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11 April 2011

Africadoc: Writing for Documentaries

Gina Bonmariage

AFRICADOC sets out to fulfil the need to create the platforms for Africans to have their own voice and to present their own perspectives of the realities of their continent.

The programme, through the development of African documentary cinema, aims to develop a training network to meet the needs of a new generation of documentary filmmakers, and to set up a network of professionals working in the documentary industry.

Class of 2010 and the organising team

Founded in 2002, AFRICADOC has a proud history of success in French speaking Africa, and this year ventured into the English speaking African territory, launching its first South African session with a documentary writing residency in Johannesburg. The filmmakers were selected by a committee, based on their project as well as their potential in terms of conveying a strong sense of direction and point of view. The idea was to develop their talent and vision through writing, and to position them as real "authors" who can deliver a unique film where they, as filmmakers, will be held accountable both for form and content.
One of the strengths of documentary filmmaking is its diversity in form and style. From diary films and direct cinema or ‘cinema verite’ to archival histories and scientific essays, documentaries present audiences with a perspective on real events.
Documentary filmmakers, through real characters and the raw material of real life, no less than narrative screenwriters, strive to tell strong, often character-driven stories that have a narrative structure that keeps viewers actively engaged. According to French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, “even the purest documentary is fiction” while German filmmaker Werner Herzog believes the “ documentary is just a ‘feature film’ in disguise.” Bill Nichols historian and theoretician of documentary film states that “every film is a documentary”. Story helps define documentary and separate it from visual material that simply documents an actual person, place, or event. A documentary is not an intellectual tool but an emotional one – the audience gets it through their emotions.

A term first coined by the French in the 1950s, ‘filme d’auteur’ defines those films which show the director’s personal creative vision. Alain-Paul Mallard, documentary and fiction filmmaker, under whose direction the AFRICADOC residencies were run, focuses his teaching on this approach where the author of the documentary is someone who is responsible and accountable for meaning and form. It is a personal point of view on reality

that belongs to the filmmaker and this links to how he tells his story. Participating filmmakers were encouraged to take a stance in the evidence they put forward representing reality and to view cinematographic language as an end in itself.

This workshop put forward notions of a moral stance in which the filmmaker has to be honest and accurate in his /her use of material. Therefore the representation of reality should not be betrayed through the process of filmmaking. What is offered to viewers must have the value of truth. Not ‘the truth’ but one truth. The moral stance of the filmmaker is not to manipulate reality with a set of pre-existing ideas, but to question reality and watch reality react, setting self aside.
“Audiences trust documentaries (believing them to represent truth and reality),” says Sheila Curran Bernard, author and documentary filmmaker. “That trust is key to a film's power and relevance. Betray that trust - imply that important events happened in a way that they did not, select only those facts that support an essay, bend the facts in service of a more "dramatic" story - and the form and the film are undermined. This doesn't mean that an overt point of view cannot be presented, or, for that matter, that a work that is determinedly neutral cannot be created. It means that the argument, or neutrality, needs to be accurately grounded.”
Participant Maanda Ntsandeni stated: “We must spend more time with the story, asking questions and unravelling it. To make a film is a privilege and not a right. We should always go into films knowing our position. We must be accountable. We must embrace the story and make it our own”.

A well-completed documentary film is always the representation of the strong and accurate relationship between what has been filmed and the filmmaker.

Eight Southern African documentary filmmakers took part in the first documentary scriptwriting workshop and residency in Johannesburg. By the end of the residency, four filmmakers were selected to participate in a second, and more intensive writing residency in Senegal before presenting to African, European and Canadian producers at the T├źnk Encounters in Saint-Louis (Senegal).

Tapiwa Chipfupa, who went forward to participate in the second writing residency and pitching sessions in Senegal concludes: “I learned that making documentaries, especially like this, is like painting a picture, it is an art. I understood how to find the ‘sense’ or ‘essence’ of the film and to bring it alive on paper. By looking at other documentaries I understood how to use the small moments, to let the camera speak, to allow for reflection in a moment on screen. It has changed the way I do everything, even in the way I select or look at topics for documentary films. It shaped our technique of writing.”

by Gina Bonmariage

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