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  • Writer's pictureDorsa Sajedi

Editing Class 4: Documentary Structure


An example that we looked at needed to outline necessary historical context before proceeding to character-personal stories and emotions. On the surface, the notion of historical context is quite uninteresting or boring, so it needs a hook, a connecting factor to make it emotionally connective to its audience. In order to balance the heavy facts and information, one must ask what do they reckon people already know OR what do the audiences NEED to know before they proceed further? The incorporation of emotion prior to this softens the blow of the heavy facts that are about to hit, maintaining engagement. An aspect to take away from this is that things do not always come chronological, while that is how it may start out for some projects, you may find that other parts are better-suited elsewhere for emotional impact and narrative guidance.


A good way to prepare yourselves (primarily the director and editor) is to conduct a paper edit with cards or post-it notes, so that you can easily move things around to determine the best narrative structure. Your aim should be to arrange the story beats to keep it emotional rather than bland/dry. I.e. it may be that a character is only briefly introduced but later explored further along the line of the documentary as their discussions/contributions are more emotionally impactful later on. Another thing to consider is to not feel restrained by systems or formulas, you may often find yourself in a position of editing a 2-act film. Rules in this regard do not always need to be followed, but much rather used as a starting point or guideline.


  • In order to make the best paper edit, one must ensure ALL documentary footage is logged as soon as possible. It keeps everybody's head in order and makes sure that everyone is on the same page about the documentary's purpose and goal.

  • To help construct a narrative, you could organise it into story archetypes. This may help you identify where certain bits of footage are best suited.

  • As an editor, you are a problem solver -- there may be times where you have to find something equivalent or an adequate and emotional replacement for un-captured moments or lost footage. This may be exaggerating a moment through the edit or constructing something that did not quite happen, such as a fall, but the emotional impact that was missed is necessary to fill in that gap. It's not lying as per, it's more replacing something that cannot be accessed with something that will reach out to audiences the same way it would have if the footage was captured.

  • Considerations of ethics: people may drop out, obviously they sign waver forms, but they may disagree with the way they have been represented. Communication is a very important thing in this case. People don't need to see it early on prior to the editing of it, but they should be kept in the loop of exactly what is being shown of them so that if there are any concerns then that can be dealt with sooner rather than later.

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