Repeating Yourself?

Fernanda Rossi April 28, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: I’m getting feedback that my documentary is repetitive. I’m just trying to reinforce important information in a complex, multi-layered film. Shall I get rid of some scenes as I’m told?

Doc Doctor: The distinction between reinforcement and repetition is always hard to grasp and often subjective. This type of conundrum doesn’t discriminate. It can appear in any storyline, whether primary or secondary, whether with a character or more often background information.

At the beginning of your edit, you probably eagerly said, "Let’s just put in everything we have," and a very thick and useful assembly materialized. Then, what I call the "didactic syndrome" kicked in. All the knowledge you have of every subtle aspect of your character or topic needs to be there because otherwise people won’t get it and getting rid of anything feels like ripping your arm out. However, for the lay audience, similar ideas of complex topics or characters are difficult to differentiate and, in a first on-the-fly viewing, those concepts get shoved together in their minds as one single dramatic bit instead of several—creating a sluggish repetitive scene or sequence.

Another possibility is that there is an illusion of repetition created not by the content but by repetitive patterns, such as a topic or character presented in successions of a, b, a, b…. For example, sound bite, b-roll, sound bite, b-roll, as opposed as sound bite, b-roll, b-roll, sound bite. Subliminally these patterns put audiences into a hypnotic lull that makes content appear repetitive when in reality it’s the form creating this effect.

And finally, there is some repetition that is intentional, as reinforcement. Long-format documentary, especially when there are many characters or interviewees or overlapping storylines, needs to revisit certain ideas before getting deeper or moving them forward, otherwise viewers can’t follow the arc and get lost.

All of the above situations are better considered in an organic way, rather than applying a one-dimensional single strategy, such as the overly used "cut it out" or "make it shorter." If it were that easy and obvious you’d have done it already. Also resist the temptation of finding the solution in a pre-packaged model or structure. It might be the right choice, but only you can assess if some apparent requirement, like a turning point at a particular moment, is adding to the problem or can be expanded beyond the recommended dose to solve the issue. E.g., The character has to face an obstacle minute 10:45 according to the recipe you found in some book or was handed to you by some well-intended colleague. In doing so you’re avoiding repeating or dragging some other element. Because of your type of film or character or subject matter, the element would be appearing too soon or might be too much to include at all. You’re better off skipping this step altogether. In this case the supposed solution is just adding to the problem.

Therefore a good course of action is to analyze your situation systematically and from different angles. First of all, are the storylines properly identified and differentiated? That means, has each character and strand of background information its own well-polished arc? Do they have distinct styles so they haven’t merged unintentionally? Are the editing patterns diverse? Meaning no a, b, a, b…? In terms of rhythm and pacing, Can important issues, characters, etc., have more screen time to draw attention to them rather than revisit them later? If revisiting ideas is necessary, can a different combination of interviewees help add variety?

These questions can lead to deeper thorough thinking that ultimately will yield a more balanced thorough version of your film, yours.

_International speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world including two Academy Award Nominations. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at

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