Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Exposition

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Sprinkling a dozen still photos amidst three dozen talking head shots does not make for an interesting film.

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Your incessant narration is driving me to drink. Shut up already and let the images tell the story.

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Having ponderous voiceover narration = bad idea. Having it delivered by inarticulate children = worse idea.

All three of these tweets basically relate to the same general idea – how the filmmaker chooses to reveal to the audience information s/he finds pertinent. In other words, exposition.

Personally, I tend to prefer verité approaches to storytelling, where characters and situations essentially are allowed to speak for themselves and to reveal the information either deliberately or inadvertently. Of course, verité filmmakers shape exposition by choosing what to include in their final edit and what not to, but this approach is generally less obvious than the use of a scripted narration or of an excessive use of talking heads.

If your film’s topic lends itself less toward verité and more towards more traditional interviews with subjects and experts, you may find yourself facing the challenge of how to convey information while still making the documentary visually engaging rather than appearing like an amateur TV news interview. Of course, you want to allow your subjects to express their opinions, but try to find ways to convey those opinions to your audience as concisely as possible, while retaining their accuracy. You don’t have to show us the entire interview you shot – choice parts can be used as voiceover to do the work that scripted narration would otherwise do, for example. Judicious use of title cards or simple captions can identify subjects or situations more concisely and less obtrusively than a narrator can.

In specific cases of personal documentaries, where the filmmaker often doubles as a narrator, or of some social issue oriented works, where a celebrity narrator is brought in to help draw attention to the project and its underlying advocacy work, it may make sense from an artistic or commercial standpoint to retain the use of narration. Even here, however, it’s a good idea to practice moderation – excessive voiceover narration can have an infantilizing effect on an audience, making them feel like they’re kids being read a bedtime story. Less often is more – not every scene needs narration, even if you have Samuel L Jackson working for you.

2 Comments

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

2 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Exposition

  1. Pingback: Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Excess « what (not) to doc

  2. Pingback: FLM225 – Week 1 – “Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films” | Thoughts of A Third World Filmmaker

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