Documentary and Development Journalism

By Ajay Nair

The silence in the room was deafening, as the audience held their breaths as one. Finally, a young lady let out a barely audible gasp of surprise - which none noticed, so enraptured were they by the spectacle before them. No, they were not watching open-heart surgery - they were attendees of the “Documentary and Development Journalism” workshop, watching a heart-rending story unfold on screen.

It offered much more than simply viewing spectacles, however. The workshop gave attendees fresh, unexpected insights into the world of documentary making, through the lens of a professional in the field - Alemberg Ang, a chinese-filipino documentarist. The workshop let attendees come to their own conclusions, through frequent question, checkpoints and idea sharing sessions, and, combined with the screening of portions of various fascinating documentaries, kept the workshop engaging and educational for all

"Enter through your door, take them out through yours” was a saying referenced often in the workshop, and best represented the takeaway from it - that the art of documentary was to hook and draw your audience in, then to show them what you want them to see. Of particular importance was the distinction between what aspects of a documentary are for the documentarist, and what aspects are for the audience. If a documentary is meaningful and deep to the maker, but uninteresting and not captivating enough for an audience, it’s message is never heard; if it’s flashy enough to catch attention, but the maker is not emotionally invested in it, it will not contribute anything to society.

And at the end of the day, Alemberg stressed, the purpose of a documentary is to make your watcher feel something, change something in the way they live their lives - and in doing so change society as a whole. And documentaries have the power to do this - a prominent example being marine park company SeaWorld’s promise to stop breeding orcas in captivity, caused by the massive public backlash and outcry in response to Blackfish, a documentary about orca abuse at the parks.

Then, of course, the workshop got down to the nitty-gritty - how does one develop the idea for a documentary? High ideals and concepts are all well and good, but how do documentarists go about their craft? Again, Alemberg gave attendees an insight into his world. When looking for a story to write on, one can turn to recent news events or historical ideas - in the context of Singapore, the Yishun cat killer, domestic helper suicides and the recent MRT breakdowns make good candidates. To find a suitable story however, one must find something that one connects with deeply, on an emotional level - because conviction is needed to carry the project through to the end.

The next step is to do research - the most important stage of any documentary. Research lends both credibility and weight to a documentary, and gives the piece of work a solid, realistic, believable narrative that is essential to drawing in an audience. From a professional’s perspective, research on a story can cover three aspects - the facts of the story itself, the main subject’s perspective on the story, and the milieu, or environment, that the story is taking place in. Combined, they make the documentary seem like it is happening in the real world to real people, allowing the viewer to connect with it better.

At the end, and core, of every documentary however, is the message - what the documentarist wants the viewer to take away. It is important to note that this should be done not through narration from the maker, or textual overlays, but rather, by the subjects of the documentary themselves - as Alemberg said, “let the story do the talking”.

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Ajay Nair is a student from Victoria Junior College and is a member of the Victoria Press.