It’s funny how the question I ask every client or student, “what is it that you really want to say?”, is always the last one I come up with for my own stuff.
I’m building a story world now, not too different from reality (for those who’ve seen Channel 4’s Black Mirror, semi-future with cool tech but everything looks more or less the same as our world – same deal as what I’m going for). The story world is founded on cloning, but beyond the obvious “what is it to be human” thing, I don’t have a central reason or message to anything yet. For me it would be a drag if I did.
I’ve generally always started a story… anywhere. Then developed it, built it, then pulled it apart as I got closer to the core, so I could structure it in a more interesting way. It’s a pain in the ass in one way (how many drafts do I need to do this time?!), but I do love the process, inefficient as it is.
But to come back to this “what do you want to say business.” I get all paranoid when I start to wonder about re-drafting in service of the goal, because I don’t want to sacrifice dramatic structure just for the cause of clarity. Does the message give the film a greater significance if it comes across more clearly? If I stick to my guns and stay on the dramatic angle, then aren’t I blowing an opportunity to reach an audience?
I don’t think so.
If it takes away from the cathartic film experience then it’s akin to sabotage. The danger is amped up in doc, where you have a limited time to get information and character across, while telling a story., and the temptation is to be more literal than is necessary.
If any of you have seen Jesse Moss’ great the Overnighters, you’ve seen a film that follows a very specific story. Along the way, it touches several angles of intolerance, the environment, economic injustice, etc., some of them pretty direct, others almost as an afterthought. But the film is constructed to drive the dramatic arc. So instead of a message film, you’re treated to a riveting portrait that happens to leave little easter eggs for you to digest. They’re what really lingered in my mind after the screening.
When it comes to our sanitation documentary, Brown Gold, we always get back to one story question : how much do we need to talk about and show human shit? One of our lead characters sums it up nicely with a photograph of a woman standing in the Kibera slum, handing over a Peepoo toilet bag with shit in it. As she says “ it’s like it disappeared. It doesn’t smell. The stigma is gone.” That Peepoo is a thin film of material. Everyone knows what’s in it and what it smells like, but it’s being handed around a group of people because nobody literally sees or smells the shit. If you see the crush of humanity in Kibera and see the Peepoo arriving, we don’t need to have a big talk about sanitation to get the point.
So that’s how I work with “message”: write it down on a card or something and stick it on your wall so you don’t forget it, but don’t spell it out. Keep your bag of shit opaque but present. It’s the old adage of show don’t tell.
When I’m working on a film and shooting is still going on, I can, as someone not physically and emotionally invested in the shooting process, guide the director to get the stuff that fills in the missing emotional blanks. It’s subtle, but if running can become the central image of one film as a powerful metaphor that just looks like running, or an empty chair in an empty room can mean something that replaces words, then I think you’re getting to impact that goes beyond simple information. Like Stalin said: one death is a tragedy, 1,000 is a statistic.
Never thought I’d quote Stalin.
In my little clone world, I’m not at the “central message” stage yet, nor am I trying to be. The fun bit comes in the conjuring. The really fun bit comes when you find the magic trick but ignore it. I’m always happiest when I get fooled by my own smoke and mirrors.
p.s. A useful guide for documentary filmmakers, even if you’re not thinking of outreach or longer term engagement with a given film if the Impact field guide. It’s an amazing tool to identify what a project might be able to do beyond being a film, and can have an interesting effect on your writing. I use it to home in on story objectives even when I’m not the one following through on outreach, because why you make something can be as important as what you make, as far as energy and focus goes. Enjoy.