One of the first things I learned as a budding script editor was that just because something was true, if it was lifted directly from a writer’s life, didn’t mean that it automatically worked as drama. Many times I’ve been in a script meeting and initiated a discussion of a story element and a writer has said, ‘But this is TRUE! It actually happened to me!’

Often real events are deeply implausible, while at the same time total fiction can be conversely deeply believable and universally recognizable.

What the best fiction and documentaries have in common is their quest for a universal truth – but often this is achieved more easily in fiction than in the presentation of fact. And what are documentaries after all, other than a film-maker’s very personal interpretation and re-imagination of factual events?

The crossover between drama and documentary is very blurred – even more so with ‘factual drama’.

But one of things that most interests me about the best documentaries is that they have so much in common with the best dramas in the way they tell stories. So many documentaries use the same techniques as drama, and are inspiring and instructive for the same reasons as drama.

Over the last few years, there has been a long list of brilliant documentaries that are brilliant because of the extraordinary stories they tell, but also because of the way the film-makers have so brilliantly crafted those stories.

Here is a list of the best docs that I’ve seen in the last few years. I know I’ve missed many other brilliant examples – and I’d love to hear from you about other missing gems.


I saw this doc for the first time last week on BBC i-player as part of the BBC’s always excellent STORYVILLE strand. This is the piece of story-telling that motivated this blog. What this film did brilliantly was withhold key information so that towards the end of the film there was the most wonderful, exciting reveal, that led to a really powerful, emotionally-charged sequence (I’m being deliberately vague so as not to spoil it for you if you haven’t yet seen it!). This is definitely one of those stories that if pitched as a potential work of drama would be dismissed as being far-fetched and not credible. As with the best drama it was all about the way they treated exposition, deliberately sending the audience in the wrong direction at the start of the story, withholding key pieces of information, so that the detective story element really hooked you in.

There’s one interview from the film that really stood out for me, with the journalist who was trying to track down information about the mysterious Rodriquez, the character at the heart of the film,

‘An obstacle is an inspiration, if you just find things easily they’re not inspiring, and this was a great obstacle…’

…which seems like a great principle of good story-telling in general. And this is the thing for me with so many of these documentary films – they teach so many lessons about how to tell stories effectively.

(NB The film is available on BBC i-player for ONLY 2 more days, if you haven’t seen it)


Directed by Kevin MacDonald. A story of real intensity – a story that really grips you both because of its content, but also the skill with which it’s told.


Like SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, a story full of twists and turns. A brilliant object-lesson for screenwriters in how to structure and unpeel a story.


Gripping and poignant as a story, this film is also an examination of the nature of story-telling itself – of how every story is altered by the perspective of the person telling the story, about ‘ownership’ of a story. Artfully constructed, this film plays with and almost re-interprets the documentary form.

It’s about how story is at the heart of our lives, about the nature of memory, and of the blurring between fact and fiction. These themes were reflected by the fact that incidents and images from the past were artfully recreated by actors – although the fact these were ‘re-creations’ didn’t become entirely clear until the end of the film.

In fact, using actors to reconstruct moments from the stories is something several of these films have in common – TOUCHING THE VOID, THE IMPOSTER, STORIES WE TELL, DREAMS OF A LIFE – which further emphasises the blurred line between fiction and documentary.


Like Kevin MacDonald and Sarah Polley, the film’s director, James Marsh, has also worked on fictional stories. And it’s interesting how many directors now move between documentary and fictional film stories. This is the extraordinary story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Constructed like a heist thriller, this is another gripping piece of story-telling, given added resonance by the events of 9\11.


 Directed by Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond.  The story of Donald Crowhurst’s participation in the 1969 Round The World Golden Globe sailing race. A wonderful character story. The physical and interior journeys of Donald Crowhurst are hugely poignant and compelling. This story has everything – it’s both a wonderful character study and a tragic mystery. Incidentally this story is also the inspiration behind Jonathan Coe’s brilliant novel. THE TERIBLE PRIVACY OF MAXWELL SIM.


Directed by Carol Morley. Based on the story of a woman, Joyce Vincent, found dead in her London flat a full three years after her death. The film retraces her life, asking how she had become so isolated that her death wasn’t discovered for so many years. Part investigative story, part character study, part examination of contemporary urban society, the film again combines re-enactments of her life (she is brilliantly played by Zawe Ashton), with more traditional documentary techniques (mainly interviews).


Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A hugely powerful film about the keeping of killer whales in captivity. Focusing on one whale in particular. Another compelling story.


Directed by Alex Gibney. From a drama point of view, this is mainly fascinating as a compelling character study of one of the most extraordinarily conflicted, complex, larger-than-life characters of the last decade.

 All of these films are really worth studying from a screenwriting \ fictional POV , just to look at how these stories deliver such a strong emotional and narrative punch, how the film-makers constructed their stories to deliver an emotional impact so effectively.

Despite the fact that all these films had undeniably wonderful stories to tell, they all work so well because of the story-telling skill of the film-makers.

They all adhered to the same story-telling principles as the best drama stories –


1     Extraordinary, flawed protagonists. (THE ARMSTRONG LIE, DEEP WATER)


2.      Huge obstacles (TOUCHING THE VOID, DEEP WATER)


3.     A mystery at the heart of the story – questions that the audience badly want answered (DREAMS OF A LIFE, SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, STORIES WE TELL, DEEP WATER)


4.      These stories are all ultimately about the fortitude of the human spirit (SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, MAN ON WIRE, TOUCHING THE VOID)

Until next week,

All the best



Twitter: @philipshelley1

June 6th 2014