ArticlePDF Available

Script as a hypothesis: Scriptwriting for documentary film



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’.
Script as a hypothesis: Scriptwriting for documentary film
Jouko Aaltonen, Aalto University
Published: Journal of Screenwriting (2017) Volume 8 Number 1, pages 5363
Writing the script for a documentary film can be problematic. According to some documentary
filmmakers, it is not possible at all, because one cannot know beforehand what is going to happen.
On the other hand, some attempt to produce 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 film-maker and real people. A documentary script can be considered a
hypothesis about the reality that the film-maker will encounter via the process of filmmaking.
Instead of a screen idea we could speak about a documentary idea.
documentary scriptwriting
documentary film
documentary idea
filmmaking process
script forms and formats
The man was called Bhagat. He was a well-known Indian spiritual healer, and I wanted to make a
documentary about him. But then I had an idea: What if the main character was, instead of the
healer, a patient if the story was told from the point of view of the patient, rather than that of the
healer? After all, the patient is the one to whom the story happens, as the healing can change his or
her life, sometimes fundamentally. The film was going to be observational; we were planning to
follow up the complicated healing process from the very beginning to the end. Will the patient and
healer beat the disease and the evil spirits? Will the patient be cured? That would be the true drama
of real life for the film.
The idea was great, but there was a problem: the script. It should be noted that I use the word
script instead of screenplay when referring to documentary film scripts. A documentary script is
a written plan, which is more or less descriptive, often including motivation to make the film and
background information. It is made before filming, so it is sometimes called the pre-shoot script to
separate it from the post-shoot script or the editing script, which is done after shooting for the
editing phase of the film. If not specially mentioned, a documentary script means the pre-shoot
script in this article. Thus, without a script, it was impossible to access funds to make the film. I
also wanted to follow the process from the very beginning, and so it was not possible to choose the
main character half a year or year before the shooting. I didn’t have a main character, I did not
know what was going to happen, I did not have a story. But I had to convince the financiers.
Ultimately, we achieved this by researching the film and writing a script. But how was this
possible? And, in general, how is it possible to write scripts for documentaries? What kind of
documents are they? And finally, what is the role of the script in the process of documentary
In this article, I try to give some answers to these questions based on my own experiences as a
documentary filmmaker and scriptwriter. I focus on two core case studies, two films of my own,
which are very different kinds of documentary films. Kusum (2000) is an observational film
following real-life events happening in front of the camera. A Man from the Congo River (2010) is a
historical documentary about a seaman who worked in colonial Congo at the beginning of the
1900s. The main character, Akseli, witnesses racism and colonialism during the so-called rubber
terror, which took place in Belgian Congo when the Belgian king Leopold II made Congo his
personal colony. People were tortured, mutilated and executed to get them to collect rubber. The
population of Congo decreased from twenty million to ten million in 40 years because of the terror.
It is one of the biggest genocides in the history of mankind. The film tells us how Akseli changed
during these long years from an innocent bystander to an active member of the colonial and racist
society, by using the whip and violence to keep black workers in a row. At the same time he was an
intelligent and most sympathetic person. The film is based on archive materials.
Both films were independent productions, made outside television and supported by a national
film foundation, in this case the Finnish Film Foundation. A public service television company, the
Finnish broadcasting company Yle, was a co-producer. A Man from the Congo River also got some
funding from Belgium.
Script versus reality
Concerning a script in general, both fiction and documentary, the status and role of screenplay in
the film-making process has varied historically. In the classical Hollywood studio era, the
screenplay was the basis for storytelling, and then The French New Wave and similar movements
all over the world in the 1960s revolutionized the film-making process and wanted to subvert the
status of screenplay. Now in the 2010s, the dramaturgy and idea of screenplay is seen more
holistically, as dramaturgical thinking runs through the entire film-making process.
Traditionally, the fiction screenplay was considered a model or blueprint for the final film. This
approach, in which each element is planned precisely on paper prior to production, has a lot of
benefits. The entire production chain is easier to organize and control, and of course it is also a way
to save on expenses. Still in most cases, a well-written, formal screenplay is made, and it is
considered a fundamental phase of the whole filmmaking process. Everything, both artistically and
production-wise, is based on it. The rest of the filmmaking process is often described as an
interpretation of the original screenplay (for instance, Koivumäki 2010). However, there have also
been theoreticians and filmmakers who have crusaded against the importance of the screenplay. For
instance, in the late 1940s, Alexander Astruc presented his idea about the film camera being a pen.
The filmmaker writes with the camera like a writer writes with a pen; so directing is writing and
thinking with film. This means that director and scriptwriter cannot be separated (Astruc 1969: 70).
The French New Wave was enthusiastic about Astruc’s ideas. According to Jean-Luc Godard and
Francois Truffaut, cinema must not be subordinated by written text, literature or script. Cinema is
not interpretation of text, it is a text by itself, and the director is the real author, auteur, of the
film. We can also see several cases where feature-length fiction films have been made without a
formal or any kind of screenplay. An interesting case is, for instance, Aki Kaurismäki’s cult movie
Calamari Union (1985), where the only pre-production plan was a one-page drawing about the
structure of the film (Talvio 2014: 86). The form and structure was realized in the shooting and
especially in the editing process.
In previous decades, an increasing number of screenwriters and researchers have opposed and
criticized the traditional metaphor of screenplay as blueprint (for instance by Maras 2009, Price
2013 and Millard 2014). The blueprint idea is often considered mechanical and limited. Kathryn
Millard suggests instead jazz as metaphor for screenwriting, because in jazz the division between
planning and execution is challenged. It also gives the possibility for improvisation (2014: 85).
There have been alternative models, where separation between screenwriting and actual production
is not so strict. Several director-screenwriters, for instance Michael Winterbottom, Wong Kar-wai,
Wim Wenders and Chantal Akerman, have renewed traditional form with a more open approach.
They work with both words and images, shifting fluently from writing to production (Millard 2014:
2930). Screenwriting and production are coming closer to each other. Millard sees this largely as a
result of the digital era and the new possibilities it offers for filmmakers (2014: 41).
In the case of documentary film, the relationship between scriptwriting and film-making is even
more complicated, connected to the ontological questions about documentary film as the art form
related to real events, people and the world. Several documentary filmmakers have opposed the idea
of documentary script. For instance, Dziga Vertov was strongly against any kind of scriptwriting,
not only concerning documentaries, but all cinema. In one of his manifestos, he proclaims: The
scenario is a fairy tale invented for us by a writer [] Down with the bourgeois fairy-tale script!
Long live life as it is! (Vertov 1984: 71). Famous ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch echoes this,
stating that I have never written anything before starting a film, and when for administrative or
financial reasons I’ve been obligated to compose a scenario, some continuity plans or a synopsis, I
have never ended up making the corresponding film (2003: 266).
In my doctoral thesis (Aaltonen 2006), I noticed that many documentary filmmakers found
scriptwriting quite incompatible with the idea of the documentary film.
According to them, the
script cannot be written, because you cannot know beforehand what is going to happen. There was a
kind of resistance against financiers and producers who demanded precise scripts. Documentary
film-makers seemed to yearn for an open film-making process and were afraid that too much
planning and scriptwriting could disturb their openness, artistic integrity and independence.
Although it is not said aloud, a script can also be a tool for control, which partially explains why
demand for a precise script can seem so problematic for some filmmakers. For instance, a well-
known documentarist, Professor emerita Kanerva Cederström, argues that the essence of a
documentary is in the new and unique things that coincidence and life itself bring into the film. She
thinks that the forms and expectations transferred from the fiction scriptwriting tradition harmfully
restrict documentary filmmaking. According to Cederström, the fiction type of writing process and
screenplay is a straitjacket for documentary film (Aaltonen 2006: 127128).
Further to this, there seems to be a misunderstanding that scriptlessness would be some kind of
guarantee of documentary film’s authenticity and legitimacy, especially concerning observational
and direct cinema tradition (Winston 2015: 28889). A documentary script is considered not only
unnecessary but even harmful. The idea is that it somehow restricts the film-maker’s perception or
openness to reality. However, in practice, it can be extremely difficult, or impossible, to get
funding and make a professional documentary film without a beforehand written script.
The form of a documentary script
There are several reasons why the script is a useful and positive tool for the documentary film-
maker. Creatively, a documentarian sketches and tests ideas by writing. Also, a script is also needed
for project development, budgeting, production planning and for communicating inside and outside
the crew. And a well-written documentary script is of course an extremely important tool for
convincing financiers, commissioning editors and buyers as it was also in the case of my two
examples, Kusum and A Man from the Congo River.
In fiction, the format script used across the industry is very precise; historically it was
developed in Hollywood and is now a universal standard worldwide. Several textbooks present
exact models for this international common format (for instance, Lusey: 1996: 27384), and using
an alternative format is even considered unprofessional. In the documentary field the situation is
quite different. There are several ways of expressing plans and ideas for a documentary, and the
content, form and size of these papers and presentations vary. Sometimes documentary scripts have
one column, sometimes two separating visuals on the left side of the page and audio on the right
side, and sometimes even three columns (narration, visuals, sound). Occasionally, they have mainly
text and a few pictures, sometimes little text but a lot of pictures, and in some cases they resemble
letters to financiers. Nowadays, they can even be demonstrations or presentations. Many different
forms can be regarded as a documentary script, and the work practices that produce them can differ
a great deal. For instance, documentary film-maker and media artist Janet Merewether looks for
alternative ways for conventional script formats. She gives examples of modular and visual forms
of scripts. For her, writing a documentary occurs throughout the film-making process (2015: 93).
The synopsis, treatment or script is the working draft that has to be open and flexible (Merewether
2015: 95). So, the screenwriting process could be called screenresearching or screensketching
(Merewether 2015: 101). Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has also described his working
method as an investigation. He is not making an investigation for the film; the film is an
investigation in and of itself (Millard 2014: 66). Writing, for him, is the process of layering and
adding new material, not planning everything beforehand (Millard 2014: 75).
To sum up various possibilities and practices we can list some basic documentary script forms or
formats used in documentary film production:
1. Synopsis or proposal
- Short presentation of the topic, story and idea
- Sometimes, but very seldom, a short synopsis is enough to go into production.
2. Treatment
- Maybe the most commonly used form in documentaries
- Suits documentaries well for not being so precise
- Often used in follow-up or observational documentaries in which you do not know what is
going to happen, but you can try to predict events.
3. Traditional fiction format
- Sometimes used, not very often
- Possible with films in which the material is known beforehand for instance, in historical and
essay documentaries
- Also in reconstructions and documentaries using fictional (set up) scenes or sequences.
4. Television formats
- Television companies use their own formats for television documentaries, current affairs
programmes, reality television, etc.
- The approach and tradition is often journalistic.
5. Project presentation (Tine 2001)
- Consists of modules: starting points, film-maker’s personal relationship to the topic,
motivation, access, etc.
- Developed in Europe in connection with the concept creative documentary (for instance, the
Sources programme)
- Artistic ideology: a documentary film is creative, personal, self-expressive
- Emphasizes the director’s vision, ‘auteur policy
- Alternative to traditional script forms, which are considered unsuitable for documentaries.
6. Audio-visual presentations or demonstrations
- Audio-visual sketching
- Can include a slide show, PowerPoint presentation, trailer or other materials
- Digital technology
- Effective in creating an impression about the style and feeling of the film.
Shooting script or editing script?
Textbooks for documentary filmmaking deal surprisingly briefly with scriptwriting, emphasizing
both the pre-production research and development phase, and the post-production editing phase. For
instance, Michael Rabiger writes with very little detail about a proposal in his influential book
Directing the Documentary (2009: 5859). It is important to develop a working hypothesis for the
documentary film, but for Rabiger it is done for pitching or writing a proposal, not for scriptwriting
(2009: 5255). Typically for these textbooks, Rabiger gives a lot of advice for writing voice-overs
for documentary films (Rabiger 2009: 49299). The voice-over is of course only one minor part
when dealing with the problems of scriptwriting and dramaturgy of a documentary film. Many
textbook writers and filmmakers suggest that because of the process of documentary film-making,
there are actually two different types of documentary script: the shooting script (pre-shoot script)
and the editing script (post-shoot script). According to Marino Colmano, the first script formulates
the intention and probable development of events, and the second one is made after the shootings
and based on the material shot. The map is a common metaphor for the shooting script. For
example, Trisha Das writes about documentary filmmaking and the script:
You may stumble across many unseen barriers or unexpected surprises. You may discover
wonderful, uncharted areas off the beaten track. You may decide to go in one direction or the
next or perhaps even a third. A map helps you on your way and prevents you from getting lost.
(2007: 3)
For Trisha Das, the shooting script is conceptual in nature; descriptive, but leaving room for
interpretation. The post-shoot script is for Das the final version of the shooting script. It combines
all the elements and information gathered during the shooting period and weaves it all together into
a cinematic story, which is used by the filmmaker to edit the documentary (Das 2007: 4).
The post-shoot or editing script is often considered the real script for the documentary film.
Michael Rabiger believes that the script is primarily a tool at the editing phase. For him, the
documentary script is basically the same as the so-called paper edit, the editing plan based on the
existing material (Rabiger 2009: 48591). This plan may include lists of visuals, transcribed
interviews, voice-over text on paper and technical data such as time codes. This kind of script is the
final blueprint for the editing of the film. The paper edit is an effective tool if you are in a hurry, but
quite a few creative documentary film-makers and editors find it too restrictive. The paper edit is
considered more like a technical aid and not a real documentary film script.
Documentary scriptwriting in practice: a man from Congo and a girl in India
I did a great deal of research work and scriptwriting for both of my cases (A Man from Congo River
and Kusum). It was completed beforehand, so they were both pre-shoot scripts, but otherwise the
cases were quite different. I wrote the script for A Man from the Congo River together with historian
Seppo Sivonen, as he had found an interesting unknown historical detail that most of the engineers
who worked on the river boats in the colonial Congo were Finns. The Belgian government recruited
labour effectively from Northern Europe to rule an enormous area of Congo. We did extensive
research in archives in Helsinki, Stockholm and Brussels to collect information and material for the
film. The first synopsis was based on the idea that the film would utilize a voice-over detailing this
historical phenomenon on a more general level. But then we found a collection of diaries, letters,
photos and also some personal items of Akseli Leppänen in the Finnish Institute of Migration. He
had made his career on river boats and kept a diary for several decades describing events and life in
Congo. Now we had a main character, point of view and the story.
In our script, we used a wide variety of audio-visual elements to tell the story and visualize
Akseli’s experience. There were, besides his personal diaries, photos and objects (passports,
medals, etc.), as well as general photos of the era and archive film about riverboats. We decided to
film general shots in museums and archives and their objects (whips, knives, cameras, etc.) and
even planned few modest re-enactment scenes (a man writing in his diary, the main character’s
shadow, etc.). We also included in the script some scenes of the present-day Congo, of places where
our main character had lived almost 100 years earlier (Aaltonen and Kortti 2015: 5).
Thanks to our thorough research we knew what kind of visual material was available. So, it was
quite easy to imagine and plan how the film would look like and how the story could be told, and
the script ended up being very precise, using quotations from diaries and letters. The main storyline
is about change, how Akseli regressed during the years in the racist surroundings. From the diaries
we picked scenes and comments relevant to this theme, as well as confrontations with the black
workers and ethical ponderings. In addition, there were some sub-themes or subplots for instance,
Akseli’s homesickness and the effort to travel to Finland to meet his old mother. We also selected
situations and materials that made Akseli human and interesting. For me as a film-maker, it was
extremely important that the audience could identify with Akseli. Constructing the script was very
much like writing a fiction screenplay; only this time the elements were not invented but picked out
from the large amount of existing materials. The scenes were written largely in a traditional
screenplay format (number three in the list above), including the main character’s voice being
played by the well-known actor Hannu-Pekka Björkman, with a few other voices, and a female
narrator’s voice-over for delivering necessary historical and social context.
Altogether, we wrote seven versions of the script before getting it into production. The last
versions also included photos, both taken by the main character, and general photos of the era and
places. They visualized the text effectively. When I included the portrait of Akseli on the front page
of the script (Figure 1), it became easier for the reader to identify with the main character. The final
version of the script has 36 pages, including photos, and the length of the film was going to be 58
Before we started to edit I wrote an edit script for the editor. There were some new scenes
marked with different colours, but also my own comments, ideas and hints for the editor. For me it
was more a way to communicate ideas than having a restricting plan to edit. Even in this case
when having a precise script the film changed during the filmmaking process. The shooting trip to
Congo resulted in some extra material, which had not been planned for instance, the different
parallels between Akseli’s era and our own time. Eventually some scenes were left out, some used
to compensate for them, and some totally new ones were created. Also the order of the scenes
changed. But altogether, the final film resembles the original script to a large extent.
In terms of developing Kusum, how would I deal with the issue of scriptwriting without an existing
main character, events or plot? The script was written together with Antti Pakaslahti, an expert in
multicultural psychiatry, after a research period in India. We knew how Bhagat worked, what the
typical healing process for him was, how it started, continued and ended. We had followed his work
for a long time and also met many of his patients. So we knew what kind the typical and probable
patient was. Among the patients were several young housewives. Mental problems often occurred
when a just-married young wife moved into her husband’s house and tried to adapt to a new family
situation. Typically, she is lowest in the family’s social hierarchy until she gives birth to children.
So the script was written as though we had such a main character. In the text, I described what we
were looking for. In one of the later script versions I even gave a name for the protagonist: Asha. It
was then easier to imagine what could happen to her.
The form of the script could be called treatment (number two in the list above). There is first
quite a lot of text about the intentions of the director, the style and background information about
healing. After that comes a list of situations or scenes. There are three kinds of events: ones that are
going to happen for sure (for instance, a Diwali celebration), those that are likely to happen (Bhagat
taking a patient to the holy town of Menhdipur because he usually does), and those that are possibly
going to happen (the main character getting cured). It was clearly expressed to the reader that the
script is suggestive and scenes possible, and it mentioned that the main character (Asha) did not yet
exist with a description of what kind of a person we were looking for. The final film could be
something quite different. I wrote four versions of the script. The last one, only twelve pages long
for 70 minutes of film, convinced the financiers, and I was able to travel to India to start filming.
When the filming period started in India, we still did not have a main character in the flesh, just a
suggestion on paper. Bhagat, our healer, held an open house event the first Tuesday of every month
in which people were welcome to enter and take part in the healing sessions. In one of these
sessions I noticed a young, shy and introvert girl. There seemed to be something bothering her. She
was Kusum, our main character to-be. Her life situation was very different from the script; also her
story was to become much more serious than speculated in the script. During the shooting period
we forgot what was written in the script; I was just trying to keep up with events going on and
trying to understand what was happening around the main characters. The healing and things
connected to it were very intense.
When the editing started, we watched the material carefully with editor Tuula Mehtonen. It was
a mess. In Kusum we did not have an editing script, although we would have needed it more
because of the structural and dramaturgical problems. Instead, we used cards, diagrams and other
graphical methods. In a way, we started from the very beginning, thinking of the possible form of
the film. Should we use a voice-over to make things clear? Or a reflexive element, filmmakers
encountering a complex and strange reality? Should the film be more essayistic than dramatic?
Through these ponderings we found in a way the ideas of the script again; we were convinced that
because the topic and the world of the film were very strange for the audience, it was best to have a
form that was clear and familiar. We followed the dramaturgy, the arch already sketched out in the
original script: a patient getting ill because of demons, her struggle with them and the result of these
battles. The initial setting was classical: a protagonist with a goal (getting well), a hero (healer)
helping her, and the antagonists (demons). First Bhagat had to figure out who the spirits were, then
fight several battles with them, before the final encounter in which the spirits surrender and leave
the family. Actually the structure of Kusum reminds a classical western film form. The name of the
film changed (from Bhagat and the Demons to Kusum), the main character changed (from Asha to
Kusum), and the storyline changed. It changed from typical or probable to peculiar and unique. But
the basic idea of the script remained or was found again.
Conclusion: The documentary idea
My own approach to scriptwriting for documentaries is pragmatic. One can and must write a script
for a documentary, and it can be a useful tool in the documentary filmmaking process. But the
nature of the documentary script is very different from fiction. It is a sketch or plan, not a definitive
instruction for filmmaking. However, it is important to ponder the form, structure, story, characters
and arguments beforehand on paper. But you have to be open to everything changing during the
working process.
Quite a few screenwriting researchers concentrating on fiction strengthen the idea about
dramaturgy as a holistic element of the film. For instance, Ian Macdonald writes about a screen
idea, which describes the origin of the film better than referring directly to the screenplay (2004: 90,
2011: 11216). Marja-Riitta Koivumäki sees filmmaking as a continuous process of dramaturgical
choices. All decisions, even the smallest details, are dramaturgical, either done during the
scriptwriting, shooting or editing (2010: 31). Margot Nash considers (fiction) scriptwriting as an
unknown creative process, where gaps and spaces within a screenplay offer opportunities for
directors. Screenplay is a recipe where the results will vary according to the availability of
ingredients and the inventiveness of the cook and those who work in the kitchen (Nash 2013: 155).
What she calls discovery-driven script development process resembles substantially both
documentary scriptwriting and documentary filmmaking by itself.
All these ideas fit very well together with the ideas of documentary scriptwriting. However, there is
an essential difference between fiction and documentary. Several researchers writing about fiction
consider filmmaking an interpretation of the original screenplay for performance, which is the final
film (for instance, Koivumäki 2010). The documentary filmmaking process itself, including
scriptwriting, is a continuous interpretation of reality, not interpretation of the script. Maybe we
could talk about documentary idea instead of a screen idea?
I consider the documentary script a hypothesis. Hypothesis is an assumption made for testing
something empirically. In this case the filmmaker tests by making the film. The script is a
hypothesis about the topic, theme, main character, style, events and the whole dramaturgical arch.
Some of these elements are realized during the filmmaking process, some of the hypothesis can be
verified, while some prove to be totally wrong. The documentary filmmaker has to be flexible and
capable of changing the hypothesis during the process, maybe even several times. Sometimes the
ideas of the script are abandoned during the shootings; sometimes they are found again in the
editing phase, like in the case of Kusum. It is possible that the whole structure and dramaturgy of
the film is formed late in the editing process. There are even cases where the editor has got the
scriptwriting credit.
It is extremely important to recognize that documentary filmmaking is an open process and,
similarly, documentary scriptwriting is an open process occurring throughout the entire film-making
process. The form, structure and dramaturgy develop constantly in interaction with reality. This
dialogue between the filmmaker and the world gives form to the script and the film; this form is
constantly in movement, and we have to accept it and be ready for it. All documentary filmmakers
know that it is easier to change plans and react during the process when you have clear ideas and
detailed plans. That is a documentary script.
Aaltonen, J. (2006), Todellisuuden vangit vapauden valtakunnassa dokumenttielokuva ja sen
tekoprosessi, Helsinki: LIKE.
____ (2011), Seikkailu todellisuuteen: Dokumenttielokuvan tekijän opas, Helsinki: LIKE.
Aaltonen, J. and Kortti, J. (2015), From evidence to re-enactment: History, television and
documentary film, Journal of Media Practice, 16:2, pp. 108125.
Astruc, A. (1969), ‘Camera-Stylo, elokuvan uusi avant-garde’, Peter von Bagh (ed.), Uuteen
elokuvaan, Helsinki: WSOY, pp. 6671. Original version: (1948), ‘Du Stylo à la camera et de la
camera au stylo’, L’Écran francaise, 30 March.
Calamari union (1985), Wr/Dir: Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 82 mins.
Colmano, M, The nature of documentary screenwriting’, Screenwriters Utopia,
Accessed 15 April 2014.
Das, T. (2007), How to Write a Documentary Script, New Delhi: Public Service Broadcasting Trust,
tary_script.pdf. Accessed 15 April 2014.
Koivumäki, M.-R. (2010), The aesthetic independence of the screenplay, Journal of
Screenwriting, 2: 1, pp. 2540.
Kongon Akseli (A Man from the Congo River) (2010), Wr: Jouko Aaltonen and Seppo Sivonen, Dir:
Jouko Aaltonen, Finland, 53 mins.
Kusum (2000), Wr/Dir: Jouko Aaltonen, Finland, 70 mins.
Lucey, P. (1996), Story Sense: Writing Story and Script for Feature Films and Television, New
York: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
Macdonald, I. (2004), Disentangling the screen idea, Journal of Media Practice, 5: 2, pp. 8999.
____ (2011), Behind the mask of the screenplay: The screen idea’, in C. Myer (ed.), Critical
Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice, London and New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 11140.
Maras, S. (2009), Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice, London: Wallflower Press.
Merewether, J. (2015), Shaping the documentary subject: Writing and visualizing the documentary
and media art script, Journal of Screenwriting, 6: 1, pp. 89113.
Millard, K. (2014), Screenwriting in a Digital Era, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nash, M. (2013), Unknown spaces and uncertainty in film development, Journal of Screenwriting,
4: 2, pp. 14962.
Price, S. (2013), A History of the Screenplay, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rabiger, M. (1996), Documentary and authorship, International Documentary, 15 December, pp.
____ (2009), Directing the Documentary, 5th ed., Burlington and Oxford: Focal Press.
Rouch, J. (2003), Cine-Ethnography (ed. and trans. Steven Feld), Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Talvio, R. (2014), Screenwriting without typing the case of Calamari Union, Journal of
Screenwriting, 5: 1, pp. 85100.
Tine, F. (2001), There is no such thing as a documentary script, DOX: Documentary Film
Magazine, 35, June, pp. 1820.
Vertov, D. (1984), Kino-Eye (ed. Annette Michelson), Berkeley, Los Angeles and London:
University of California Press.
Winston, B. (2015), ‘The documentary script as an oxymoron?’, Journal of Screenwriting, 6: 3, pp.
Contributor details
Jouko Aaltonen is a documentary filmmaker and researcher. He is a Doctor of Arts, Adjunct
Professor (Docent) and visiting researcher at Aalto University’s Department of Film, Television and
Scenography. He has published several articles and five books, including two textbooks about
screenwriting. He has written scripts both for documentaries and for fiction. Aaltonen has taught
non-fiction writing at the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland. He is an
active film director and producer, and has directed about 20 documentaries for national and
international distribution, several of them awarded (see:
Jouko Aaltonen, Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Film,
Television and Scenography, PO Box 31000, FI-00076 AALTO, Finland.
I researched Finnish documentary filmmakers, but because they are a typical part of the European
documentary film culture and independent documentary production practices I think the results also
have a wider relevance.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
There has been a significant increase in the number of history programmes and documentary films about history shown on television since the 1990s. This is due to technological and institutional changes in international television but also to the wider commodification of history. The new technological means and approaches have also provided new opportunities for filmmakers in the field of history documentaries. In this article, we are interested in the role of history in television and documentary filmmaking in general, and in how developments in television and documentary filmmaking have affected the nature of historical documents on television. We are particularly interested in the relationship between history documentaries and academic historical research. What do these changes mean from the point of view of both academics and filmmakers? We approach the question from the standpoints of media practice and the concepts of truth and history culture. As a case study, we focus on the documentary film A Man from the Congo River (2010), directed by one of the writers.
'Screenwriting in a Digital Era' examines the practices of writing for the screen from early Hollywood to Dogme, the new realism and beyond. Looking back to prehistories of the form, Kathryn Millard links screenwriting to visual and oral storytelling. From the shadow playwrights if twelfth century Egypt to semi-improvised ensemble films played out on the streets of cities around the globe, she draws on a wealth of insights from music, photography, performance, writing, psychology and organisational studies to explore the creative processes underlying writing for the screen. Looking also to the future, 'Screenwriting in a Digital Era' examines the blurring of genres, production stages and roles in digital ecologies and the rise of sustainable screenwriting.
Brian Winston is a British screenwriter who focuses on documentaries; he won an Emmy Award in 1985 for his work on Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Episode 8, ‘Out of the Ashes’ (1919–1947). Other credits include A Boatload of Wild Irishmen (2010). In his keynote address at the Screenwriting Research Network Potsdam conference in 2014, Winston, with passion and humour and his knowledge, addressed the ‘script’ and engaged the audience of academics, graduate students and industry practitioners in re-assessing what signifies a screenplay in the world of documentary filmmaking.
The aesthetic independence of an artwork is usually defined by the direct relationship between the viewer and the artwork. The screenplay, however, is actualized for the viewer only via cinematic performance. Therefore, we should ask how the viewer experiences the performance and to what extent this experience is created by the contribution of the screenplay, and especially which elements are realized in the presentation and contribute to building up the performance for the viewer to experience.The approach I am leaning on, and through which I am hoping to gain new insights into the aesthetic independence, is dramaturgical and thus practice-based. The common hermeneutic approach in artistic research usually defines what the artworks are and how they exist in our world as cultural phenomena. Through the dramaturgical approach I explore how the screenplay functions within the presentational process.I discuss the contribution of the screenplay as a literary artwork by asking how the literary characteristics of the screenplay appear in a film and their function in the performance. I also explore the screenplay's contribution from the viewer's point of view. Here I am not leaning on the perception theories; instead I am using my own observation of the cinematic performance. Lastly, I discuss the dramaturgical process as an interpretive continuum that leads from the screenwriter to the viewer.
This article examines a discovery-driven process to script development as opposed to a formula-driven one. It is an investigation into the uncertain nature of the creative process in general, and the all-pervasive quest for certainty in film development in particular. Development strategies that value a discovery-driven process are few and far between, as are strategies to explore the gaps, or elisions, within a screenplay where subtext thrives, yet these are transformative spaces that invite an active and creative response. In this article I engage in practice-based research as a writer/director and as a teacher, and investigate two particular areas of film development. The first is early-stage script development where ideas are still struggling to find form; the second is latter-stage script development where a screenplay is refined in order to create spaces where others might respond imaginatively. I advocate risk taking, and the use of unconventional models, in order to create new spaces for students to explore their creativity, and I examine the 'unknown' and the 'uncertain' as active spaces, both for a screenwriter developing new work and for those who engage creatively with a screenplay as it transforms into a film. I argue that gaps or spaces within a screenplay offer opportunities for directors, actors, key creative crew and eventually an audience to actively participate, and that a development process that values the unknown offers the screenwriter a gateway to adventure and innovation. Screenwriting textbooks rarely enter the unknown and uncertain spaces of creativity yet, as many artists (albeit working in less-expensive mediums) seem to know instinctively, it is within the interplay of the known and the unknown, of passion and reason, and of logic and intuition-that creativity lies.
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?
The first part of this article is a practice-based case study of the making of the film Calamari Union (1985), a Finnish cult classic written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. I was the film editor of this film as well as of several other features and short films by Kaurismäki in the 1980s. From the point of view of screenwriting research, Calamari Union offers a thought-provoking example: it is a feature-length fiction film that was made entirely without a formal screenplay. In the case study I examine the effects of this method in the production and post-production of the film. In the second part of the article I discuss the definitions of a ‘screenplay’ and screenwriting in the context of alternative film-making practices, and the reasons for and consequences of the choice of such practices. I will also briefly visit the question of authorship in cinema and reflect on the birth of stories.
This paper takes the concept of the screen idea (as outlined by Philip Parker 1998) and uses it to mean ‘any notion of a potential screenwork held by one or more people, whether or not it is possible to describe it on paper or by other means’, and whether or not that notion has a conventional shape. This concept leads towards a clearer understanding of the process of screenwriting, which in turn helps consideration of what is being evaluated when looking at the products of that practice. The screen idea is the essence of the future screenwork that is discussed and negotiated by those involved in reading and developing the screenplay and associated documents; it is shared, clarified and changed through a collective process. This concept of the screen idea is developed with reference to the work of Roland Barthes in order to clarify the influence of norms and assumptions used during that process that may otherwise be hidden or unacknowledged. The process of script development has been explored in the CILECT conference ‘Triangle 2’ (Ross 2001), and this article takes two of these projects to examine how the screen idea is ‘rewritten’ by the collective process. In these examples it is not possible to attribute single authorship in the face of this dynamic and complex process of creating meaning. The underlying normative drive for a readerly text is made according to assumed, though often unacknowledged and unquestioned criteria.
Todellisuuden vangit vapauden valtakunnassa -dokumenttielokuva ja sen tekoprosessi
  • J Aaltonen
Aaltonen, J. (2006), Todellisuuden vangit vapauden valtakunnassa -dokumenttielokuva ja sen tekoprosessi, Helsinki: LIKE.