Documentaries following a single interview subject are usually structured like narrative films, but how do you structure an issue documentary – that is, a film about a large ongoing debate, rather then a single character?
Because I’m editing a feature length issue documentary myself, I broke down several successful documentaries, looking for universal patterns in their structure – their monomyth, if you will. Documentaries I examined at included:
Going Clear (2015) – HBO documentary on Scientology.
Inside Job (2010) – Oscar-winning documentary about the financial crash.
Lake of Fire (2006) – Documentary on the abortion debate, shot over 16 years on b&w 35mm.
Weather Underground (2002) – Oscar-nominated documentary on a radical left-wing terrorist group.
While these documentaries vary wildly in subject matter, they share a similar story beats and structure. For this article, I’ll just be breaking down the opening – what beats the films follow to set up their subject matter.
The opening grabs the viewers attention. It isn’t meant to inform, but to tease – to raise questions, not answer them.
This is usually done through either a montage of conflict – a series of images from the films highest point of conflict – or what I call a representative conflict – that is, a single scene which is indicative of the themes of the entire film.
Going Clear (2015) – Montage. Questions from a scientology audit are answered by soundbites from later in the film.
Inside Job (2010) – The story of Iceland’s financial crash is told in five minutes, which an interview subject hints is representative of the American financial crash. The opening credits montage plays with inflammatory soundbites set to Peter Gabriel’s Big Time.
Lake of Fire (2006) – A sequence on South Dakota’s attempts to limit abortion opens the film, which is representative of the national abortion debate, followed by an opening credits montage in which a Christian preacher describes heaven and hell.
Weather Underground (2002) – A montage of news footage of bombings, with revolutionary activists calling for the overthrow of the US government.
After you’ve got the viewers attention, give them your thesis – the primary idea or subject you will be exploring in the film.
Going Clear (2015) – Former members of scientology describe how they became involved in the religion.
Inside Job (2010) – News footage, voiceover, and interview subjects describe the financial crash.
Lake of Fire (2006) – Pro-life activists protest on the capitol lawn.
Weather Underground (2002) – Former activists from Weather Underground describe their involvement.
The empire strikes back. Here we introduce the opposition – the idea, events, or characters that drive your thesis to action. Think of this as your “hero’s call” – the reason we need to explore our thesis.
Going Clear (2015) – The leader of Scientology and various celebrities describe how great the church of Scientology is.
Inside Job (2010) – Voice-over describes the financial industry, and how they are to blame for the financial crash.
Lake of Fire (2006) – Pro-choice protestors shout back at pro-life protestors.
Weather Underground (2002) – Former Weather Underground members describe how the horrors of the Vietnam war drove them to radical left-wing activism.
Now that you’ve got your audience hooked, and set up each side of the conflict, you can start giving them backstory. How did we get to this point? What drove these two sides into conflict?
Going Clear (2015) – An interview with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard begins a sequence on the history of scientology.
Inside Job (2010) – A sequence on the history of the financial industry begins.
Lake of Fire (2006) – Women who got abortions describe their personal history, and what lead them to chose the procedure.
Weather Underground (2002) – Activists describe how the radical Weather Underground faction took over a more moderate organization.
Ideas are Characters
So there you have it. Introduce conflict, establish each side as a character, and then delve into the history of that idea.
Note that this is the same structure as many narrative films. Take for example The Matrix. The film opens with a representative conflict. Trinity evades agents in a sequence that raises more questions then it answers. Who is this woman? Why do they want her? How can these characters leap between buildings?
Then we meet Neo, and present him with the film’s thesis – follow the white rabbit and find out what the matrix is. The next day he goes to work an is lectured by his boss about the film’s antithesis – conformity and being a small cog in a large whole. With these two sides established, Neo receives a phone call from Morpheus, who begins filling in the backstory.
The key is that in issue documentaries ideas are characters and go through the same hero’s journey.
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