NYTimes: Writing Documentaries

The New York Times has posted this piece today that tackles the question of writing credits in documentary filmmaking.

“While a documentarian taking a writing credit for narration rarely raises eyebrows, nonfiction filmmakers are also beginning to consider the behind-the-scenes structuring of their films to be a type of writing. The trend, which is being shepherded by the Writers Guild, a union representing television and film writers, has some documentary film editors and directors worried that it threatens to redefine their job descriptions and confuse viewers, who may believe that a documentary that has been written is a less credible depiction of reality.”

This is a question I’ve struggled with in terms of teaching scripting to my documentary students. Documentaries, after all, require no less preparation than the average fiction film, but the plan is generally more loosely followed than a narrative screenplay. So what kind of script does a documentary filmmaker use? It depends on the filmmaker, of course.

The question of writing credits in documentary filmmaking goes deeper than logistics. After all, as the Times reports, these questions go directly to the definition of writing and authorship in cinema:

“[Oscar-winning director Alex] Gibney agreed. ‘You reckon bunching shots according to a visual scheme is writing?’ he asked. ‘It seems to me that that’s filmmaking. Or it’s directing or editing.'”

Here Gibney seems to dismiss Alexandre Astruc’s concept of La caméra-stylo, in which the “film-maker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.”1

What do you think? Are documentaries scripted in the same way that a narrative fiction film is scripted? Does someone deserve to be credited for that “script”?

  1. From “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La camera-stylo.”

Permanent link to this article: https://www.screenplayology.com/2012/08/24/nytimes-writing-documentaries/

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