Documentary Stories

Veteran writer and filmmaker Cole analyzes what makes a doc story work and offers a manifesto on how to make one yourself.

41 mins read

Documentary Manifesto

1. A documentary worth pursuing starts with passion to tell a story. My student shorts in the 1970s were about friends who lived alternative lifestyles in downtown Toronto. After film school I built upon this by making films about people living on the fringes of society. My passion is bringing stories about the margins into mainstream consideration. I see my subjects in all their humanity rather than by the circumstances of their lives. I want to break down stereotypes, and con- vey the point of view of my subjects to audiences. My passion starts with a story that moves me and believing that, if I’m moved, others can be, too.

2. Avoid falling back on voice-over narration to explain a story. A producer asked me to “walk” him through the narration when he came to the editing room to see a cut of the Making of Agnes of God (1985). I explained there was no narration. It puzzled him but after the screening, he sold Columbia Pictures on the cut. I admire docs that use content rather than narration to express the story. Narration that moves the story along and feels like a voice in the film can also be powerful, but narration that explains the obvious or tells a story that isn’t captured onscreen and exists only in the filmmaker’s missed experience is intrusive and can ruin the film.

3. Research is key to discovering the best way to shape a story. In Calling the Shots (1988) Claudia Weill said she gave up making documentaries because she got tired of following people around waiting for them to say what she wanted them to say—and then spending time in the cutting room cutting them to say what she wanted them to say. I left her line in the film but I have never subscribed to her approach. For Thin Line (1977), my first film after school, I researched criminology, criminality, sociology, psychology, similarities and differences between the Penetanguishene (Penetang) Hospital for the Criminally Insane and the penal system in Canada, recidivist rates in both streams of incarceration, films on penal issues in Canada and the United States, famous prisoners at Penetang, spree killing and serial killing, treatments used on patients such as the ‘capsule,’ and the use of pure alcohol and forms of speed. I also researched various mental health conditions patients are diagnosed with such as schizophrenia, antisocial disorders, paranoia, and psychosis. I researched the crimes, backgrounds and families of the patients who agreed to be in the film. I learned to do deep research on Thin Line and I believe research is crucial to shaping a story that shows participants as they really are rather than through a limited perception of who a filmmaker believes them to be.

4. Getting to know participants is important in conveying their story. The participants in my student films were friends and I quickly learned the value of knowing them in advance of filming. Familiarity allows me to gauge when participants are natural with the camera, playing for it or reluctant to open up with it there. It took six months to get into Penetang to film Thin Line and four years to get into the Prison for Women to make P4W (1981). The delays allowed me to meet participants and get to know them prior to filming. Not everyone believes in getting to know participants; for instance Frederick Wiseman prefers to film cold. But for me, the value of getting to know participants in advance of filming is crucial to the outcome I want, which is filming their story, not just mine.

5. Negotiate the terms of engagement with participants before telling their story. One way to secure participants is to pay them, as Nick Broomfield does in his films, but I have ethical questions about this practice, especially when some participants are paid but not all. I was asked to pay $1,000 to interview Lillian Gish for Calling the Shots and wouldn’t agree because there wasn’t money to pay everyone the same amount. It was hard to lose her, but it was the right decision. On the one hand, I’ve questioned why, as a filmmaker, I should pay the crew and not the participants. On the other, do paid participants “act” according to your desires rather than expressing themselves honestly? It’s a tough call and each filmmaker must set the terms that feel right. Instead of distinguishing that some participants’ stature is more relevant than others and paying accordingly, I prefer to make a mutual commitment. In exchange for participation, I commit to spending time, telling an accurate story and taking the film back when it’s done. I get the greatest satisfaction in hearing my participants say “You really got the story right” because that’s what I’m after. Especially when a person’s representation is controversial and they commend the filmmaking—that’s a true accolade.

6. Scripting documentaries differs from dramas, but shares the same outcome of engaging stories. Most dramas are scripted before shooting, whereas there is often only a proposal in advance of a documentary shoot. Something that each filmmaker must learn is how to balance objectivity and subjectivity in making decisions that affect the story. I learned in the cutting room how stories are shaped by choices in the filmmaking process, starting from the approach to the topic and the choice of participants, to where they’re filmed, when the camera rolls and cuts, and the structure that emerges. A wrong choice could mean some of the story is missing or the film will require explanatory narration, or worse, may not cut together at all. I start with thorough research and a solid shooting plan, and then I trust my instincts to make decisions that will shape a story that is true to the shooting experience.

7. Make a tight shooting plan and anticipate that it will change. A shooting plan isn’t a blueprint to follow. It’s a document that gives you the ability to converse with people and learn from them during your field experience. I start with a tight plan and always veer from it when filming. When something happens that is different from what I anticipated, I shift things accordingly. Or I discover something I didn’t know and shift to fit it in. Sometimes I learn that I got something wrong in my research and by learning the right thing in the field I have to change quickly and move my shoot in the right direction, even if it means eliminating things I thought were important. I process what I hear and see in the field through the knowledge I’ve gathered in my research to make informed decisions about how to move the shoot in the right direction. Instead of doing what’s best for my schedule and shooting plan, I do what’s best for my story and participants.

8. The story is “found” in the cutting room. I don’t write documentaries at my desk, I write them in the cutting room. It helps to be an editor or to at least understand the editor’s job in shaping the story. I have edited all but two of my docs and I was involved in those cuts all the way through. Documentaries are authored, but it’s a different form of authorship than fiction. I did three rough cuts for P4W and each told a different story. I settled on the final one because it reflected what I wanted the film to say and it had a story structure. My sound recordist had seen all three cuts and was disappointed that I didn’t stick with the first, which she liked best because it was wonky like the prison. She was right, but it was also all over the map and I knew the story needed to unfold with a structure. The director experiences a freedom of choice and the opportunity to tell any number of stories but there is generally only one ideal story lurking in the rushes. Finding the right story and the best way to tell it takes practice and time. The more vérité that is shot, the more the story is found in the rushes. Editors who shape the story alongside the filmmaker are often collaborating in the authorship, and if so, should be credited appropriately.

9. Documentary storytelling is tied to a filmmaker’s ethics. Documentaries have a subliminal message that what you see is the ‘truth.’ Knowledge of what is ‘truth,’ what is not and how the results are used is based on ethical choices. In this era of hybrid docs, the use of fiction and reenactments is continually developing, often with controversy, and sometimes calling on a filmmaker’s ethics. Why trick audiences with fictional events passed off as nonfiction? It shows a disregard for audiences if they are not given the facts. Treating participants poorly is also unethical. Even ‘bad’ characters deserve respect while capturing their corruption. Trying to trick audiences or treating participants unfairly reveals a problem with ethics on the part of the filmmaker and gives me a lack of trust in their documentary story.

10. Documentary storytelling offers continual learning. I’ve met people in all walks of life and gained unique insight into the human condition. Earning the trust of people living on the fringes is always a great reward because they often have a mistrust of people. I learn something each time I make a documentary and it’s the continual learning that keeps me wanting to make the next film.


Cream Soda (1975) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Minimum Charge No Cover (1976) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Thin Line (1977) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor P4W: Prison for Women (1981) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Genie Award Hookers on Davie (1984) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Genie nomination Making Agnes of God (1985) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Calling the Shots (1988) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor Genie nomination Shaggie: Letters From Prison (1990) producer, writer, director, editor Best Short, TIFF Dangerous Offender (1996) writer Gemini nomination, WGC Top Ten Award Bowie: One in a Million (2000) producer, director, writer Exhibit A, Night of Rage (2002) writer Wh(y)? (2008) co-producer, director, co-writer Between Frames (2008) co-producer, co-writer, co-director, co-editor

Doc Story Primer

When I’m asked if the best way to learn filmmaking is through workshops, volunteering on films or going to film school I answer that they’re all good, but a film program provides the best knowledge base. Thirty-two years ago I attended the Media Arts program at Sheridan College and made two student documentaries that remain in distribution through the CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre). Rick Hancox, who now teaches at Concordia and still makes films, and experimental photographer Jeffrey Paull were my most influential teachers. Students who established creative careers from my year include Holly Dale, Lorraine Segato, Philip Hoffman, Richard Kerr, Alan Zweig and Dave Richie.

Sheridan has been coined the “escarpment school” and students entering the fold after my time include Mike Hoolboom and Steve Sanguedolce. My days at Sheridan were spent volunteering on student films, recording soundtracks for Lorraine and Dave, being interviewed by Alan for his film on cab drivers and working as Rick’s teaching assistant. But my most enduring creative relationship was formed with Holly Dale. After learning how to shoot, record, edit and sound mix, we shared duties to create Cream Soda (1975) and Minimum Charge No Cover (1976), spending months in the editing room avidly debating the story structure of each ten-minute film. It’s there I learned documentary storytelling. I established a company with Holly and we made half a dozen longer docs before our careers evolved into directing (Holly) and writing (me) when we could no longer afford to raise money to make and promote independent films.

Three decades after Sheridan’s diploma program, and a dozen films later, I’m at Ryerson University taking the new MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in Documentary Media program, which offers a cross-disciplinary education in new media, filmmaking and photography. I’m in the inaugural cohort of roughly thirty-five students, some at an advanced career stage like myself, while others are fresh from their BA education. For our thesis projects we’re turning documentary ideas into compelling stories, and each of us is hoping to achieve audience appeal.

Audiences will forgive cinematic rough edges in a powerfully told story, but are less forgiving of a slick cinematic film that is void of story. The best docs have a good story supported by a style that suits the storytelling, rough or slick. For anyone beginning a documentary career or contemplating one, the main ingredient to learn, and quickly, is story. My approach to shaping documen- tary stories is garnered from three decades of production sandwiched between two educational programs.

Anyone who has seen a doc that meanders without a clear focus and feels redundant knows there is no clear recipe for success. Documentary filmmakers, have historically been cast in the role of auteurs and independents, carving their own path and discovering unique storytelling outcomes. It goes with the genre.

For a quick lesson in documentary storytelling break down any Oscar or Genie winner, or top prizewinner at Hot Docs to learn how good stories are shaped, how characters are revealed and the importance of structure. Or look at the work of a documentary director whom you admire.

Distinct, recognizable voices require a body of films to assess for story, style, point of view and thematic consistency. Through analyzing all the films by a favourite filmmaker, the lessons from dissecting a single film deepen. In Canada there are the distinct voices of social justice filmmakers Allan King, Nettie Wild, Shelley Saywell, Peter Raymont, Alanis Obomsawin and Maya Gallus; cultural voices of Larry Weinstein, Annette Mangaard and Ron Mann; and poetic voices such as Phil Hoffman, Alison Murray and Peter Mettler. If not for the work of the best filmmakers, where would developing directors get material to learn how to write documentary stories?

Developing a distinct voice begins with defining an approach to the genre.


What is a documentary? Does it have to be vérité? Must it deal with social or political issues? How about hybrids and mock docs?

Spinal Tap and Blair Witch are dramatized to feel like docs and they raise questions about why filmmakers take a mock doc approach instead of simply making a drama—to cash in on audiences investing in “truth” more so than fiction.

The mock genre has been around for a long time, and not without controversy. I was shown Mitchell Block’s short film No Lies (1974) at Sheridan. A guy films his roommate as she gets ready to go out and asks her about a recent rape experience. She becomes increasingly reluctant to talk and tries to get him to stop filming. Instead he presses harder until it becomes bothersome. She finally gets angry, tells him what he wants to hear and storms off into the night, alone. I was angry about the second “rape” on film until the credits revealed the film to be a fiction, not a vérité documentary. At first that made me angrier, and then it began to make sense. Mitchell blurs genres to grab the audience and succeeds in making a stronger point. The lasting impact of his film explains why this form of “hoax” continues to be used in both mocks and docs.

Radiant City (2006) won the Genie Award for Best Documentary this year, which upset some doc filmmakers to the point where discussions surfaced about approaching the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television to reverse the decision. The film appears to be a documentary following a family in the suburbs blended with specialists talking about suburban life. But the end credits reveal that the family is a construction, and not real. Radiant City is not the first film to blend fiction and nonfiction, but it’s the hoax aspect, revealed after the film is finished—just like in No Lies —that filmmakers find bother- some. I see no problem as long as the truth is revealed.

If Radiant City had been disallowed for a Best Documentary award, what about other docs that blend fiction and nonfiction like Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love, winner of a Best Documentary Genie in 1993, or John Walker’s new film Passage, which is eligible in the upcoming Genies?

Hybrids allow filmmakers and their publicists to promote a film in the genre of choice. There is nothing preventing a doc/drama hybrid from being promoted as either a doc or drama. Guy Maddin blends experimental, dramatic and documentary techniques in his recent film My Winnipeg, which he promotes as a doc. There are many docs that incorporate dramatic reenactments of historical moments or of people who are being represented because they’re no longer living. Ryan is a hybrid of documentary storytelling and animation. The film is equally powerful for its documentation of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin and for inventive 3D computer animated character portrayals. Chris Landreth had the option to promote it as an animation or documentary. Choosing wisely he won an Oscar and a Genie for Best Short Animation—but Ryan is also a doc.

Documentary audiences expect facts and they like to judge the facts for themselves. This is also true of docudrama. In the world of docudramas “based on a true story” holds more weight than “inspired by a true story” as it must be factual even with the genre being fiction. Docudramas based on true stories such as Bonnie & Clyde, Boys Don’t Cry, Monster and Into the Wild have affected me as profoundly as documentaries. But clearly, docudramas are scripted and acted, and are fiction, not nonfiction, even if the result has a documentary feel. When I wrote Dangerous Offender, a docudrama about Marlene Moore, the first Canadian female condemned to lifetime imprisonment for being habitually “a danger to society,” I condensed, collapsed and embellished events to make the truth work dramatically. When a story is based on truth, dramatic license must support the facts and not change them. If facts are altered for dramatic impact, it becomes a story inspired by truth. Some critics called Dangerous Offender a doc, but it’s not, it’s a fiction based on reality, not a creative interpretation of reality. There is a difference.

The ‘father’ of documentary, John Grierson, coined the term based on early Robert Flaherty films like Nanook of the North. He defined the genre as the “creative interpretation of reality,” providing Flaherty his much needed wiggle room for scenes he (re)created with Nanook and hunting trips he (mis)interpreted. Many definitions have sprung up since but I prefer Grierson’s because it encourages creative invention in the genre, indicates that interpretation is individualistic and isn’t preachy about reality.

I don’t believe documentaries need to be educational, commercial, have a lesson, hold the answers or help to change the world, although they can posses any of these traits. They can be any hybrid mix as long as it’s identified. Hybrids work best when there’s a reason to blend genres. What all good documentaries have in common is a clear story and distinct filmmaker’s point of view, expressed through choices in handling the material, and often guided by passion for the story. The distinct voice of the maker, even if only ‘heard’ in the treatment of participants and shaping of the rushes, i.e. in the absence of a film- maker’s spoken narration or onscreen presence, is still authorship.

Whether defining documentary as pure vérité, interviews, archival, a blend of techniques or mix of genres, most documentarians agree that a good doc starts with a filmmaker’s passion for turning an idea that moves them into an expressive film story.


Two mentors I looked to in the 1970s were Frederick Wiseman and Allan King. I liked their fly-on-the-wall vérité approach in films like High School and Warrendale, but I yearned to do things differently for two reasons. After reading What is Cinéma Vérité? by Issari and Paul, I decided that shooting ratios in the range of 100-1 were not for me. I also felt that while I enjoyed observing characters, I also yearned to hear them speak in more depth about some of the subject matter covered in vérité films.

My first film effort with Holly Dale, Cream Soda, blends vérité with interviews and shots of half a dozen women working in a private strip club. We set out to dispel a popular myth that all women who work as strippers are victims. Our friends saw their jobs as financial empowerment to get the educations and businesses they wanted. To capture their story on a modest student budget we got permission to mount microphones in the strip rooms and film the strippers at work with a non-sync camera. Later, we recorded an audio interview with a stripper describing what the job was like, and finally, we shot a scene of two strippers getting ready for work.

Our blend of material approaches and closeness to our subjects defined our documentary style, which continued when we made Minimum Charge No Cover and became our signature in shaping documentary stories about marginal people.

Female role models were hard to find in 1975, whereas now there are many. Jennifer Baichwal’s retrospective at Hot Docs this year introduced me to films that preceded her beautiful and popular Manufacturing Landscapes. I saw the True Meaning of Pictures about controversial photographer Shelby Lee Adams and it offers rare insight into the artist at work. Baichwal lets audiences judge his photographic practice. Using interviews of Adams, gallery owners, photo subjects, and photographer peers with vérité footage of exhibitions and Adams at work, she blends a powerful portrait. Whether one agrees with Adams’ photographs of Appalachia or not, his commitment to the people and their support of his work is clear. In Baichwal’s hands, it’s the exhibition world that comes off as strange, not the photographs. Crowds in a New York gallery are unsure how to respond to Adams’ work. Watching them I began to question not why these photos are taken, or by whom, but the inequity between the subject’s poverty and art world’s affluence. Adams arrives with gifts, food and copies of photos for his subjects. Rather than question if it’s enough, I credit him for the gestures. If gallery owners and artist reps also contributed to the poor from their profits, it would add to the difference Adams makes to his impoverished subjects’ lives.

A rapidly growing trend in doc filmmaking involves filmmakers moving in front of the lens to guide the storytelling journey. In these films audiences identify with the filmmaker’s personality, which I see as another form of popularity ghettoizing similar to live pitching arenas where doc filmmakers become ‘performers’ competing for funds. I’m not a fan of pitching arenas or onscreen filmmakers. I don’t believe that pitches require spectators, and I don’t believe filmmakers should appear in their film unless it is an integral part of the story.

The Bodybuilder and I (2007) makes excellent use of the filmmaker’s onscreen presence, and won the 2007 Hot Docs Award for Best Canadian Feature. Bryan Friedman’s candid doc about his father’s mid-life crisis and subsequent taking up of bodybuilding is compelling because of an equally weighty narrative about their estranged relationship. The filmmaker and his father are active subjects of the story and both reveal themselves, with the balance appropriately on the father. Each one is a complex mix of confidence, vulnerability, hurt, anger and compassion.

Jennifer Fox also uses the onscreen approach with great result in her story about the vast choices available to modern women in the six-hour doc soap series Flying. At the heart of this global study is her own personal dilemma about falling in love with one guy and having an affair with another—and neither one living close enough to comfort her lonely nights in New York. Fox also explores the complexity of female dynamics in her family with three generations of women and their co-dependencies. She is the thread that holds the episodes together as she meets various women on her travels around the world and discusses sexuality and relationships.

The series starts off personally, with Fox’s friends and family, then widens to include less intimate encounters with women she’s meeting for the purpose of the film, and then tightens up again with her choice to give up the affair, settle down with the boyfriend and come to terms with her family as she, her mother and aunt grieve the passing of her grandmother. The biggest insight into modern day relationships comes from Fox’s lead position, sharing flaws and vulnerabilities along with her strengths.

The onscreen approach was popularized by Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield in the 1980s and is largely responsible for the rise in documentary popularity. Jamie Kastner and Alan Zweig subscribe to the approach and they have the personalities to carry it off, but it doesn’t make their stories better. If filmmakers play no pertinent role in their story other than as a guide—a role that could be passed on to a subject—I question time and attention being focused on them rather than given over to their subjects.

Nik Sheehan opens FLicKeR (2008) on a mission to look into Brion Gysin’s dream machine. His onscreen approach is fun, but he plays an unnecessary role as an onscreen guide, an insider to the story.

Audiences receive an unspoken message about the filmmaker and subject appearing together in a film, that each plays a role in telling the story. FLicKeR is a fine film that needs not rely on the filmmaker’s journey to make it work. Too often I see onscreen filmmakers place the merit of the story around themselves and use material with other participants to support their story. In such cases I’d prefer the filmmaker to step aside and give more time to the participants. While filmmakers taking to the screen is increasingly popular, it’s also generic. There is no distinction in the storytelling; the only distinction comes from the personalities of each filmmaker.


Picking up where Allan King’s Warrendale (1967) left off, Kim Longinotto’s empathetic camera lingers on emotionally troubled children experiencing turbulent ups-and-downs in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (2007) a hit at this year’s Hot Docs. Longinotto makes powerful vérité films about women and children. King, of course, is Canada’s premiere vérité filmmaker. Their films present distinct voices on the same topic, each with an individual signature that defines their style.

Everything we learn from both films, we learn by watching. No one is interviewed, no voice-over is added. There is only the observation of what seems like an ever-present camera, and it works beautifully in both films.

Mike Hoolboom, in Frank’s Cock (1994) and Philip Hoffman, in Passing Through/Torn Formations (1988), showed themselves to be leaders in the poetic diarist approach to doc storytelling. Kay Armatage used the poetic form in shorts like Speakbody (1980), an inventive approach to women talking about abortion. I’ve made two shorts suited to this style to remember friends Marlene Moore, who died by suicide at the Prison for Women, and Cathy Bowie, who was killed by her husband. The poetic approach allows a freedom of expression but still builds a story narrative. Planning is logistical, and the result is visceral.

A film I saw recently that utilizes the poetic approach within a more traditional form is Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed In The Mountains by Gonzalo Arijón (2007). The filmmaker doesn’t avoid the fact that people ate human flesh to stay alive on a remote mountaintop in the aftermath of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes. Instead he expresses their dilemma by creating dramatic reenactments that convey a poetic cinematic anthem about the philosophy of survival.

Experimental reenactment clips are used to accompany interview stories, playing out the events from the perspective of the survivors’ memories. We hear a survivor talk about how the human meat was cut up and offered and how difficult it was to take. Instead of seeing this dramatized, we are shown reenactments of the harsh conditions, people huddling together, the plane split into pieces, etc.

These recreations don’t interpret the survivors’ stories from the filmmaker’s point-of-view. The two streams—inter- views and recreations—complement each other, while keeping the importance of the story focused on the act of remembering. The viewer is always aware and ever mindful of the aching relation between the living and the dead. The result is powerful.

Getting inventive with genre and creative in the storytelling approach will resonate if the story matches the form. Without a story to follow, the most inventive and creative techniques will be lost. The only way to define a distinct documentary voice is to make a body of clear, expressive films.

Films Referenced
No Lies (short), Mitchell Block, USA (1974)
Radiant City (feature), Gary Burns and Jim Brown (2006)
Passage (feature), John Walker (2008)
Ryan (short), Chris Landreth (2004)
My Winnipeg (feature), Guy Maddin (2008)
Nanook of the North (feature), Robert Flaherty, USA (1922)
The True Meaning of Pictures (feature), Jennifer Baichwal (2002)
The Bodybuilder and I (feature), Bryan Friedman (2007)
Flying: Confessions of a free woman (six-part docu-soap), Jennifer Fox, USA (2007)
FLicKeR (feature), Nik Sheehan (2008)
Warrendale (feature), Allan King (1967)
Hold Me Tight Let Me Go (feature), Kim Longinotto, UK (2007)
Stranded (feature), Gonzalo Arijón, Uruguay/France (2007)
Speakbody (short), Kay Armatage (1980)

Previous Story

On the DOC Road

Next Story


Latest from Blog

0 $0.00