The Art of Documentary Narrative

How to make a five-minute documentary film in less than a week using only two cuts? Teheran-based Filmmaker Shirin Barghnavard gave a five-day workshop for students at Merz Akademie Stuttgart. Here, students practiced the basic skills of documentary filmmaking by setting up limitations concerning length and cuts to challenge the student’s perception of their »everyday reality« – after all, in the age of always-available smartphone recording, five minutes suddenly seems long. After one week, the students made four short documentaries; one even ran at a local film festival (to watch, scroll to the end of this post).

Schlosspost: You gave a workshop called »The Art of Documentary Narrative« for students at Merz Akademie Stuttgart during your fellowship. What were the workshop’s aims?

Shirin Barghnavard: I used the phrase »The Art of Documentary Narrative« from the book Creative Documentary, Theory and Practice by Wilma de Jong, Erik Knudsen, and Jerry Rothwell. This book attempts to analyze and reflect today’s new and hybrid documentary forms. The authors write about creativity, visual storytelling, innovation, and originality in making a documentary film. Accordingly, the aim of this workshop was making the students practice how to use images and sound to narrate and document a reality in a creative way.

SP: How did you approach this aim? Were there any limitations or rules?

SB: I asked the students to make a minimum five-minute documentary film about whatever is available in their real surrounding and to reflect a real status of a situation with using no more than three single shots.
At first, it sounds simple to make a five-minute film in only three shots. But in practice, the students found it very difficult to stretch three shots to five minutes. It’s always easier to tell your story through lots of shots as well as to choose a very short time (one to two minutes, for example) to tell a story in one to three shots. The basic challenge for them was to find a kind of storytelling that could fit into this format and structure.

This format also enabled us to shorten the editing process of the films since there were only four days available to develop an idea, shoot, and edit during the workshop. There was no specific theme for the films but it was preferred that they have a personal and subjective approach in their storytelling.

SP: What was the outcome of the workshop?

SB: Four short documentary films were made. You can watch the most successful one in the provided link. The title of this film is A BROTHEL IN MY BACKYARD, made by Elias Engelhardt and Laurie Hamen Wagner, which is about the filmmaker’s window view. It was officially selected for the SWR DOKU Festival, which took place June 27 to 30, 2018, in Stuttgart.

A Brothel in My Backyard, by Elias Engelhardt and Laurie Hamen Wagner, 2018