Insight into the Basic Narrative Structure of Documentary Films

Today, guest speaker Sharat Raju, director of the film Divided We Fall, offered a discussion of narrative structure and storytelling. The basic structure of any narrative, according to Sharat, goes as follows: there’s a person, this is what the person was up against, this is what happened, and this is the result of those actions. Documentary filmmaking is an extrapolation of that basic structure. Sharat was trained in narrative filmmaking, where the main question was always “whose story is it? who is the main character? who is the story told through?” The most compelling part of making Divided We Fall, said Sharat, was that Valarie was that character through whose journey the story was told.

Valarie pointed out that while filming, it was not contemplated that she would be in front of the camera — this story and Valarie’s specific place in it were constructed later, in the editing room. This is typical of documentaries, where much of the film’s structure is created later.

Sharat then compared Divided We Fall to the Oath, where the first image is of a captured man. The audience feels a need to link to someone who is either the storyteller or someone who we can understand what he/she is going through. With DWF, the film showed Valarie’s family life and past in a way that when she finally went on the road, the audience was with her. The film, then, was the journey: the question of what would happen to the characters and the storyline. You have to keep this basic structure (“where are we going with this?”) in mind, or else the audience will get lost. In The Oath, this was accomplished by using the second *trial* (which has a resolution and a verdict — built-in dramatic tension) as a backbone through which the characters’ more emotional moments made sense. The most important thing is to clearly define the characters and their struggle: what is the end goal? Where are we going to end up? And when you end there, how have the characters been transformed? Character has beginning in stasis, they go on journey, and learn something on it. This isn’t always recreatable in a documentary; you can’t always force a story, either ethically or technically. And note that merely having a simple structure (such as a trial) does not mean that the story itself is simple.

Finally, Sharat showed the class the opening scene from the documentary Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams  makes the story structure very clear from the beginning with an “I wish” type story (“I wish I could make it to the NBA”), comparable to the opening “I wish” song of many Disney movies. This opening scene clearly sets forth the narrative structure: they will make it to the NBA or they don’t. And the movie tells this story.

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