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4 Ways Documentary Filmmaking Can Capture Real-Life Drama

January 11, 2017

Documentary filmmakers, no less than dramatic screenwriters, strive to tell strong, often character-driven stories that have a beginning, middle and end, with something at stake, rising tension, and a narrative arc that keeps viewers actively engaged. Unlike dramatists, however, nonfiction filmmakers can’t invent characters and plot points, but must instead find them in the raw material of real life.

“The documentarist has a passion for what he finds in images and sounds – which always seem to him more meaningful than anything he can invent,” wrote media historian Erik Barnouw. “It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself.” At the same time, if the film is to be documentary and not propaganda, this creative arrangement must result in work that adheres not only to standards of good storytelling, but also good journalism.