How to Choose the Right Doc Format for Your Subject

We read a lot about the proliferation of documentary styles and forms—the many different ways a director can approach the telling of a nonfiction story.

But here’s the question: how does a doc maker decide on the form or style for her next film? Which will it be — essay, verité, docu-drama, journalistic, performative, experimental, hybrid or mockumentary?

How does a doc maker decide on the form or style for her next film?

If you have your heart set on mastering the art of documentary, you should certainly become a student of the form and expose yourself to the works of as many directors and doc-making styles as you can, from the earliest pioneers such as Robert Flaherty (“Nanook,” 1922) to contemporary genre-bending directors like Joshua Oppenheimer (“Act of Killing,” 2012).

Taking the time to immerse yourself in a variety of documentary styles and sub-genres will top up your doc-making toolkit with storytelling ideas. But does that mean you should superimpose one of your favorite docu-templates on to your next film?

Story First

Errol Morris (“Thin Blue Line,” 1988) suggests that in documentaries, form should definitely follow content. Morris would know; he’s made a career out of inventing a new form for nearly every documentary he’s made.

“Investigating what’s true and what’s false is not something that’s determined by a form of production, a form of filmmaking,” says Morris in a radio interview. “It’s what’s going on inside of you and your desire to find things out.”

Thin Blue Line,” 1988
Thin Blue Line,” 1988

For his penetrating interview with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara in “Fog of War” (2003), Morris broke new ground when he invented and deployed the Interrotron–a camera rig that works something like a teleprompter. But instead of reading text on a screen mounted in front of the camera, McNamara was looking straight at Morris — i.e. right through the camera lens making for riveting eye-to-eye exchanges about America’s wars and his role in them.

“Fog of War” (2003)
“Fog of War” (2003)

Morris doesn’t have much use for documentary conventions and by challenging filmmakers to let their curiosity guide them, rather than a particular style or set of principles the academy award winner opens the door to a much deeper discussion about the very essence of the purpose of documentary filmmaking.

“I’m not sure I have any idea what documentary filmmaking is about or nonfiction filmmaking is about,” says Morris. “But I do know that at heart I’m an investigator.

What’s my goal? It’s to find out the truth.”

Whatever documentary is, Morris says, “it’s not adult education. Presumably it’s an art form where we are trying to communicate something about the real world. There’s a journalistic component, but it’s journalism plus. Something more than journalism.”

Fact or Fiction?

Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, 2005), who is no slouch at blurring the lines between fact and fiction in some of his films, believes that documentaries, “should move away from pure fact-based moviemaking. Otherwise the Manhattan phone directory would be the book of books,” says Herzog in an interview with Vice. “Four million entries and every single one factually correct. Mr. John Smith’s address can be verified, but whether he has nightmares or whether he cries into his pillow each night, we do not know. And that’s where filmmaking has to move.”

"Grizzly Man" (2005)
“Grizzly Man” (2005)

Of course, many, if not most directors will execute their story ideas according to documentary traditions and conventions; it’s the way they’ve always done it. Some will shoehorn a project into a particular storytelling style because it’s their brand. For example, we associate Michael Moore with stretching the journalistic form with the use of ambush interviews, opinionated stand-ups and staged ‘actuality scenes’ all familiar elements in his performative docs such as “Bowling for Columbine” (2002).

“Bowling for Columbine” (2002)
“Bowling for Columbine” (2002)

But we can be sure that’s not what Morris has in mind when he says documentaries ought to be ‘something more than journalism’ or what Herzog is thinking when he insists that documentary “should move away from pure fact-based moviemaking.”

Both directors signed on as executive producers after Joshua Oppenheimer showed them a cut of his raw and sometimes distressing to watch 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing.” The film is about the massive political murders of the 1960s in Indonesia and features some of the perpetrators who killed more than a million communists, academics and opponents of the regime of the day, which was endorsed by the West–including the US.

“The Act of Killing.” (2012)
“The Act of Killing.” (2012)

Now living with impunity as respected public figures and still close to the levers of power, the perpetrators are boastful of the atrocities they committed nearly 60 years ago. They are seen by the public as heroes for eliminating the Indonesian communist party during the height of the Cold War.

Innovation over Convention

It was Oppenheimer’s fearless experimentation with the documentary form and readiness to break with conventional storytelling in pursuit of a ‘larger truth’ that stopped Morris and Herzog in their tracks to heap superlatives on “Act of Killing.”  

“Movies should have mysteries and this film has many mysteries,” says Morris. “Joshua kept it in a strange limbo land between fantasy and reality.”

Instead of chronicling this dark period in Indonesia’s recent history with talking head interviews, subject matter experts, narration and archival footage Oppenheimer invites former Indonesian death-squad leaders to restage their killings and to direct the re-enactments in whichever movie genre they want.

Oppenheimer’s participants enthusiastically mount and act out their grizzly dramatizations in a variety of cinematic and television forms including horror, musical, even a fake talk show. And Oppenheimer’s cameras record it all, including off-stage arguments among the actors about the veracity and the details of what actually happened. The result is not a historical essay film, nor docu-profiles of the participants, not really a docudrama, but rather a surreal exploration of the psychology of mass murder itself.

“Surrealism hasn’t worked in film because it’s an artificially superimposed artistic ideology. But in Joshua’s film it works,” says Herzog.

“I never saw them as re-enactments,” says Oppenheimer in an IndieWire interview, “but as performances of present day lives, stories, scripts that the perpetrators tell themselves so that they can live with themselves.”

Oppenheimer says that he’s not making an observational film where he follows the lives of people who interest him but that his subjects are helping him create new realities that otherwise would not exist without his film. “Cinema should maybe be about making the invisible visible. Not just about telling a story, or presenting information as in a documentary,” says Oppenheimer.

He became a filmmaker because it was a way for him “to explore the most mysterious aspects of what it means to be human and to translate those explorations into poetic experiences for the viewer,” says Oppenheimer. “The form and the method have to be determined by the exploration itself.”

Sidebar: Recommended Viewing

A Hole in the Soul (1994) dir.: Dušan Makavejev

Dušan Makavejev is Joshuah Oppenheimer’s mentor.

The Look of Silence (2014) dir.: Joshuah Oppenheimer

Wormwood (2017 mini series avail. on Netflix) dir.: Errol Morris

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) dir.: Werner Herzog

A seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer, Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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