When we talk about narrative in the context of filmmaking, we are talking about that section of programming that is fictional and in the range of 90 minutes long. But are we missing out as artists or humans when we limit the view of the power of storytelling so narrowly? While the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is a place where filmmakers are premiering the best concept of a narrative film, it’s also a place for people to get together and talk about what it is. 

Sitting down on the panel Power of Story: Makers of the New Narrative Revolution, Terence Nance (As Told To G/D Thyself, Random Acts of Flyness), Reggie Watts (Runnin’, Waves), John Gaeta (senior vice president of creative strategy, Magic Leap), Stephanie Dinkins (Not the Only One), and Sarah Ellis (The Seven Ages of Man; director of digital development, Royal Shakespeare Company) talk about the future of storytelling as we know it, based on the possibilities of visually dynamic technologies that are relocating the parameters we have now. This is a panel of high flying philosophical creators, and when it comes to delving into the mechanisms of this art form, this conversation does not disappoint.

Check out the recording of the livestream as well as some of our favorite takeaways from this conversation.

Narrative is a hammer

From the outset of this conversation, filmmaker Terence Nance disagreed with the use of the word 'narrative' in the question. For Terence, the idea that someone invented the concept of 'narrative', like Isaac Newton with the apple from the tree, is false. He stated that time is linear from a human perspective, so that narrative is related to the human experience of past, present, and future. It was more about what you do with this storytelling form of narrative. From Terence Nance:

It’s not about the word ‘narrative’ it about what we use it for. What are we using the narrative for? It’s like anything. It’s like a hammer: what do you use it for? You can build a house with it, you can murder someone, you can just drop it on you toe. There’s isn’t this moral clarity to what it could be…It could be use to propagandize you towards a political decision you’ll regret. It’s very elastic. That volatility clarifies the questions, what are we using it for? Can you ascertain that the users use it to help us survive and thrive?

There is no narrative, only organized chaos

Reggie Watts explained that he is an improvisational artist. He's always been compelled to the idea of getting to a different world and the power that these forms of storytelling have to that effect, but as an absurdist, he does not view narrative like a traditional screenwriter. From Reggie Watts:

For me the idea of narrative doesn’t exist in a formal way. It’s chaos organizing itself as it wishes to be organized. And you can set the criteria for it of course. I have many friends who are writers. They want to know if I need help, and I’m like just set up the parameters and ill do it. I’m interested in energetic narrative arc, as long as the energy is going somewhere, and it is expanding, and has a conclusion.

Narrative reinvents itself in parallel to society and technology

As someone who combines VR with experimental theater, Sarah Ellis felt that reinvention is constantly happening, and has happened from the beginning, before and after all Shakespearean adaptations of Romeo & Juliet. From Sarah Ellis:

It’s about whether you’re talking about the form or the creativity around the form. Every single creative that comes to a story, and that’s thei truth and their story. Then, that becomes the audience’s truth as the contract between artist and audience…it’s always been reinventing itself alongside of society and technology.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.


No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.