The Documentary Filmmaker’s Duty By Malia Kiang (A’22)

by tuftsigl
Aug 20

Some of my classmates want to produce the next Avengers, others dream of writing the next Good Will Hunting. These fictional works fascinate and entertain, make you laugh and make you think. But my interest lies in a different genre of storytelling: the documentary. Now some of you may have instantly shuddered when reading that word. For some, “documentary” instantly conjures up memories of obtuse, dry films played during high school classes to give overworked teachers a break.

But I encourage you to give documentaries a second chance. A documentary is simply a film that strives to tell a story of real people, places, or events. They can be just as witty, insightful, and entertaining as the best narrative films. In interning for Bummer Lamb Pictures, a documentary film production company that focuses on telling stories of social justice, I was able to learn about its creative processes for their many documentary films, and I discovered that what I love most about documentaries is the improvisational nature.

While a fictional film is scripted and refined dozens of times before any shooting begins, oftentimes a documentary must be shot in real time as it strives to capture history unfolding. Without the prior knowledge of what the film’s ending will be, documentary filmmakers must film twice as much and work to cover every possible angle of a story. In editing the film, they must piece together a cohesive and compelling narrative from the many months, and sometimes years, of shooting they have done. To me, documentary films are the most dynamic art form, as their stories grow and develop in real time alongside their subject matter.

In Bummer Lamb Pictures’ newest short doc, “The Great Divide”, the documentary film crew followed the stories of the residents of Tooleville, California in their fight to gain access to clean water over the course of a year. In my internship, I studied this doc and was in charge of designing the website to promote it and creating a pitch deck to gain funding to produce a feature film length version. In my research, what struck me the most is just how much the Bummer Lamb crew worked with the residents of Tooleville to create the film. In a documentary, the “characters” in the film are not just fictional characters, they are real people actually experiencing the events the film captures. As such, it can be challenging to make sure the final story is one that is interesting and compelling, but also true to life.

One of the most common structures for a story is “The Hero’s Journey”. The hero of a story experiences something that motivates him to start off on his journey, or a call to adventure. At the climax of his journey, the hero experiences something revolutionary. Oftentimes, it is dubbed the “dark night of the soul” and thought of as a point of death and rebirth. Finally, the hero – now fully transformed for the better– returns home triumphant. The monsters have been vanquished, the princess saved, and the story is neatly wrapped up.

However, in a documentary, all of this structure is thrown out the window. Real life does not follow a neat story structure, and while the job of an editor is to stitch together a cohesive story, if a doc is to stay true to real life it often won’t always have a neatly tied up happy ending. In the case of “The Great Divide”, the residents of Tooleville don’t win. The City Council in the neighboring wealthy town of Exeter unanimously vote to take “no action” to consolidate and share clean water resources with Tooleville.

So how does a documentary filmmaker produce a compelling story while remaining faithful to reality? My time at Bummer Lamb Pictures has helped me develop this hypothesis. While a fictional film aims to tell a fulfilling and fully fleshed out story, a documentary aims simply to tell a story, often to effect change. The story of “The Great Divide” is not over when the documentary film ends. The people of Tooleville continue to fight for clean water. While the cameras may not still be rolling, every viewer of Bummer Lamb Pictures’ film becomes part of the continuing story. In “The Great Divide,” the filmmakers created a call to action, wrapped in an incomplete story full of sympathetic heroes.

Alumna Casey Beck provided this remote internship