How to capture inspiring human interest news stories all year round via cinema
If you’ve caught a glimpse of John Lewis’s Dad skateboard ad The Beginner, what do you think? Given the time and space many people find themselves in at the moment, the ad and its theme of caring and empathy hits the right note.
The story of foster parents and the dad putting in a painful shift to be welcoming is uplifting and the filming is exquisite. Films like this genuinely affect viewers, but they are relatively few and far between in the factual world.
If you think of the human misery and crisis, whether cost of living or climate etc around present circumstances, you could ask why films like this aren’t made to capture personal events from observed circumstances.
Journalism would tell you it does, but their raison d’être is not to affect people. This is a nonsense. The esteemed film philosopher David Bordwell said their is such a thing as feelingful qualities in an event, which can’t be avoided. A small child crying being recorded is a small child crying. How the journalist captures this using varied framing is the skill, and what might be deemed excessive a matter of ethical professional judgement.
Reports on climate crisis can have a fleeting legacy when over burdened with words and stats etc that they suppress empathy towards the potential impact of film. It’s great that the University of Barcelona is set to make climate courses mandatory for students. Now professionals should reform its storytelling.
Whilst The Beginner is a “made up” story for a commercial, it’s actually based around real events, e.g. skateboard dads, soccer mums, or sacrifices people make to be accomodating. I had the pleasure in the 1990s to be the creative director for Jon Staton (one time head of TV at Saatchi and Saatchi) and developing a brief from real life was not uncommon.
Take this recent news…
Positive stories like The Beginner exist all around us, however their delivery can often come via a style of storytelling called news in which a conventionalised method of story making with a reporter at the centre has become the norm.
The history of broadcast journalism demonstrates how this came about and it wasn’t just the efficacy of turning a complex issue that would make a 30 min documentary into a couple of minutes, it was that the reporter was designed to be omnipresent.
Robert Drew the father of Direct Cinema or cinema verite or whatever you want to call it, he expressed in an interview with me, said journalism didn’t understand the power of visual storytelling. They see a strong image and feel the need to place a voice over all over it, he told me. Drew would assist me with my doctorate looking at cinema in journalism.
Words should be optional, used sparingly and effectively to add to a film. The lyrical and spartan use of words was something the BBC’s Clive Myrie said to me when we were discussing his range of films made during the COVID pandemic.
One of the world’s best and decorated videojournalists Raul Abellegan puts it like this, when he makes a news film, he wants the audience to feel how he is feeling. It’s about empathy. If you’ve experienced or attempt to understand an event you’re better placed to see things differently. I grew up with foster parents. I’m on the left of this photo.
This week and then two masterclasses coming up I’m going to be teaching how to create the visual schema of a story like this, or in a similar story arc. For The Beginner it may not seem obvious but there’s a discernible pattern from the in media res start, to a host of techniques and style that emerge from deconstructing.
I have spoken at length over the years at Keynotes in Norway, Denmark, US, Russia, China to name a few places, as well as trained 10s of 100s of cohorts.
You might be aware of cinema docs, or cinema verite, and now comes along Cinema journalism and it’s not one style, as much as cinema isn’t and its a potent form of factual evolutionary video making.