Does Making Docs Help You to Make Better Narratives?

"I think directors who start with documentaries have a special sensibility."

That's how two-time Academy Award-winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade explained it to No Film School. At Sundance 2020, a slew of narratives were directed by documentary filmmakers. Is making documentaries a formative experience? Is this some kind of trend?

Am I biased because I, myself, am a documentary filmmaker? Absolutely. You can hear my take in the No Film School Sundance 2020 podcast. The truth is, there are many reasons so many filmmakers start careers with a documentary. Perhaps they have access to a unique story and go for it. Perhaps they know of an important story that they are burning to tell. Or perhaps the lower cost of entry to make a documentary, and its accompanying exploratory nature, make it the best place to start. But does it happen to be the best training for narrative films?

If you're looking for inspiring examples of how making a documentary is a formative experience for narrative storytelling, look no further. Here are four interesting examples.

Laetitia, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Kevin Azais, Lewine Weber-Monfort, and Milla Dubourdieu appear in Laetitia by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

De Lestrade has made many feature films to date, and began in documentary filmmaking, for which he won the Academy Award for his documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. 

De Lestrade sat down with No Film School at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about his new narrative series based on true events titled Laetitia. Here is an excerpt of how he explains the special relationship with documentary filmmakers and narrative.

"Doing documentaries gave me a kind of special attention to details, to real life, to real people," explained de Lestrade to No Film School. "I look at my actors or actress not only as actor or actress, but as human being. As if they were real people and real characters. It affects my way to direct them a lot. I hope in the narrative I have done so far, you can feel that sense of reality. We are all looking for a kind of truth in doing narrative, and I think it helps a lot to start in documentaries."

Keep an eye out for more from de Lestrade on NFS where he illuminates more of his process of turning a real-life drama into a narrative long-form series.

The description from Sundance Film Festival of Laetitia confirms a few points on how de Lestrade's background helps him weave this compelling story.

"When 18-year-old Jessica finds her twin sister Laetitia’s overturned scooter outside their foster parents’ home, it quickly becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. French police swiftly reconstruct the young girl’s final hours, leading to the arrest of lifelong criminal Tony Meilhon. Though investigators are convinced they have the right man, they are woefully unable to locate an integral piece of evidence: his victim’s body. The sordid details of this heinous crime develop into a focal point for the national media, drawing the attention of politicians at the highest level and leading to intense scrutiny of the country’s legal system.

Based on a true story originally documented in Ivan Jablonka’s acclaimed book Laëtitia or The End of Men, Academy Award-winning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (The Staircase, Murder on a Sunday Morning) exquisitely weaves together fact with fiction, resulting in a textured and sometimes damning portrait of French society."

Lost Girls, directed by Liz Garbus

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus entered the narrative scene this festival with her debut entry, Lost Girls. As you can see from the trailer, it's being released on Netflix, which gives us the sense that Garbus knows exactly what she's doing in the dramatic field.

The Sundance Film Festival description gives us a sense of why she's a great fit for this narrative.

"Based on Robert Kolker’s 2013 true-crime novel of the same title, Lost Girls is a searing look at a mother’s relentless fight for justice against the system that failed her.

Documentarian Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) returns to the Festival with her first narrative feature, turning her investigative eye toward an American mystery rooted in inequality and injustice. Anchored by Amy Ryan’s commanding performance, Lost Girls steadfastly digs up the dark side of the American psyche, revealing the forgotten voices underneath."

The Last Thing He Wanted, directed by Dee Rees

Anne Hathaway appears in The Last Thing He Wanted by Dee Rees, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

You may associate filmmaker Dee Rees with well-received narrative titles like Pariah and Mudbound. But did you know her first feature was a documentary? Titled Eventual Salvation, it follows Rees' 80-year-old grandmother when she returns to Liberia to rebuild a life that was erased by the Liberian civil war. Did making this documentary lead her to tell the big, sweeping stories she is now making?

The description of the film from Sundance Film Festival adds some insight.

"Journalist and single mother Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) has rigorously investigated Contra activity in Central America for years. Frustrated when her coverage is censored, relief comes in an unexpected package: her acerbic father (Willem Dafoe) falls ill and leaves her a series of unfinished and unsavory arms deals in that very region. Now a pawn in a risky and unfamiliar game, surrounded by live ammunition in more ways than one, and alongside a U.S. state official (Ben Affleck) with whom she has a checkered past, Elena needs to parse her own story to survive. With her disenchanting life awaiting her back home, she is forced to consider what she really wants.

Director Dee Rees (Pariah, Mudbound) is a Sundance Institute Vanguard Award winner and a lab fellow several times over, and she returns to the Sundance Film Festival with this adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel by the same name. Seasoned performances by Hathaway, Affleck, and Dafoe match the sobriety of the subject matter and convey the questionable intentions, inscrutable connections, and bitter fates of these complex characters."

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directed by Bill and Ross Turner

A still from Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets by Bill Ross and Turner Ross, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Brothers Bill Turner and Ross Turner are an interesting case study because their films tend to completely blur the line between documentary and narrative altogether. As filmmakers, they explore how storytelling is best aided by a combination of skills that are impossible (or undesirable) to separate. "It's great to know the rules that people have made up," explained Ross Turner to No Film School at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. "It's great to understand how people arrive at the conclusions that they do, but they're all people arriving at conclusions. And I think it's important that we all find our own as well."

Stay tuned for more from Bill and Ross Turner on NFS where we explore more of their incredible hybrid filmmaking.

The Sundance Film Festival description of the film:

"Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a mosaic of disparate lives adrift in a failed society—disillusioned and reeling, singing while their ship goes down.

Filmmaking duo Bill and Turner Ross (Western, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) return with an elegiac portrait of a tiny world fading away but still warm and beating with the comfort of community. Their beguiling approach to nonfiction storytelling makes for a foggy memory of experience lost in empty shot glasses and puffs of smoke."


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD : real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation     

Header image: Sophie Breyer, Marie Colomb, Luna Carpiaux, and Yanis Richard appear in Laetitia by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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