‘Writing’ reality

Outlining, editing key in shaping year's top docs

The year 2004 saw the release of so many superb documentaries that they practically formed an alternative American news medium. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” for example, proved spellbinding precisely because it emphasized the footage, images and stories that corporate news organs have left out in their coverage of recent history. The same goes for the other dissenting docs that filled the bigscreen in this turbulent election year: “Outfoxed,” “Uncovered,” “The Control Room,” “Going Upriver” and the various “Fahrenheit” rebuttals, such as “Celsius 41.11.”

In popularizing the film essay, trail-blazed by Orson Welles in “F for Fake” (1973), Moore has exploded the public’s once hidebound definition of the documentary film. His ferocity in going after George W. Bush — and the backlash from the president’s loyalists — has raised awareness that documentaries “tell stories.”

In its awards campaign, the pic’s backers are breaking with tradition, not just by going after best picture consideration, but by pushing the docu for screenplay awards as well.

At this point viewers are asking, even of traditional, tactful, verite work — just how scripted are these things?

As a writer and filmmaker who has spent the past 16 months co-producing a documentary drawn from events in my own life — “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” directed by Xan Cassavetes — the generalization that best applies is you begin with passion, but aim at discovery.

For “Z Channel,” Cassavetes began with a two-page aria outlining her decades-long passion for a defunct Los Angeles cable channel, one whose worldly, maverick programming nourished her as a woman and an artist. In exploring the cabler’s history, she discovered the personal tragedy of its programmer, Jerry Harvey; while interviewing people whose lives his work had touched (many of them famous), she discovered an emotion common to each speaker: movie love. That became the film’s throughline, balanced against 51 film clips, as Cassavetes and editor Iain Kennedy coaxed 40-plus talking heads to complete each other’s sentences. In the end, the filmmaker was stunned to discover that the finished film conformed to her long-forgotten outline.

A survey of docs shortlisted for this year’s Oscar race makes clear that while backers often call for detailed outlines — the most common formal step in the documentary “writing” process — many true stories are found in a similar way.

In making “Twist of Faith,” Kirby Dick began with his deep anger at the Catholic Church’s lenient response to revelations of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Pressed to discuss how he scripted the film, he can only laugh: “There’s no writing credit. The way I work, you don’t plan what happens, you watch as it happens.” Dick reveals the long-range consequences of child abuse by focusing on one adult survivor, Ohio fireman Tony Comes. He even supplied Comes with his own camera, to keep a personal video log — thus creating a comfort zone that pays off late in the film, when Dick captures a heart-to-heart talk between the fireman and his young daughter.

For “Home of the Brave,” which retraces the long-ago footsteps of a female civil-rights activist slain in Alabama, filmmaker Paoli Di Fiorio said, “Writing was the last thing I did. We had our themes, our people — but the main ‘writing’ was in the editing and shaping of the material into a three-act story, which took a solid year.”

For Lauren Lazin, the act of writing “Tupac: Resurrection” became a ghostly collaboration with the late hip-hop icon, who felt his doom coming and recorded a series of intimate reflections before his death. “The screenwriter is Tupac,” she says. “It’s his words.”

By contrast, in exploring the solitary life and riveting art of recluse Henry Darger for “In the Realms of the Unreal,” Jessica Yu was obliged to super-prepare. Darger’s life was so private — only three photos of him exist, and memories of his neighbors conflict in a wild “Rashomon”-esque manner — that Yu realized the truest way to document him would be to animate sections of the 15,000-page illustrated novel he wrote during 60 years holed up in his apartment. “I had to structure it so that it had a strong written narration,” Yu recalls. “And I had to have the script finished before the animators could begin working.”

For director Luigi Falorni and writer Byambasuren Davaa, who illuminated the lives of nomads in “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” the sheer physical challenge of communing with the isolated people of Mongolia meant directing the action, much as Robert Flaherty did on his groundbreaking “Nanook of the North” (1922). “There were things we needed to re-create, that happened when we weren’t present,” says Falorni. “The rule we never broke was: Never let anybody invent anything. We asked, ‘What is the truest, most realistic thing that could happen?’ ”

It’s this sense of truth being lived before us that unites the “storytelling” of these diverse docu filmmakers. For each, “the readiness is all,” and the rest is holding to an inner truth — what journalist and author Tom Wolfe once called “believing the heresy of your own eyes.”

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