How documentary films show the need to show.

One of the things I write is scripts for documentaries. If you’ve ever seen a documentary you may have asked yourself “I wonder how much this has been manipulated to bolster a certain point of view?” The answer is, that varies a lot! It ultimately depends on how much the filmmaker tries to “tell” the audience what conclusions to come to. I think at the heart of this question is the matter of showing versus telling and here’s how it applies to writing as well as filmmaking.

I often hear the writing advice “Show don’t tell.” I agree with this most of the time, in writing and in filmmaking. For example in a documentary it might be easier to interview a subject about an exciting event, but it would be more satisfying to show the audience that event by filming it directly! The pitfalls of telling not showing are clear. But what happens when a movie is all show and no tell?

When a piece of art is experimental there is more heavy lifting required of the audience and therefore more possible interpretations of the work. This doesn’t only go for films. I can think of examples of writing that are experimental and require some work from the reader. These include the stream of consciousness writing by William S. Burroughs, the postmodernism of Kathy Acker and the babbling prose of Steve Katz.

In film school I had to watch a lot of experimental films. Some of them were more enjoyable than others, but overall the experience of watching experimental films taught me how to meet my audience halfway. What I mean by this is that I learned to strike a balance between showing and telling, between spoon-feeding the audience a message or leaving everything ambiguous and making the audience do all the work of interpretation. I don’t want to manipulate my audience into seeing only a certain point of view on a subject, but I think relying on audience interpretation too much is an unfair onus to place on people who come to my work with some expectation of being entertained.

So, mostly show.

Muriel is the creator of 'Documinutes: 60 second documentaries' and a contributor to the podcast 'This Manic Mama.'


  • Eric Dutton says:

    I like this idea. Could you place several documentaries on this scale? I don’t watch a whole lot of documentaries, but I might place Supersize Me toward the right. I’d put Grizzly Man and My Kid Could Paint That in the middle. I’m not sure what I would put toward the left.

  • Muriel says:

    Eric, thanks for the comment. You bring up a great question. I agree with you that Supersize Me is very leading. I haven’t seen My Kid Could Paint That, yet. As for Grizzly Man – oh my gosh it blew my mind. I watched it several times in a row trying to figure out what it meant. Have you seen Herzog’s newest doc, Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Anyway, as for what films I would place on the left hand side of the graph; in film school we had to watch several experimental documentaries that our professor called “City Symphonies.” These include Rain(1929) by Jris Ivens, Berlin(1927) by Walther Ruttman.

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