Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Do Documentary Filmmakers Deserve Screenwriting Credit?

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Should documentary filmmakers be taking the screenwriting credit as much as they do these days? That’s the question posed in an article I wrote for The New York Times this Sunday. I thought it would be interesting to open the discussion to the POV-faithful, hoping that filmmakers and doc fans alike will weigh in.

The issue is this: It’s become more common for theatrically released documentaries to feature a writing credit. The credit is even being used on films that don’t have any scripted narration, such as Asif Kapadia‘s Senna.

The rationale, as put forward by the Writers Guild of America, as well as doc filmmakers with whom I spoke, such as Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri (October Country, Off Label), is that there doesn’t have to be any actual writing seen or heard on screen — it can be in the writing for an outline that structures the film, for interview questions or for post-production.

Is that the sort of writing that warrants a writing credit? Is it a betrayal of the nonfiction principles espoused by doc legends such as Richard Leacock? Do you care?

Joe Berlinger (The Paradise Lost trilogy), whom I consider one of the most important doc filmmakers of the day, certainly does. He told me in the Times story, “It can be a false credit. And not only do I not take the credit, I fundamentally think it’s wrong to take one when there’s nothing written in a film.”

On the other hand, I quoted WGA East Executive Director Lowell Peterson as saying, “Writing story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That’s writing… Writing stuff to structure stories is writing. And yes, I think people should get a writing credit for that.”

What do you think?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Susan Branch Smith

    I think that if a writer has contributed substantially to the story organization, he/she deserves a screenwriting credit. Why not? There are a lot of screenplays with very few words. Anyone who helps build a story, whether in images or words, deserves recognition. And that person might be a director or might be a writer … or both.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I think that we can not compare fiction writing with documentary writing. They are completely differents “languages”. And as Susan has pointed out, there are a lot of screenplays with few words or even the silent movies, so I vote for to be credited as a writer for documentary writing.
    And at least, here in Spain it, to be credited allowes you to receive the writing rights when your documentary is broadcasted… And that’s a good reason too.

  • Selin

    We have always had writing credits. When developing a documentary, there is so much scriptwriting done, wading through the concept, researching and making sense of the arcs etc. it doesn’t look like it in the final film perhaps but the work is done! most of the time by the director, some of the time by exceptional producers, and sometimes by script consultants and writers hired outside.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the filmmakers above, there is a lot of writing to do on a documentary whether or not there is narration. I also admire Joe Berlinger although I think he is being careful to respect the editor, which is important. Interview questions and organizing vast amounts of material do not take away from the  “verite” aspect of the actual filming. I am a journalist and doc filmmaker, so the processes are similar. As a documentarian goes through the process of “discovery” during a project (docs are always full of surprises) it takes a lot of writing to shape the story, before it gets to the editor. And by shape the story, I mean to say based on the facts and scenes at hand. This is what journalists do – it is not the exclusive job of the film editor.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Joe B. should impose his personal way of working on a policy that gives credit where credit is due. For example, the editor I work with asked me for synopses, etc. which I kept updating during the period of editing. I wrote tons from the factual material. We also know some doc makers film so much and don’t know where they are going, and enlist help from “story consultants” and editors. Credit policies should be flexible and reflect actual work. I think a journalism background is most helpful to documentary filmmaking. 

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