Using Documentary Techniques to Craft Stories: A Look into United 93, Bloody Sunday, The Road to Guantanamo, and Other Films by Dana Dorrity

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2007. Using Documentary Techniques to Craft Stories: A Look into United 93, Bloody Sunday, The Road to Guantanamo, and Other Films by Dana Dorrity. Pages 16 and 17.

In the Communications program where I teach, documentary production is a foundation course. Students learn ENG style production in their first year and begin work on thirty-minute documentaries as sophomores. We believe that students challenged to conduct research, shoot interviews, and edit long form documentary projects will be much better prepared to become television journalists and narrative filmmakers. We also think there are expanding opportunities in documentary-style production both on television and in feature film.

Many contemporary filmmakers are borrowing techniques from documentary to craft fictional stories. Paul Greengrass, the director of United 93, has built his career crafting true stories into emotional, compelling feature films. His films are not documentaries, but rather they are elaborate, dramatic reconstructions that often employ some of the real participants in the events to play themselves in the movie. In what is probably the most compelling performance in United 93, Ben Sliney, the chief of the FAA’s air traffic control center, reenacts the events that led him to his decision to close the skies. September 11th, 2001, just happened to be Sliney’s first day on the job. Although Greengrass has also directed action films like The Bourne Supremacy, he developed his non-fiction dramatic recreation techniques working on his 2002 film, Bloody Sunday, about the 1972 massacre of protestors in Northern Ireland. As Gillo Pontecorvo depicted the inner workings of terrorist cells in Algeria in The Battle of Algiers, Bloody Sunday shows the roots of insurgency in an occupied territory. It should be required viewing for all of us who are trying to make sense of the war in Iraq and the endless conflict in Israel.

There’s nothing new about using documentary techniques in fictional films. Bob Fosse’s classic Biopic, Lenny, intercut interviews with the characters into the story. Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 biographical epic about John Reed, used interviews with American communists who lived through this turbulent period to reinforce the dramatic scenes between Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Woody Allen used a hand-held and cinéma vérité style for his film Husbands and Wives about the dissolution of one marriage and strength of another. Although Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane followed a reporter’s search for the meaning of the main character’s last word and uses a fake news reel to set up the story, it uses a more traditional feature film technique and never breaks the third wall. Characters speak to each other rather than directly to camera as they do in documentary-style films.

In television, documentary may seem to have been supplanted by reality TV, but there are documentary style programs on nearly every channel from MTV to Court TV and A&E. Shows like Flip This House, that follow investors through the process of renovating dilapidated or outdated houses use cinéma vérité and interview techniques that are derived directly from documentary filmmaking.

Another director working on the razor’s edge between documentary and narrative film is Michael Winterbottom. His 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People, chronicled the life of TV Show host and music promoter Tony Wilson and the rise of the Manchester music scene. Wilson, played by Steve Coogan, discovered Joy Division and Happy Mondays and was one of the founders of Factory Records. Because he’s a television host, it’s natural for his character to talk directly to a camera, and this film is filled with asides when Wilson turns to camera and speaks directly to the viewer about the choices he made and even the director’s decision to skip ahead in his life story or blend a few characters together. Although the film uses some archival footage, most memorably, scenes of The Sex Pistols playing in a nearly empty dance hall in Manchester, the archival footage is seamlessly edited with scenes of the actors which places them at these historical points. Other concert scenes, specifically the scenes of Ian Curtis in Joy Division, were created with the actors for the movie.

Winterbottom’s 2006 film, The Road to Guantanamo, is more of a traditional documentary film. The story is structured around interviews with three young men who traveled from Britain to Pakistan, then on to Afghanistan, in the fall of 2001. They were eventually captured as enemy combatants and spent three years at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Winterbottom employed actors to recreate the scenes of the young men’s journey into Afghanistan and their terrifying experiences in the American prison camp. The dramatic scenes are punctuated with a newscaster’s voice and new footage that periodically links them to the events following the September 11th attack and the invasion of Afghanistan by US troops. The scenes of torture and their cruel treatment are shocking, but what is almost equally shocking is the calm and reasoned demeanor of the Tipton Three in their interviews. Two of the men consider that they are better people for having survived the detainment in Guantanamo, and the third says that what didn’t kill him made him stronger. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that people cannot only survive but learn from such an agonizing experience.

What’s interesting in comparing these kinds of films, United 93 and Bloody Sunday, which fictionalize true incidents using documentary techniques, and The Road to Guantanamo, which uses narrative filmmaking to dramatize a documentary film, is that the fictional films seem truer. In The Road to Guantanamo, the viewer is always aware that this is the reenactment of three men’s stories, and these men, though they were only seventeen when they were originally arrested, are never able to explain why they traveled to Afghanistan at such a critical moment in history. United 93 and Bloody Sunday, which are scripted based on historical documents and oral histories, seem more objectively real. Though there are moments, particularly at the climax when the passengers decide to crash the plan, when the filmmaker had to imagine what might have happened, his depiction is such a perfect climax of the events that it’s hard to believe that anything else could have happened.

The greatest lesson that students can learn from documentary filmmaking and particularly the structuring of story that I call documentary screenwriting is how to craft the climax. The climax of a movie needs to tie together all the elements of the story in a meaningful way, but life doesn’t usually work out that way. In life, innocent people may be arrested, detained, tortured and even killed, and these acts may seem random. Amazingly, Winterbottom is able to create a meaningful climax to the true stories in The Road to Guantanamo, and this is what makes the movie worth seeing. When students learn to craft true stories in meaningful ways, they are well-equipped to eventually write and direct both documentary and narrative features.

Dana Dorrity is an assistant professor of Communications and Media Arts at Dutchess Community College. She has an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute and teaches media writing, screenwriting and video production classes.

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