Say What? Re-learning How to Speak ‘Documentary’

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Fernanda RossiAuthor, international speaker and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored more than 300 documentaries, fiction scripts and fundraising samples, including two Academy Award nominees. Her website is www.documentarydoctor.com.

 

A collage of terms using in documentary filmmaking

With regionalisms, bursts of new technology and self-proclaimed gurus online, the use of jargon in the documentary world has lead to what guest writer Fernanda Rossi calls a “perfect Babel.”

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in the poem The Gifts:

Does it matter the word that names me
if the curse is one and indivisible?

Do our individual names matter when we share a single tragic fate? With a background in semiotics, I share with all writers the preoccupation, and maybe obsession, of how words shape our experience. Borges’ words resonate particularly in the documentary world nowadays, not because filmmaking is at times an enjoyable shared “curse,” but because of our industry’s reliance on jargon, which can go from the paradoxical to the anachronistic.

We are quick to invent new words for things that already have well-established descriptors, and slow to let go of the old ones, leading to clashes of language. There are a dozen terms to say the very intelligible sample work. Some are as whimsical as sizzler. Others are more matter of fact, depending on country, length and overall situation: trailer, demo, taster, pitch video, pitch tape, promo, sample, work-in-progress and the list goes on.

Despite all of our enthusiasm for innovation, we still say my reel when we mean a selection of completed past work. Or it’s in the can to mean principal photography or the daily shooting is done. Such terms are in use even though there hasn’t been widespread and consistent use of actual reels or cans of film celluloid for a good two decades.

There are many — and I want to believe, justifiable — reasons for this collision of words. New terms come courtesy of new technology, whose inventors have the dual challenge of having to come up with a generic name and a specific brand for each new development. And because new products are patented and trademarked, generic names and brands become indistinguishable — CD and DVD being common examples of this.

Documentarians also inherit lingo from adjacent métiers along with their working procedures. The word promo, short for promotional spot — a 30-second piece that runs on a network to promote upcoming programs — somehow found its way into our documentary world to describe fundraising sample work, making promo a real contradiction in purpose. In the last 20 years, fiction filmmakers, or documentary filmmakers themselves trying to address networks’ and cables’ higher demand for “fiction-like” documentaries for broader appeal, transplanted the term character to describe our old good friend the subject. This last evolution of language is actually a positive one, because if the person filmed is the subject, what is the filmmaker? The king? The oppressor? The subjector?

In addition, a profession that expands across the globe is prone to develop regionalisms. In the United States, there is the vérité style and vérité footage. The first is the genre without interviews or voice-over narration, the second being footage of life unfolding even when appearing in a documentary that is not vérité per se. This term can create confusion in other countries, where such footage is called actuality, action and even live action. B-roll is another example commonly used in America. The preferred equivalent in other English and non-English speaking countries is insert or cutaway. And talking of the migration of English words to other languages, to pitch, in Spanish became el pitching or hacer pitching. This last one, with a slight change of accent, translates as to pee.

Add to the mix the academics and authors, who need to publish or perish. Each new book or edition sometimes justified by giving new names to old concepts. And finally, the fly-by-night gurus who populate the web, with their trademarked magic solutions to every filmmaking need, give nothing more than fancy names for well-known beaten formulas, recipes and procedures. When all of these people come together in online forums, festivals, conferences and markets, you have the perfect Babel, creating as much misunderstanding and friction today as it did in Biblical times.

Once I heard someone saying categorically that she didn’t believe in trailers, with a disdain that would make the most self-assured filmmaker feel thoroughly inadequate. At first I thought it strange that someone didn’t believe that scene excerpts of a documentary-in-progress could help a filmmaker raise money. Sure enough, after listening more, I realized that she used the term trailer strictly to mean a two to three-minute film marketing preview, a la Hollywood. She just wasn’t aware — or maybe didn’t agree — that filmmakers around the world use the word trailer as an informal term for a fundraising sample.

We are far from needing our own dictionary or translator, and with language being a fluid element, restricting it is not advisable — or possible. Yet I do invite you all to give pause when using jargon and even a longer pause when hearing it spoken by another person before jumping to conclusions. If we don’t, then the one and indivisible curse expressed by Borges would be for us to claim to be communicators with the public and be unable to communicate among ourselves.

What are your favorite documentary words? Have you had misunderstandings in your work because of jargon? Let us know in the comments.

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POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.