Nonfiction narratives: facts find focus


We’re sitting around the dining room table at my parent’s house in New Hampshire, surrounded by expensive film equipment. Tomorrow, my crew and I will begin to film a documentary in my hometown about an annual giant pumpkin festival and regatta. But now, we are talking about the footage we want to collect—and how it will tell a story. Throughout the conversation, we keep returning to a perceived roadblock between my journalism background and their visual and media arts education.
The fundamental opposition in the conversation was that, as director, I wasn’t ready to lock in on a specific subject. Instead, I wanted to collect as much footage as we could, and scrap together the truest story about the event. Journalism professors advise students to collect every quote they can, but to never just empty their notebooks into their stories. We’re taught to curate the excessive information we collect.
Meanwhile, my other crewmates wanted to choose a subject to follow and develop it to create an ideal narrative—something they’d learned about extensively throughout their film classes. But that could be harmful to the accurate portrayal of a nonfiction story. And that’s not to say film students don’t create amazing work. The ones I’ve worked with have an eye for finding the most interesting stories in the strangest places, and that’s where their training comes in handy.
But the reporters and directors and cinematographers and writers studying at Emerson now will be the ones producing our nonfiction media in the coming years. And we have to make sure that these storytellers are getting the tools they need to accurately depict real life. Working together on projects is one step toward that—my crew on my documentary taught me so much about how to tell a story in a way that is visually appealing to an audience. But it shouldn’t come down to our extracurriculars for this collaboration to occur.
Pending approval, the college will release a nonfiction narrative minor next fall, allowing students in journalismvisual and media arts, writing, literature and publishing, and performing arts to take classes across these majors. This helps, but there should not be as many walls between these majors in the first place. There should not be so much separation in the education of the same core ideologies.
The point of nonfiction storytelling is to illustrate something in its most truthful tone—sometimes an imperfect one. When we want perfect endings and seamless plot arcs, we turn to fiction. We lose ourselves in Game of Thrones and Captain America because while pieces of these stories do ring true to our lives, they are not of our world. And that’s a form of escape. Nonfiction, however, should be nothing but our world. Nonfiction works can uncover hideous oppressions and hidden gems alike. These are real life stories, and real life is very flawed. So how can we truthfully tell a nonfiction story while so closely controlling the narrative?
Documentaries, especially well-focused ones, take hours of reporting and collection of footage to create. Netflix’s docuseries Making a Murderer, which runs at about 10 hours, was crafted from over 700 hours of footage. Pop band One Direction’s tour documentary, One Direction: This Is Us, condenses nearly 1,000 hours of footage into an hour and 45 minutes. This is where reporting is important.
This concept falls the other way too—underreported, hyperfocused journalistic articles are dangerous. Rolling Stone magazine’s now-retracted 2014 article “A Rape On Campus” told the story of a woman’s sexual assault at the University of Virginia. But the article relied on the claims of one source—”Jackie”—and the reporter didn’t check to ensure her source was valid. Which, it wasn’t. In 2013, Philadelphia Magazine published a story about a man who had served as a sniper for the U.S. in the Middle East, and his guilt over the amount of death he caused. But the story, while well-crafted, was untrue. The journalist’s source had never even been in the military. These journalists fell in love with their stories. But when we focus too much on getting the story we want, we don’t get the realstory.
Even when it’s intentional, misinformation in nonfiction is harmful. Nanook of the North is a silent documentary from 1922. It chronicled the lives of an Inuit family in northern Canada—but the director, Robert Flaherty, made many “artistic” decisions to make the story more interesting. In one scene, the hunting gun of the main character Nanook (whose actual name is Allakariallak) is replaced with a spear. In another, Nanook is seemingly confused by a gramophone, and he ends up biting it. This act was entirely scripted. These scenes, among others, allowed Flaherty to create a piece about the naiveté of Inuit culture that his European audience would enjoy. But this harmful misrepresentation of these people stuck, and became a stereotype they fight to this day.
Perhaps this was a good time for me to discover this contrast. My documentary about a quaint New England town event is not life or death, and likely won’t suffer from the creative tensions that existed. These projects are the training grounds for people who will tell some of the most important nonfiction stories of our time, and we need to make sure we can tell them correctly.