has to be the opposite of that. As a principled person I think he spoke eloquently about that and the fact that goes out and makes these films himself for cinema, because often they are issues that are not commissioned by TV anymore.

 Then the three spoke in detail and at length about the process involved in forming a documentary film.

There was less about writing than perhaps I would have liked but it became apparent from the way these three very different documentary filmmakers had told stories that having a good outline of who your audience is and the techniques of telling a documentary story available can affect the way you structure the story. There still needs to be a strong enough pull for people to watch documentary, especially if they are leaving the house and going to spend hard cash to see it in a cinema and the cinematic way in which the story is told should augment the point of view.

The workshop was kind of more of a filmmaking insight into documentary but because docs can be so much cheaper to go out and make than narrative drama (depending on what rights you need, they can get very expensive for some) it is possible with modern technology available for filmmaking for writers to get more involved in making documentary themselves.

It became apparent through the talks especially that more focus seems to go toward going out and just filming something yourself and that pitching with a short filmed promo is a better way than dealing with sheets of paper and the perspective, in particular from Chris and Jon tended to veer towards not so much writing them but going out and making them. However for structuring a documentary, the script can be an important tool especially for being clear towards what an editor may be trying to find in reams of footage, and this is something that James Collie went into detail with in the Script Chat session afterwards and I tended to veer more towards his attitude. But then I’m a writer so I would, wouldn’t I? 😀

All three chaps had most excellent information and perspective on the subject of documentary and great advice to give that was both encouraging and enlightening and documentary is certainly something I will attempt in future when I find an appealing enough subject matter. But then I am a filmmaker as well as a writer and lots of people in the room were. I’m not sure how I’d have felt if I was just a writer looking to work in documentary. I’ve identified for myself areas that I think having a writer aboard a project could be very useful. From a production point of view for efficiency and to ensure that somewhat boring information can be imparted in a dramatic and cinematic way that holds a viewer is something that screenwriters know lots about (and perhaps scientists don’t always?). Documentary is certainly a complex form of filmmaking that needs (as Jon aptly stated) to have a simple message but not a simplistic one.


Tons more about documentary was discussed in the Script Chat afterwards and I found that whole session of just getting to sit down and talk to the speakers and other delegates in a relaxed very chatty way was really calming and pleasant and a great way to get more information on a subject I’m curious about getting involved with. It was the first time I got to give out any business cards too!


Leilani Holmes

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

tumblr statistics