What is a documentary and how do I incorporate theory?

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My understanding of a documentary is that it is a non-fiction
factual narrative that explores a central idea or research question.
Of course I am sitting here writing this off the top of my head, and
all I have to base this definition on is a handful of related texts and
previous docos that I have watched and listened too. But let’s not
get bogged down in a search for a watertight definition, for I do
believe that most of us have an understanding of the expectations
that accompany the documentary form. Rather, lets look at the
form itself, and how we can develop or find new ways to present
and construct innovative and engaging forms of documentary
storytelling.

I just read over the last line above, I think the key word here is
storytelling. A story involves characters, locations, structure
and above all, an audience. An understanding of these story
elements and how they fit into the puzzle is vital to the telling
of any tale. As documentary storytellers, our role is to inform
and inspire others to further investigate the issues and
questions that we raise.

So what of these questions and how should we incorporate
theory into the documentary. I think a good example of here
is the work of Michael Moore. On watching one of his films,
one is immediately aware that Moore is exploring theoretical
questions regarding notions of social cohesion and community.
I would argue that his approach to his interview questions and
technique, and the filmmaking itself, requires an engagement
with theory in order to determine the correct approach for such
a project.

Although Moore may not literally ask his interviewees
“What do you think of Toennies theories on ‘community and
society’? He may very well be exploring these issues within the
overall framework, and this may be reflected in the nature of
the questions he does ask in his interviews and the types
of communities he chooses to document in his films.

I would argue that theory is part of our daily lives, it shapes
the systems that we live in and may help us to gain a better
understanding both ourselves and our environment.
Personally, I believe that an engagement in theory is not
just about dithering bespeckled old men, dusty books and
outmoded concepts. Whether we agree or disagree with
a particular hypothesis, we are in the process of actively
thinking about a question and a solution. For me,
theory is just about opening our minds to greater
possibilities and a better understanding of the
human condition.

Okay, that’s enough ranting for me. What do you think?

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