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Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.

 

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Staying Power: Documentary Film Storytelling

One of my documentary students, Judith, is coming to the documentary filmmaking process later in life. Instead of taking a nice, easy retirement, she is unpacking personal home video she shot years ago with her partner Jess, as Jess was dealing with extremely painful and isolating chronic illnesses. The subject is very emotional and the footage, although now several years old, is still very raw for Judith.

Judith has over 30 hours of video footage and 30 of audio recordings that follow the last nine months of Jess’ life.  Within the footage is the story of her and Jess, as they dealt with the illnesses, and also how their friends were responding to the crisis. The footage explores Jess’s ultimate decision to take her own life as her physical condition became unbearable, and how Judith and their friends coped with this decision. Judith wants to make a film that explores the contentious issue of rational suicide, and also the role of the partner or loved one in relation to the person who has a chronic illness. The larger issues will be nested within this very personal, engaging story. She’s thinking of titling it “Staying Power”.

The film has huge potential to speak to many important issues of our time. But, where to start? The sheer amount of footage coupled with lack of experience is overwhelming Judith as she embarks on the editing process. But, nevertheless, she is diligently taking one step forward and diving in. She has not raised any money yet to bring on an editor, so she’s making a go of it herself first. Yesterday, we discussed how she could possibly start this process in a way that made some sense.

This is often a question I get asked about editing long-form documentaries-how do you begin to organize a story that seems so unwieldy? Judith and I talked about several possible approaches. I suggested making a Step Outline – a beat by beat list of what happened as their story unfolded in real life, in chronological order. This Step Outline could give Judith a map of how to assemble rough cut scenes in the first stages of editing. When these scenes are assembled, then adjustments can be made to heighten drama or make information come across more clearly. Scenes can be tightened, moved around, or even eliminated. Sometimes to fill a story gap, you’ll need to create a new scene. But I think it’s essential to create this initial map to help you see the overall picture of the story. Then you can shuffle things around. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “Every film should have a beginning, middle, and an end. But not necessarily in that order.”

Another suggestion was to just start editing the scenes that are really compelling. If you can’t stop thinking about a particular scene, then even if it’s going to come in the middle of your movie, start with it anyway. Since it has a certain resonance for you, it may be a key scene in the film that helps set a tone, or gives crucial character information, or gives you certain insights into the inherent rhythm of the film.

You can also begin by trying to construct the opening of the film, but sometimes I feel this can be the hardest way to start. When editing Homeland, the first three minutes of the film were the last to be edited. We had to fully craft the story and sharpen the characters before we knew “where to begin”. The opening sequence of the film has to immediately engage the viewer and set the tone and style for the film. Usually you don’t find this “tone” right off the bat; it’s something that starts to develop as you work with the material.

When you are stuck, it’s great to refer back to the basic tenets of dramatic storytelling. Pulling out the Dramatic Curve diagram from your college English class notes can be very helpful! Or, pick up a good book on basic screenwriting principals. Even when telling a true story, you can still use the basic three-act structure rules to help you shape the most compelling film possible.

And probably the most important thing is to show your cuts to others who can be supportive and honest with their feedback. This will show you very quickly where the holes are in your story, where things are too repetitive, and will help you identify what is working well. But remember, viewing stories on film is a highly individual experience, and each person will have opinions that you can incorporate or discard. In the end, it’s important to rely on your own gut feelings and tell the story that is truest for you.  --Jilann

P.S. You can find more helpful information about how to develop your ideas into stories in our Documentary How To video tutorial "Developing Your Documentary Ideas".