Week 4 Reading

Week 4 Reading Log

The Readings:

  • Rabiger, M. (2004) Directing the Documentary, London: Focal Press. Ch.16: Research Leading Up to the Shoot
  • Bernard, S. C. (2010) Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, New York and London: Focal Press. 2 Story Basics

This week was the easiest workshop, at least for me, as it was about screen etiquette and the theory of editing. This was somewhat mundane for me as I have spent a considerable amount of time studying film and teaching myself editing composition and aesthetics, however this course takes all students and so I understand the need for this weeks workshop, even if I already knew. On the other hand, the readings this week focused on research and the basis of the story.

Rabiger – Research leading up to the shoot

This chapter focuses on how to research, developing your narrative and ideas and how to give yourself the most help for production before filming anything.

Research partnership

This was a difficult section for me; I love my independence, so the idea of collaboratively researching was a difficult proposition to consider. Rabiger opens the section with, “An ideal way to research is in partnership with a second person” pp.225, Right off the bat. I am not a big fan of group work because, in my experience, there is often one or many people in the group that do not desire the highest grade possible, as I do. It is often difficult to find a collection of people all with the same determination and drive to complete a project well. The group I was placed into for this particular project are amazing. Driven, keen, available, and most of all we all desire to achieve the same goal, this is the best kind of partnership, and so when it comes to research I am comfortable my group will only help me. (I will discuss the presentation of my group’s research in my next blog post.) Rabiger discusses how films are made collaboratively and that with like-minded people, partnership in research can really boost a production. Having a differing point of view may even prove as a positive as it reveals more options for the direction of a film to go, directions one person may fail to ever think of. This section has not made me change my mind fully on collaborative group work as the positives only apply if the group you are in are also productive, keen individuals, but it has opened my eyes to the opportunities considering someone else’s point of view may give.

A sample subject for discussion

“Before shooting anything, find out whether such an idea is feasible.” pp.226. This is the basic idea of this sub-heading, once you have an idea, find out if it can work and how to make it work. In my own idea, the largest stumbling block will probably be the availability of buskers to interview. I am filming on public ground, as that is where the buskers are, and so permission to film in a location should not be an issue, (I have discussed this in depth in my presentation blog post). Rabiger does raise a good point here, that one’s research will prove any logistical or monetary difficulties that may arise in filming one’s documentary.

Research relationships

This is to merely keep an open mind in listening to other’s input into your film. When describing the film idea be specific, Rabiger says, but allow room for thought, the person you are talking to may have a better idea or a different angle you had not considered. (Thanks Rabiger!) This is again an aspect I find troubling, not due to ability but due to personal lack of people skills! To openly discuss what I am doing is difficult but I understand the need for input from other people in my group or just other people n general. Rabiger spends the remainder of this sub-heading describing how to talk to a subject about your film, common knowledge to some, but I shall be sure to follow this closely.

The value of assigning metaphorical roles

This is the best section so far! In this section, Rabiger addresses the narrative side of the production by suggesting to assign roles to characters in one’s documentary. “You want your story to contain the characters, passions, atmospheres, and struggle proper to any human tale” pp.229. I have touched on this idea before in the week 3 reading log from Chapmans Issues in Contemporary Documentary, Chapter one. At the end of the day, the film is just that, a film, and thus needs engaging characters who play a role in the plot in order to keep maximum audience engagement. It is also important for the characters to portray the purpose of the film. For example, if I wanted to make the audience pity a child, I would use all aspects of cinema to make them look vulnerable and upset, through a high-angle shot to minimise the subject’s size in frame, mise-en-scene to indicate his isolation and so on… This child would play the metaphorical role I have designed for them to play at the point in the documentary where I wanted to elicit a feeling of sympathy/pity from the viewer.

How people alter in front of a camera

This was an odd sub-heading I thought on first glossing over the chapter but it is an important aspect of documentary to address. This is something we covered in a workshop during interview techniques, how to interview a subject and get the best footage from it. My documentary tutor described good posture and an open/inviting body language is the best way to make your interviewee comfortable. As Rabiger says interviewees may come across as a show-off or instead clam up from sheer nervousness.” This is obviously a big no-no. Having questions ready and being confident in asking them is not mentioned as a way to relax an interviewee, but I think these actions are integral to evoke the best interview from somebody you are able to.

The necessity of a working hypothesis

I have explicitly stated in the ‘My idea’ post that the idea for my documentary will be one that is subject to change and will be ever adapting. This could be due to new discoveries if the subject of a film is contemporary, something could affect it such as an ongoing war, a bomb could drop which could not be known beforehand by a documentary maker. Most of all a documentary and the filming f it is research into the subject itself and with new information, a filmmaker may have discovered an entirely new direction for their film previously not even considered. Rabiger does say something here that I disagree with, “write out the minimum your film must express.” pp.234. To me, this is a silly idea for the reasons I have described above. New data could drastically change your own perception of the subject you are filming and influence you to take the film in an entirely different direction! (One of the rare occasions I find myself disagreeing with Rabiger!) But I do agree with the idea of a working hypothesis.


Rabiger then goes on to talk about narrative structure in a documentary film which I feel could be its own chapter.

The need for development, conflict and confrontation

I feel like I have discussed this in week two’s reading log, in the same book but chapter eleven, under the sub-heading, ‘Locating the story pressures and “Raising the stakes”‘, but it is a key to a narrative. In fact, it is a narrative. From Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film, London: Routledge, 1992; p. 3

“Narrative is a way of organizing spatial and temporal data into a cause-effect chain of events with a beginning, middle and end that embodies a judgement about the nature of events as well as demonstrates how it is possible to know, and hence to narrate, the events.”

This is quite a long section but it easily summed up by the dramatic curve or through Todorov’s theory of equilibrium (as I learned previously).

The Dramatic Curve

The Dramatic Curve
As seen on page 236 in Rabiger’s (2004) ‘Directing the Documentary’

This is a simplistic diagram of the narrative arc one should hope to achieve in a documentary film, or any film for that matter. I have previously used Todorov’s theory of equilibrium which follows the pattern: Equilibrium, dis-equilibrium, realisation, restoration of equilibrium and a new/re-established equilibrium. These two are generally the same principle, however for a documentary I do prefer the dramatic curve. This is split also into three acts; act 1 the exposition to the inciting moment, act 2 the rising action and climax and act 3 the resolution and re-establishment of an equilibrium.

I feel the diagram expresses all I could explain about the theory but I shall need to consider this structure when drawing up my own narrative, this will make editing and story construction that much less taxing.

Dramas in miniature

This is a small sub-heading in the narrative section of this chapter explaining the dramatic significance of a scene. This is a concept I have been taught through my study of fiction film, that a scene must have this dramatic curve structure in order to keep viewership and entertainment at maximum. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V-k-p4wzxg ‘Who wins this scene’). What Rabiger is trying to communicate here is the fact of cinema, that if a scene has now dramatic curve, it has no resolution and thus has no purpose.

Looking for beats and dramatic units

Rabiger describes a beat as “when you see someone go through a moment of irreversible change of consciousness … you are seeing a beat” pp.238. A beat is a seminal moment in a film that changes the audience’s perception of the narrative or of a character. For instance in my film about a busker, the set up could be the reinforcing the belief that buskers are poor and asking for any change they can have, so a beat in my film would be to reverse this stereotype and present a busker working for the love of music, not because they have to work, but because they are following their passion for music. I could reveal this in a number of ways through a dramatic unit. Defined again by Rabiger as including:

  • The initiation of a new issue
  • Complications that escalate pressures
  • Apex of confrontation
  • The beat – a change of consciousness in one character that initiates a new issue and the onset of a new dramatic unit


A scene can contain one or many dramatic units but I believe too many units overload the viewer with information, and force narrative upon them too quickly without an opportunity to consider the film altering information that is in front of them. This is a small dramatic curve and you wouldn’t have multiple entire dramatic curves in a film, would you? Of course not.

Exposition, facts and narration

The final sub-heading for this weeks Rabiger chapter is the conglomeration of narrative and how a film’s story and plot is built. Compiling facts about your subject: important dates, names of locations, names of important figures, ages and relationships will not only help you in pre-production to plan filming, it will also make the use of narration in a documentary void. This makes the outcome all the more professional as the information is not force fed to the viewer, they are given the opportunity to comprehend information without explicit spoon-feeding. Rabiger finishes off the entire chapter with, what I think, is the purpose of research, “Images and characters may supply all vital information that is needed”. pp.239. With the proper amount of research into a subject, one can plan, produce and edit a film with only minor hassle.


Sheila Curran Bernard – Story basics

This is a relatively short chapter on composing a story, the relevant information to include and how the narrative should be laid out. It goes into the history of story describing it’s Greek theatre origins as well as define some story-telling terms. (I shall try not to repeat information I have previously stated).


Bernard describes exposition as the establishment of character and plot in a story. A lot of the information she describes I have previously stated, but one point of exposition I have not covered is the when key information should be given out which she describes, “there is an art to giving out key information at the right moment … offered at the right time, exposition enriches our understanding of characters and raises the stakes in their stories” pp.16. I will have to consider this heavily when making my film. It is only going to be around 4 minutes long, but this means I shall have to plan when I want to reveal the twist and at what point I want to establish new characters into my narrative. As Rabiger describes in the previous log the idea of beats in a production (see above).


This seems a simplistic point, even to someone who does not study film, but in fact I think it is the most important. Knowing the themes of your work, as Bernard is not speaking specifically about documentary here, is integral to any filmmaker in how a scene, a sequence and even a single shot is filmed. For example in my own work, to convey the themes of isolation a busker may have, I would need to shoot to reflect this. A single long shot to isolate my subject, a telephoto lens with a shallow focus to separate the busker from passers-by and make them stand out from everyone else etc. These are all aspects I would need to think about before going out to shoot, to make sure I had say a lens with a low f/1.8 aperture to create an extremely shallow depth of field. Knowing key thematic points in one’s documentary before shooting is the only way to plan to film these which is integral to convey your purpose as a filmmaker and get across the desired effect.

Plot and character

Bernard describes a films story as, “either plot or character driven” pp.19. Plot driven films being films in which the plot directs the story and the characters are simply there reacting to the changing circumstances, whereas a character driven film is derives action from the wants and needs of the characters. Bernard goes on to describe how documentary rides this line not favouring one or the other, so as a filmmaker I was allowed to choose and I found it a difficult choice. I feel I did not want a star busker in my film as busking is a community, anyone can busk, so I suppose my story would be pot driven, but the issue here is that, what plot. In the end I decided on character driven but the most varied characters I could find. I want to capture the variety of busking, that it is an inclusive community activity, and thus my story will be character driven, not by one person, but by many buskers.

Point of view

This is the perspective from which a story is told. This is key in directing audience interpretations, as I said in the previous paragraph, to make the audience feel a certain way is the goal of a documentary. I will need to plan and film according to the point of view I want the audience to see from, in my case seeing busking as a surviving from of entertainment and the community around busking. This is why I will shoot and edit my film from the point of view of the busker and not of the public, as the public will be watching the documentary and do not appreciate having their view forced upon them. The audience want to create their own opinions on all topics but they have not see the point of view of a busker before and this will make my film unique and hopefully re-watchable.

All aspects of filmmaking define point of view from camera angles, lens type, lighting, framing to editing and all aspects of post production. This means when filming it is integral that I know the exact point of view I need to convey in each section of the film to create my desired meaning of the film overall. I believe a good effect to establish that I want to convey the film from the point of view of a busker is to first establish the character with familiar shots, from the point of view of the public, and then transition into shots from the point of view of a busker once this character is firmly established. This shows the shift in perspectives and gives time for the audience to adjust to the new point of view, the one from the busker. I believe this will be the least jarring and most effect method to convey the purpose of my documentary film.


This is merely a section on mise-en-scéne (the process of setting a stage with regard to placement of actor, scenery, properties, etc. from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mise-en-scene). This is how an audience understand a character purely based on scene. The props, body-language, facial expressions and clothing all signify facts about the characters in a scene/shot. This is something I have to consider less, I am not setting up any shots as I want to capture buskers as naturally as I can on the streets. Still I must be aware of what is included in each shot e.g the collection of donations, if they have any social media links, the state of their clothing, which can say a whole lot about a subject, etc.

A satisfactory ending

A lot of the rest of this chapter was either repeating what I have already discussed on this blog or only applied to stories in fiction films, but this section I feel applies to all film narratives.

“A satisfactory ending, or resolution, is often one that feels both unexpected and inevitable. It must resolve the one story you set out to tell” pp.30. This is true among all cinema I feel. The final point of the narrative curve must be satisfactory resolution, if the film went no-where then what would be the point of making it? The story must be like a conclusion to an essay, wrap up all points of the story told and pose questions the audience must consider, (a good conclusion anyway). This is perhaps different to a fiction film conclusion where an audience may what all points clarified, because a good documentary should pose questions for the audience to consider they may not have in the past. I would never argue the point that there should be no conclusion and the audience have full power to decided on all fronts what meaning they take away from the film as there is no direction here. Instead offer a conclusion to an argument while leaving questions that give further thought into your subject matter. As Bernard argues, “ending a film … does not necessitate wrapping up all loose ends or resolving things in a way that is up-beat” pp.30.

In conclusion

Follow a narrative arc, establish characters, remember point of view and always consider what you want the audience to consider at every second of your documentary film, and after. Convey the purpose you desire at every turn.

(Good readings this week!)






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