Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. A presidential candidate in Colombia is kidnapped (The Kidnapping ofIngrid Betancourt); children in Calcutta are given cameras and inspired to move beyond their limited circumstances (Born into Brothels); executives and traders at Enron play fast and loose with ethics and the law (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it's what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts. "The documentarist has a passion for what he finds in images and sounds—which always seem to him more meaningful than anything he can invent," wrote Erik Barnouw in his 1974 book, Documentary. "Unlike the fiction artist, he is dedicated to not inventing. It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself."
Story is the device that enables this arrangement. A story may begin as an idea, hypothesis, or series of questions. It becomes more focused throughout the filmmaking process, until the finished film has a compelling beginning, an unexpected middle, and a satisfying end. Along the way, the better you understand your story, even as it's evolving, the more prepared you'll be to tell it creatively and well. The visuals you shoot will be stronger. You're likely to cast and scout locations more carefully and waste less time filming scenes that aren't necessary. And perhaps surprisingly, you'll be better prepared to follow the unexpected—to take advantage of the twists and turns that are an inevitable part of documentary production, and recognize those elements that will make your film even stronger.
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