The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

The point of a documentary is that it's NOT real life

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I was watching David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and there’s a famous scene where Lawrence hold a lit match which then cuts to the sun rising over the desert.

It’s a remarkable moment, and only works because of the huge confusion in scale provided by the cinema screen. A match fills the element of the frame as easily as the sun. David Lean - as the director - had to intend to make that connection by choosing to film them both in a way that matches, and then cutting from one to another. You have the same kind of choices to make.

All film - documentary and drama - works because it is not real life.

When you are making your documentary and you find yourself just following the action to see what happens and how it turns out, you are not making choices about what to show the audience.

And those choices depend on you having a strong argument about the meaning of your story.

Yes, there are times when you cannot be sure what is going to happen, but you should have thought about the different ways things could happen, and what each version might mean to the story you want to tell. Do you adjust your story, do you find a new element that needs bringing to light and so on?

If you’ve already filmed much of your material and you can’t find the meaning behind it, it’s because you didn’t film it as meaningfully as you could. If you are researching or developing your idea, then you should be guided by what you want to say. And in your edit, the job is to explore how well your argument stands up, and how you have to change and adjust it to create a slightly different and yet equally powerful, meaningful story.

This is from one of our student, Quinn Monahan, who is directing an upcoming feature-length documentary:

“You want to affect your audience. And for lack of a better word, you gave us permission to manipulate our audience to say, this is going to make our audience feel the way we want our audience to feel at this point in the story. And when you're doing a documentary, you're always kind of, you know, editing yourself saying, 'Well, you know, is that manipulation?' Well, all of filmmaking is manipulation. Whether it's scripted or unscripted, you have to treat a story, like a written story, you're writing a story with the elements that you have collected along the way. And that's what, that's what the Doc Fix System is, it gives you permission to be to fully express your creativity. So throw out that, if it does not serve the story, even if you think it's a beautiful moment”.

All the best - Nigel