Paul Davidson at Whekanui Bay, Tory Channel, filming ‘Once Were Whalers”, 2019-2015
My own documentary work extends over thirty-five years and is dominated by historical documentary, or ‘documentary-style’ productions. Over this period I have noted that key analogies exist between the methods by which documentary filmmakers process the information available to them, and the processes by which they re-present information streams. These outwardly unconnected processes are linked by their key parameters – time and sampling.
” Editing is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path. The more film there is,the greater the number of pathways that can be considered, the possibilities compound upon each other and consequently demand more time for evaluation.” Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, 4
A responsive, and responsible editor creatively interweaves time with integrity and purpose. It may be a chronological story – a biography or a history for example – but it does not have to be told in a chronological manner. The making of the screen story might also involve much temporal manipulation-sampling, shifting, expanding and condensing time to extract a credible essence of the whole.
As editor Steve Ascher describes it: “Filming real life is a constant struggle to distill reality into a meaningful subset of itself – into the telling moments, the telling gestures, the lines of dialogue that will suggest the rest of the scene without having to see the rest of the scene.” Steve Ascher, quoted in Bernard, Documentary Storytelling, 69.
The Historical Documentary
A documentary film, unlike a feature film, is never fully scripted in advance of the camera rolling, and is rarely assembled to a pre-determined editing plan. But, as A K Stout pointed out to the ABC in 1944 “documentary is not just a haphazard record. It is dramatic. It dramatizes life without distorting it…. The documentary director selects and arranges his material in such a way as to get across a coherent and revealing story.” (Fitzsimons, Laughren and Williamson 2011 – p243)
That process of selecting and arranging for a factual documentary may not begin until most or all of the raw film footage is complete. In fact it is often only after filming is completed that work begins in earnest on a structure, a treatment and a script for the documentary.