Introduction: The Construction of Meaning in Documentaries

Documentary editing is perhaps one of the most challenging intellectual feats on the planet. An editor begins with a mountain of shapeless footage—comings and goings of characters, interviews of varying quality, B-roll from myriad locations, hour upon hour of often uninspiring detritus—and is expected to arrive at the end of the process with a fully realized story, complete with finely tuned dramatic arcs, satisfying themes and subplots, and a carefully constructed climax. How does anyone do it?

To quote Frank Costanza from Seinfeld, “I’ve got good news and bad news, and they’re both the same.” On day one of the process, getting from point A to point B is impossible. Not even the most ...

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