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What is documentary storytelling?

In the past, whenever I had trouble expressing my thoughts to my peers, I always wished that there was a port on the side of my head that could project those thoughts onto a screen. A vivid scene would then play out, one that compensated for my lack of eloquence to do justice to the things I wanted to explain, emotions to express, and stories to tell.

It is a frustrating feeling when the message delivered is not received in the way it was intended. “If only they could see what’s inside my head,” I often thought to myself, “then they would surely understand.” I later learnt the term ‘in my mind’s eye’, a mental construction that only the person could see, though if like me, there are plenty who are eager to share.

Hence, it may seem somewhat poetic that in 2015, I unexpectedly stumbled onto an opportunity to direct my first documentary (and my first film production ever), which placed me in a position to be the solution to that frustration – not for myself, however, but for the subjects of my film. After all, documentaries are perhaps the best medium to express an incredible amount of information in a visually and emotionally engaging way in a relatively short span of time. As a documentary storyteller, it felt like I was in a privileged position of being ‘the mind’s eye’ for others.

That realisation of responsibility was a daunting moment that I will never forget. It enlightened me to the stresses that honest documentary storytellers have to endure as they soldier on the difficult journey to do justice to the stories of others. This is on top of the usual stresses of production and the anguish that comes from producing a film that sells.

‘To do justice to the stories told’ is a responsibility that I proudly carry with me on each production, but what does that mean exactly?

Well, an immediate principle that comes to mind is integrity, for a documentary is nothing without honesty. A documentary audience always expects the truth from what is presented to them. It is a sacred trust that should never be broken; each time one dabbles in the grey is a disservice to his reputation and to the industry.

However, to show what is true is never straightforward. For instance, a live feed from a security cam is perhaps the closest one can get to what is true, but I doubt anyone is jealous of the access security guards get on a daily basis. Thus, while maintaining integrity, one must utilise creativity.

Creativity in documentary storytelling should not be seen as creative accounting – one is a fabrication of reality that is frowned upon as it distorts facts for immoral reasons, the other is the exercise of one’s wits and a team’s skills to navigate through the many challenges that stands between the value of the story and its intended audience. How do years of experiences transform into a compelling package countable by the minutes? Creativity.

Creativity overlaps with the third principle, brevity. While most people associate the cost of watching a film with the price of access, the true cost is the time spent giving your undivided attention to watch the film. To respect this is to resist the temptation of allowing a creative but wandering mind to tell a story that disregards the audience’s most precious resource. Moreover, adhering to this principle results in a better story – for brevity is not about making one’s work short per se, but to make it ‘as short as it should be’. Fundamentally, the story will dictate that – though there are obviously other factors at play.

In the four years since making my first documentary, my answer to the question ‘What is documentary storytelling?’ is ever evolving and maturing with experience. For now, it is storytelling from my mind’s eye – strengthened by the principles of integrity, creativity and brevity – with the ultimate goal of doing justice to the stories told.

OKJ is a documentary storyteller whose life is greatly influenced by and benefited from non-fiction films. He hopes to produce works that provide audiences with a sense of "being in the moments" and create empathetic connections to universal values featured.

If you want to transport someone into the moments that would make them understand why you do what you do, the documentary treatment is what you deserve. Documentary Storytelling is my way of bringing your audience through your journeys that cannot be described in words and pictures alone.

P.S. This article was inspired by a client who told me that the 30 minute documentary I made for her organisation helped her in explaining what she does for a living to her family and friends after struggling to do so for 3 years.

OKJ