Documentary Storytelling

How To Tell A Story In A Documentary Film

A good story is a must in documentary films. You might have an interesting story, but that’s not enough. If you have a good story, your movie won’t be only interesting, but also unforgettable.

Here are all the stages of developing your documentary film’s story:

Find an idea for your documentary film

Observe the world around you. Everywhere you will look there is a story to tell, and every story is representing a bigger story. Keep a journal and write every idea you head. Now:
you never know when you will get back to those ideas so write the idea in detail. Things that are obvious to you now, might not be that obvious when you’ll come back to them after a few months.
Another good advice is to start reading newspapers and magazines. If you want to tell a story about real life, you got to look for it in real life.
You should have a lot of passion for your idea.

Developing the idea

The important thing to think about, when you are working on a new documentary idea, is how can I sell this movie and to whom? Let’s face it- you are going to need money to make that movie. A documentary might take years to shoot and even more, years to edit- it’s going to cost you. So thinking about your potential finders can really help you to understand how your film should look like. You need to have a general idea about it, don’t go into deep details. Unlike in fiction, documentary films are usually much more flexible with their structure, but you do need to think about what your documentary financiers might want to achieve from the film? Who is your target audience? and etc.

The next thing you need to think about is your point of view in the story. This is a very important part because this is the message your movie will deliver. I recommend reading the find your own voice article, but for now, I will tell you that to do that you need to look at the conflicts of the story and the main character and to think what’s your honest opinion about them.

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You can’t go into the script writing a stage without doing a research on the subject first. While you are doing the research, you can start working on a few very general storylines for your film.

Writing the documentary script

The documentary story structure has the same principles that every good story should have in any form of art: The 3 stages- beginning, middle and end(not always told in chronological order), a character that growths and changes as it confronts obstacles, a point of view, a climax and a resolution. The difference between documentary and fiction is that a documentary film deals with facts and not fiction. I will talk about those things in the “Script Writing Classes” section later on,
but for now, you will need to know that:

The beginning is the part that introduces us to the characters, their world and their main conflict. It is also the part that needs to hook the audience to the movie and to let them know what kind of film it is going to be.
The middle part is the part where you will probably won’t have a lot to write about. Many documentary directors have a problem with writing this part, but it is important that you will at least have a list of logic scenes that will prove your message of the film. This will help you to stay focused and not to wander all over the place. When planning the middle part, I would divide it also to a beginning, middle and end.
The climax- The last conflict our main character is going to deal with before the end part comes. It should be a very big conflict.
The end is the conclusion of the film. The ending should still be following the mood and atmosphere of all the film. It should be, as Aristotle said, ‘inevitable’ and ‘unexpected.’

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The characters

you want your characters to have some kind of journey with obstacles, but that’s not enough. You need them to have another narrative in their life. You need characters that have an interesting backstory. Sometimes you might find yourself shooting 10 characters with the same story just to find the one or two that you will need.
As long as your actor is able to take action, you can use every character you want. The character also needs to change throughout the film.

Writing a script for the documentary is very hard, but you must have at least a general idea about it so you will be more focused on the shooting. that will save you time and money in the shooting and editing stages and will improve your film.

Documentary Filmmaking Tips

Tips For Documentary Filmmaking

Film school online
Film school online

Documentary filmmaking is a long process and sometimes an exhausting one. You must be prepared for disappointments and for the process of learning from those disappointments.Since you don’t have a deadline to finish shootings, as oppose to fiction films, You can find yourself shooting for years and spending, even more, years on editing the film.

The important thing to know is that when you’ll do a documentary that will work, the benefits are great! You get to explore undiscovered sides of your life and to share your voice, which turns out to be the voice of many others, with your viewers.
this is a result that has no price.
I wanted to start this documentary filmmaking course with some tips to get you start

So here are some Documentary filmmaking tips to help you get started:

Documentary director’s characteristics

As a Documentary filmmaker, you must do whatever it takes to document what is important and meaningful in your opinion. A documentary filmmaker is a one who lives to reveal hidden truths. With that, even when you tell the complete truth, you may fail, if you won’t be able to prove your film as such. A documentary filmmaker needs to have the ability to tell a story through visual images, and to be able to touch the emotions of his audience with the help of these images.When you’ll deal Documentary with a particular subject, as a filmmaker, you must be aware of three things:

  1. All the features and the point of views of the same subject,
  2. To be aware of the emotional changes that apply to him when he was exposed to the details of that world,
    and of course
  3. Be aware of the medium with which he communicates.

You will achieve awareness of these three things from repeating practice.

Communication with the viewer

The cinematic language you’ll choose to transfer your ideas has a great influence on your communication with your audience. Your movie audience needs to understand as soon as possible the message you want to discuss, and how you are going to deal with it. On the other hand, What you really need to decide is, what is more, important to you- Delivering the viewer a message or learning something about yourself and delivering it to the viewer. In my opinion, a good documentary film should be able to take us to a world of ideas we didn’t know or were too afraid to go in by our self. To help us go into these worlds outside our boundaries, a good story is a must.

Film or Video

There are many benefits to shooting in a video. A lot, actually. George Lucas once said about moving to digital that “It’s as profound a change as going from silent to talkies and going from black-and-white to color. It gives artists a whole range of possibilities that they never had before”. The advantages are big: You can shoot with a relatively small camera, which helps greatly in documentary shootings, especially if you do not want to stress your film’s object.
In addition, you can use a very large amount of raw material – As much as you want really – and it doesn’t cost much very compare to film. You can also move your materials to film (Of course there are preparations to be done).
On the other hand, there is nothing like the look of the film, so if you still shooting on film, do a lot of tests with video and know what you’re going to take and how to in advance.


Let’s be honest. In today’s world chances that your documentary will be shown in big theaters are pretty low. Today you are able to distribute your own movie over the Internet and it’s not a method you should take lightly. Many filmmakers have done just that. They picked a site where the audience could for a small fee download their movie and watch at home. Sometimes the site also contained behind the scenes of the film, trailers and more. This is a method that saves costs drastically and most importantly it is reducing your dependence on production companies and could help your chances to reach more people than on TV. The distribution through the internet is great mainly because your can reach directly to the people that most likely will take an interest in the film and not just everyone like TV does.

I hope these Documentary filmmaking tips helped you to understand what it really means to be a documentary filmmaker. I f you think you like it, I invite you to read the rest of my post in the documentary category.  I’m sure you’ll like it.

Documentary Filmmaking History – Part 2

Documentary Filmmaking History

In the first part of this Documentary filmmaking history article, I have reviewed a series of films that were a lot of inspiration to the documentary filmmaking industry that we know today. Now I want to address two equally important documentary styles in the documentary filmmaking history that came later on:

The – Direct cinema and  Cinema verity

After the second world war, the artist started to think what they did that contribute to it. One of their realization was that the obsession for esthetics had something to do with the rise of the Nazism regime. Many arts form at the after WW2 period started to focus more on the realism in their arts and the film industry was not different.  The fiction films brought us the Italian neo-realism that used real location and real people instead of actors and the documentary brought us two main sub-genres opposed the propaganda style of the older documentaries.

Direct cinema

The Direct cinema documentary filmmakers were a group of revolutionaries, who tried to interfere as little as possible in the shootings. These films were not mass production films. They were shot under the location’s natural lights and with no preparations. Their unique was in the presentations of life experiences in the most direct way possible. Sound like a documentary at it’s best, right? Well… Not so much – The thing is that when someone knows he is being watched, he will act differently, so are we really documenting the reality without any intervention? People do not behave naturally when they know they are being filmed. It is difficult to say that these films really have documented the reality as it is like they claimed they did.

A director that is very influential in the genre is Albert Maysles,  An American director. He shot with his brother, David, films with the camera on their shoulder and Interviews with a very little intervention on their part. They did wildly successful films like What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, which documents the band’s visit in the USA, Another movie was Salesman– about a Bibles sales agent, and Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones and the show that ended in the death of one of their fans.

Cinema verity

Cinema verity’s (‘cinema truth’) approach claimed that since we can’t really document reality as it is, we can encourage participants to interact with the film director. The genre was provocative and not ashamed that the camera had the power to design the reality it documents. If members of the Direct cinema took the camera to location, hoping that something will happen, at the Cinema Verity they really tried to create situations.

An important film that can be a good example is The Titicut Follies from 1967 of Fred Wiseman. The film follows the life of the mentally ill and criminals institution. 

The movie Chronicle of a Summer from 1961 of Jean Rouch is a good example as well. The film begins with a discussion of two directors on whether it is possible to behave naturally in front of a camera. The Film’s creators take the question to the streets and ask people if they are happy. The goal is to see how people react when they are near the camera.

The greatest contribution of these two genres was, that they freed the documentary films from the need to write a script. Both of them didn’t know what will happen and the video editors had to deal with the mass of raw material.

It was a very, very abbreviated record of the beginning of the documentary film genre. The main idea I was trying to pass you on these two articles is that right  from the first film, arguments about whether documentary films should reflect the reality as it is, have been asked all the time. I would recommend anyone who wants to direct documentaries to watch as many movies of the genres that are mentioned here to develop your documentary tools.

Here are some more recommended films:
Land of Silence and Darkness of Werner Herzog 1971- The film follows the lives of deaf-blind people and gives us an idea of the true meaning of loneliness.

Best Boy of Ira Wohl from 1979 tells the story of a family crisis. Aging parents wonder what to do about their son, a disabled 50 years old man. This is a very moving film with long moments of so-called direct cinema.

28 Up in 1986 by Michael Apted. A TV series that lasted 21 years. The series follows the number of children at the age of 6 and then coming back to them when they are mature. A Series that is sensitive and interesting.

That’s it. If you have any other good examples or other sub-genre in the documentary field that you want me to talk about, please let me know.

Documentary Filmmaking History – Part I

Documentary Filmmaking History

Documentary filmmaking history is not what I thought I’ll talk about When I started this documentary filmmaking course. I wanted to write articles without going through all the theoretical stuff. But I really feel that to teach documentary filmmaking, I have to begin with developing the documentary filmmaker’s mindset, and learning about documentary filmmaking history is a good way to start.

So here we go:

I am going to go through all the important stages of the documentary filmmaking history very fast. I recommend watching them and reading more about them. 

The first documentations

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, you have to start at the beginning.  It can be said that the first films created were the documentary kind of films. They weren’t fiction, any way. The first films were a baby’s meal, a train arrives, workers at the plant etc. They documented certain segments of life. During World War 1 in 1914 until 1918 the cameras kept filming the war area. The film has become a very important tool for the transfer of information and propaganda. These videos were delivered as “Newsreels” and they were broadcast in theaters. Since they are only segments of scenes rather than one long film with a basic idea, it is difficult to treat them as classic documentaries .

The first Documentary film

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, we have to start at the beginning. There is a debate between the Russians and Americans about what the first documentary film ever made:

Man With a Movie Camera – The official start of the documentary filmmaking (at least for the Russians) begins with Dziga Vertov, a poet and a video editor in Russia. He started his way from producing educational News reels for raising people to the revolution in 1917. He is best known because of this film, taken much later in 1929.
A film that is a something of an experimental documentary. In some ways, it is considered advanced even for today’s films. Average shot length in the film was 11.2 seconds. You can imagine what the viewers felt when they saw such rapid editing for the first time. Dziga Vertov made the film after he felt that cinema was stuck and took advantage of his abilities. The film depicts 24 hours in the life of the city of Odessa and other Soviet cities throughout the day. The film is most famous for a variety of cinematic techniques: he uses double exposure (what is now called super impose), fast motion, slow motion, freeze frame , Jump cuts, split screen and more. Because the editing and the effects are affecting the message of the film, there are those who refuse to accept it as the first documentary film.

Nanook of the North (1922 )  – Officially (at least for the Americans) This film is considered to be the first documentary. The film was directed by Robert J. Flaherty  And is a silent film which considers being an important milestone early film industry. It chronicles the struggle of Nanook and his family in the wild Eskimos. Beyond being an important film, the film is a historical document about a life form that disappeared already. As mentioned, the film is considered to be the first documentary Although Flaherty was accused of directing a lot of the scenes in the movie and even wanted the characters to recover customs they left a long time ago. You could say that this film is not only officially opens the documentary genre, but also the discussion about the genre. Is documentary represents reality or shapes it?

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If you really want to learn Documentary filmmaking, I recommend watching these films. Here are some more instresting documentaries from that preriod that I think every filmmaker that want to get in to the documentary filmmaking field, should know:

strike – 1924- Sergei Eisenstein, a director in the Soviet Russia has never qualified as a documentary director, but his movies like this one certainly embody the characteristics of a documentary films today. Strike describes the iron factory workers strike in Russia, where the workers were subjected to humiliation. Definitely one of the films most amazing period.

Battleship Potemkin from 1925 – The film contains the famous scene of “steps Odyssey” that won many gestures in films. To date, the film is considered one of the most influential film in cinema. Here, too, his definition of documentary is a bit problematic, but it is highly recommended for viewing for anyone interested in the documentary genre.

Night Mail -1936 –  Basil Wright and Harry Watt. A classic British film which follows the mail train moving at night from London to Scotland. Using this simple situation, the film certainly manages to capture the British life spirit of the time. The movie talk about the post office but ut also talk about the importance of working in harmony. Here also rise a debate about directing a documentary. In this case, the claims are that certain parts of the movie were filmed in the studio. Also in 1936 the political and economical situation wasn’t at it best in the British Empire, so the movie does not show the true feelings of the postal workers, but what the postal office vision was about that.

Olympia – 1938I – At the Nazi regime there was no shortage of films in the genre. Leni Riefenstahl directed in 1938 a movie that presented the Olympics in Germany. The aim of the film was to glorify the Olympic games in Germany and the German athletes. The movie is considered to have much innovation in the composition style, camera angles, editing and more. Using 50 camera operators Riefenstai created great slow motion shots. THere is no The best thing about this movie is that if you take the context out of it, you will never guess it was propaganda.
Listen to Britain  of Humphrey Jennings. The film came out in 1942 and it was a propaganda film designed to encourage support for the war. The film is considered to be a historical archive. There are criticizes about this movie being so strict and classic art style that it reminds fascist regimes movies, but one can not ignore the effectiveness it had during the war.

Fires Were Started from 1943  of Humphrey Jennings documented a night in London’s Fire Brigade unit.

Night & Fog directed by Alain Resnais. One of the more influential film documentary field if not the most influential. French film from 1955. The film depicts the life of prisoners in the camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. It was the first film that dared to face the terror of the Jewish Holocaust. Alan visiting several concentration camps in Poland and Europe.

This is a very quick list of the important films during the beginning of the documentary filmmaking history. In the next article, I will review in more detail the two genres that took a very significant part in the development of documentary film: the direct cinema and the cinema verite.