As a documentary storyteller, you decide where to begin and end the story. You can begin in the middle, go back to the beginning, catch up with your story, and then move ahead to the end. You can start at the end before moving to the beginning to ask, "How did we get here?" You can flash forward or back. The only thing you can't do, in a documentary that's driven by a narrative sequence of events, is change the important facts of the main underlying chronology.
Suppose you've unearthed a story in the archives of your local historical society. The following are the events in chronological order:
• A young man becomes engaged;
• His older brother enlists to fight in World War II;
• The young man also enlists;
• The young man is shipped overseas;
• He learns that his brother has been killed;
• His fiancée sends a letter, breaking off their engagement.
These events haven't happened in an order that's particularly dramatic, and there's no way to tell, on the surface, which events are linked by cause and effect. It may be that because his brother enlisted, the young man also felt obligated, but there could be other reasons. If you can verify your characters' motivations, whether through records or eyewitnesses, you can state them; otherwise, present the facts and let the audience draw its own conclusions. By the same token, you may not rearrange the underlying chronology to imply a more interesting cause and effect. For example, based on the above chronology, you might be tempted to:
• Show the two sons enlisting after their father's death, to create the impression that they enlisted in his honor;
• Film a recreation in which the young man, already in uniform, proposes marriage;
• Present the fiancée's letter in voice-over as the young man enlists, implying that he's enlisting in reaction to the breakup.
Each of these might be dramatic, but they all lead the audience to a false understanding of cause and effect. But respecting cause and effect, there are still some more dramatic choices. Start with the young man's rejection by his fiancée, for example, and then reveal that this is another in a string of losses. Leave the father and fiancée out of the story and focus on the two brothers at war. Tell the story of the young man going to war, and then go back to follow the story of his engagement. There's plenty of room for creativity.
An example of a documentary that creates a false impression of chronology, to the detriment of an otherwise powerful argument and film, is Michael Moore's Roger & Me. Critic Harlan Jacobson published a detailed review of this film in Film Comment, outlining some of the problems. The film's present-day narrative begins in late 1986, when, according to Moore, General Motors chairman Roger Smith closed 11 plants in Flint, Michigan, leaving 30,000 people jobless and sending the city on a downward spiral.
Moore then presents a series of events, including these, in this order:
• Eleven GM plants are opened in Mexico, where, Moore says, workers can be paid 70 cents an hour;
• The last vehicle rolls off the assembly line in Flint;
• Ronald Reagan visits Flint; over archival news footage, Moore narrates, Just when things were beginning to look bleak, Ronald Reagan arrived in Flint At the end of the scene, Moore says someone borrowed the cash register on his way out the door;
• A parade is held in Flint, and Moore interviews Miss Michigan shortly before she'll compete to be Miss America;
• Evangelist Robert Schuller comes to Flint to cheer people up;
• As Moore presents an abandoned and decaying Flint, he says, The city had become the unemployment capitol of the country. Just when it looked like all was lost, the city fathers came up with one last great idea. This plan includes the building of a Hyatt Regency hotel downtown; the Water Street Pavilion, a new shopping center; and the opening of Auto World.
Remember that the film began with the closing of 11 plants in Flint, late in 1986. From Harlan Jacobson's article, here is the actual chronology of the events:
• In 1980, Ronald Reagan arrives in town as a presidential candidate and buys folks pizza. Two days before his visit, the cash register was stolen;
• In 1982, Reverend Schuller comes to Flint and the Hyatt Regency is opened;
• Auto World opens in mid-1984 and closes in early 1985;
• In 1986, the Water Street Pavilion opens, the result of a plan that may have been under way since the early 1970s. Also in 1986, the number of layoffs at GM do not total 30,000 but about 10,000, according to Jacobson. The real "watershed" of layoffs had occurred much earlier, in 1974. The net loss of jobs since 1974 was about 32,000.
• In the fall of 1988, shortly after the parade, Miss Michigan is crowned Miss America.
In other words, many of the events presented as the efforts of the powers-that-be to staunch the bleeding from the 1986 layoffs actually occurred, or were under way, long before those layoffs took place. Jacobson's article includes an interview with Moore, in which he asks the filmmaker about these issues. "The movie is about essentially what happened to this town during the
1980s," Moore responded. "As far as I'm concerned, a period of seven or eight years ... is pretty immediate and pretty devastating" [ellipses in the original]. Moore argued that he was trying to "tell a documentary in a way they don't usually get told. The reason why people don't watch documentaries is they are so bogged down with 'Now in 1980 ... then in '82 five thousand were called back ... in '84 ten thousand were laid off ... but then in '86 three thousand were called back ... but later in '86 ten thousand more were laid off.'"
In fact, telling an accurate story doesn't have to mean getting bogged down in detail or needing to tell the story sequentially. Arguably, you could leave the edit of Roger & Me exactly as it is and simply rewrite Moore's narration. For example, there's nothing to stop your use of footage of candidate Reagan stumping through Flint years before the plant closings; you simply write into it in a way that acknowledges the time shift. Here's Moore's narration, building on the aftermath of the 1986 layoff: Just when things were beginning to look bleak, Ronald Reagan arrived in Flint and took a dozen unemployed workers out for a pizza. He told them he had come up with a great idea, and if they tried it they'd all be working again. (In archival footage, a woman then explains that Reagan suggested they move to another state to find work.)
Alternative narration: People had been trying to help the unemployed in Flint for years. As a candidate in 1980, future president Ronald Reagan took a dozen workers out for some pizza and inspiration.
The narration needs to keep track of where you are in the film's present—in this case, somewhere between 1986 and 1988—while letting us know that what we're seeing is from the past, and how it informs the present. What to do about the cash register theft? This sounds like one of those facts that is "too good to check," but it must be done. If you know that the theft occurred two days before Reagan's visit, and you really want to use it, you have to be a bit creative.
Moore's words: None of Reagan's luncheon guests got back into the factories in the ensuing years, and the only bright spot to come out of the whole affair was the individual who borrowed the cash register on his way out the door.
It's unclear whether these luncheon guests were already laid off before Reagan arrived (and stayed that way) or if they were employed between Reagan's visit and the layoffs later in the 1980s.
In any case (or if you can't find out the specifics about the individuals in this footage), you could say something more general, such as: In the years to come, Reagan's luncheon guests may have wished that instead of listening to the candidate, they'd taken a cue from the guy who'd robbed the pizza parlor two days earlier and made off with the cash register.
While mine is not brilliant voice-over, it's a quick example of how you can tell a story out of order, with as much irreverence as you want, without building a case that has a weak or inaccurate foundation. To imply that the visits of Reverend Schuller and Ronald Reagan and the opening of the Hyatt Regency and Auto World occurred both after and because of a plant closing in 1986 is simply inaccurate. In his defense, Moore told Jacobson that Roger & Me isn't a documentary but "an entertaining movie that hopefully will get people to think a little bit about what is going on." However, audiences and critics received the film as a documentary, and it's highly regarded as such. The power of documentaries comes from their veracity, and it's undermined if people discover that in the interest of a compelling argument, they've been misled.
Not all documentaries, or sequences within them, need to adhere to a strict chronology; filmmakers may rearrange filmed sequences if they are typical but not necessarily specific to a time line, such as routine events (skateboard practice, Sunday church, an annual holiday). Where you place this material in the film, regardless of when it was shot, is generally up to you. If you're following a group of people—residents in an assisted living center, for example—your choice of which scenes and stories to present and when may be driven by the emotional argument you're building, rather than any specific chronology or the order in which stories were filmed. (Within each story, however, rules of cause and effect still apply. If a woman suffers a heart attack, recovers, and then dances with her husband at a formal dinner, it would be dishonest to edit the sequence to imply that the dancing led to the heart attack.)
Material filmed for thematic reasons may also stand apart from the chronological sequence. An example of this can be found in Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern. The chronology is built on the Jordans's efforts to pay off a bank debt by auctioning off their belongings. For thematic reasons, the filmmakers asked the Jordans to return to a farm they'd rented for many years before moving to the farm they're now at risk of losing. The scene's exact placement in the film, other than sometime before the auction, isn't specific. Jordan's voice-over simply says, "Early one morning we took a trip to Rolfe to visit ... the farm I grew up on." Jordan's parents are upset to discover that the old place is abandoned, but their visit doesn't motivate any action. Instead, it serves a filmmaking purpose—shedding light on the historical context of the overall film and on themes of change and loss.
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