When the Personal is Political

Fernanda Rossi June 2, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: I’m making a personal doc, yet there is a lot of information around the social issue that is important to include. When I add it all, the personal experience seems to disappear. How can I keep both?

Doc Doctor: At the core of your question is the dilemma of every documentarian: How much in a film should be devoted to capturing real-life experience as is? How much is about emoting and how much should be about educating/informing? In essence, where does the filmmaker stop to exist to give way to the reporter/activist/responsible citizen with camera in hand?

These musings are not the exclusive realm of documentarians. All artists or makers of anything wonder about their place in the world, purpose and duties. Those in documentaries might just revisit these dilemmas more often because of the very nature of the content of their work. Few documentary filmmakers would describe themselves as artists, but rather as witnesses or vehicles to bring reality to our door. With that in mind, the idea of not having to inform faithfully and thoroughly seems a betrayal of the very definition of documentary.

We could brainstorm plenty of techniques and tricks to balance storylines, jam in info while keeping the personal or the ethereal. Yet no answer will be complete without asking yourself why you’re making this film and what type of filmmaker you want to be.

When in session, some confess right from the beginning in no uncertain terms: I’m an activist. This doc thing I’m doing is an instrument. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. With equal passion others say: This is my story. I have a vision. I have something that needs to come out in a certain way. Both filmmakers are capable of great meaningful work, but the way to balance their stories and needs will be quite different.

As a general rule of thumb, the emotional arc of a character—whether that character is you yourself or a third party—will take over the story and relegate all data to the background. This storytelling principle is the result of humans relating more easily to other humans than to things. We identify with the emotion of others more readily than a table of statistics. However, exceptions abound.

If you’re first and foremost an activist and the personal story is just the channel that inspires you to dive into this topic, you might have the information storyline run tightly, close to the personal line. It might even relegate the personal to be an example of how that social issue plays out in a real human being. The personal has enough strength to afford being shorter in duration without affecting its overall impact on the viewer—again the result of how our perception prioritizes content. In that way, there is more room, time-wise, to add all those important facts about the social issue.

If, conversely, your priority is your signature as filmmaker, your angle, your style, your story. . . then information has a secondary role and there is nothing wrong with that. What to leave and what to include depends mainly on what supports or complements the personal storyline. I’d suggest you first cut the personal and then choose very carefully those spots where your story leaves the inevitable gaps.

In both cases above, information, data, facts, statistics and all their relatives can be organized and selected along specific parameters, because they have different levels of impact, too. The easy test to see if the factual storyline is more dense than it should be is to check if it feels like an audio book rather than an audiovisual film. Can then facts be presented in ways that emote? Of course, they can. Comparative data and cross-reference information is always more "storytelling friendly" than the dry facts that barely help the viewer position themselves in time and space.

The ultimate solution to any story problem is not in the magic trick that will solve the apparent mishap, but in the deep understanding of who you are as a filmmaker and what you want your film to do for yourself and others. Then, the story entanglements have a way of magically solving themselves.

Speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at documentarydoctor.com.

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