Shaping the documentary subject: Writing and visualizing the documentary and media art script

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This article seeks to examine the varied modes of writing employed by documentary filmmakers and media artists, who may, as an alternative to a conventional ‘script’, devise a framework of intent, or a ‘working hypothesis’ in order to constitute or determine the underlying structure of the temporal work. Fiction and non-fiction screenwriter/directors regularly focus on the subjects of human mortality, yet the process of shaping a script differs for the documentary author in that they may choose, or seek to, film the actual lives of trauma victims or terminally ill subjects. This article will examine how a documentary writer/director undertakes the relatively analytical processes of screenwriting and film structuring, whilst simultaneously experiencing a premonition of loss and uncertainty as to future events. Is it possible that filmmaking and autobiographical writing, as documentarian Ross McElwee (Time Indefinite, 1993) suggests, in their attempts to confront death directly, are ‘just another denial of death-a way of distracting the filmmaker from dealing with death and then getting on with life’? Incorporating case studies of several of my own hybrid documentary films and digital artworks, I intend to examine some of the ethical, temporal, screenwriting and directorial issues that arise when selecting, filming and editing the lives of social actors or documentary participants. This article will discuss the key question: what can and do documentary and media art ‘scripts’ look like? How stylistically diverse can they be, in response to the director’s framework of intent, or the idiosyncratic qualities of the participant selected?

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This chapter examines the approaches of contemporary cinematic virtual reality (CVR) practitioners, with a focus on development techniques and methods of collaboration. Due to an identified blurring between CVR writing and production, this calls for an exploration of ‘project’ development, a process that encompasses ‘script’ development, that involves complex and varied interactions between individuals and institutions, and that results in the writing and realisation of an immersive screen work. The chapter presents two case studies, these being The Antarctica Experience (writer/dirs. Briege Whitehead and Phil Harper, 2018) and Awake (writers Martin Taylor, Mike Jones & Christian Cantamessa, dir. Martin Taylor, Australia, 2018), considering the impact of factors such as the technical requirements for shooting and distribution, and funding sources.
This chapter examines the writing and development of a cinematic virtual reality (CVR) documentary titled Impact: Beyond the Night Sky (2020), that was written, directed and co-produced by the author. The chapter adopts an exegetical style as it reports on this creative research project, providing an opportunity to explore the concepts presented in the previous chapters through practice, and demonstrating a creative-critical approach in action. The author explores how the physical expression of a CVR documentary concept captures the conceptual and technical aspects that are imperative for successful realisation of the work. Through an analysis of the script and other planning documentation for Impact: Beyond the Night Sky, this case study evidences the challenges associated with writing for a spatialised medium.
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Writing the script for a documentary film can be problematic. According t some documentary filmmakers, it is not possible at all, because one cannot know beforehand what is going to happen. Nonetheless, a written script is often required to obtain financing for a documentary project. This article deals with different work practices and forms of documentary script. It analyses two case studies: the writer’s own films A Man from the Congo River (2010) and Kusum (2000). The first is the story of an engineer who worked in colonial Congo at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is based on diaries and other historical material, and therefore it was possible to construct a very precise script for the film. Kusum is an observational documentary film following the healing of a young Indian girl. The script was produced prior to production, but during the shooting process many core elements changed, including the main character and storyline. The form and dramaturgy of documentary films are created in the filmmaking process and in dialogue between the filmmaker and real people. A documentary script can be considered a hypothesis about the reality that the filmmaker will encounter via the process of filmmaking. Instead of ‘a screen idea’ we could speak about ‘a documentary idea’.
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