In literary terms, theme is the general underlying subject of a specific story, a recurring idea that often illuminates an aspect of the human condition. Eyes on the Prize, in 14 hours, tells an overarching story of America's civil rights struggle. The underlying themes include race, poverty, and the power of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary change. Themes in The Day after Trinity, the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer's development of the atomic bomb, include scientific ambition, the quest for power, and efforts to ensure peace and disarmament when both may be too late.
The best documentary stories, like memorable literary novels or thought-provoking dramatic features, not only engage the audience with an immediate story—one grounded in plot and character—but with themes that resonate beyond the particulars of the event being told. Sound and Fury, for example, is not only about a little girl and her family trying to decide if she should have an operation that might enable her to hear, it's also about universal issues of identity, belonging, and family.
"Theme is the most basic lifeblood of a film," says filmmaker Ric Burns (see also Chapter 18). "Theme tells you the tenor of your story. This is what this thing is about." Burns chose to tell the story of the ill-fated Donner Party and their attempt to take a shortcut to California in 1846, not because the cannibalism they resorted to would appeal to prurient viewers but because their story illuminated themes and vulnerabilities in the American character. These themes are foreshadowed in the film's opening quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, a French author who toured the United States in 1831. He wrote of the "feverish ardor" with which Americans pursue prosperity, the "shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it," and the way in which they
"cleave to the things of this world," even though death steps in, in the end. These words presage the fate of the Donner Party, whose ambitious pursuit of a new life in California will have tragic consequences.
Themes may emerge from the questions that initially drove the filmmaking. On one level, My Architect is about a middle-aged filmmaker's quest to know the father he lost at the age of 11, some 30 years before. But among the film's themes are impermanence and legacy. "You sort of wonder, 'After we're gone, what's left?'" Kahn says in bonus material on the film's DVD. "How much would I really find of my father out there? ... I know there are buildings. But how much emotion, how much is really left? And I think what really kind of shocked me is how many people are still actively engaged in a relationship with him. They talk to him as if he's still here. They think of him every day. In a way I find that very heartening."
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