In Documentary Films, Deciphering the Touchy Issue of Writers' Credits ; Even without Narration or Printed Text, Some Reap Glory and Money

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A growing number of 'reality' filmmakers are members of the Writers Guild, which provides protections for residual payments, as well as pension and health benefits.

How, exactly, does one write reality?

That's the question being asked by close watchers of the credit rolls at the beginning or ending of theatrically released documentaries, which are increasingly featuring "written by" credits.

While a documentarian taking a writing credit for narration rarely raises eyebrows, nonfiction filmmakers are also beginning to consider the behind-the-scenes structuring of their films to be a type of writing. The trend, which is being shepherded by the Writers Guild, a union representing television and film writers, has some documentary film editors and directors worried that it threatens to redefine their job descriptions and confuse viewers, who may believe that a documentary that has been written is a less credible depiction of reality.

"I fervently believe that the writer's credit has been too loosely deployed by people who do what I do, which is to capture unscripted reality in non-narrated documentaries," said Joe Berlinger, who, with Bruce Sinofsky, directed three "Paradise Lost" films (about a horrifying murder case in Arkansas), the last of which was an Oscar nominee this year. "It can be a false credit. And not only do I not take the credit, I fundamentally think it's wrong to take one when there's nothing written in a film."

Unlike the fictional-feature-film industry, where job titles tend to be more distinct (editors edit, camera operators operate cameras and so on), nonfiction credits are more fluid. Directors wear many hats, doing much more than directing their films. They often also produce, edit, write and even provide the narration. The Oscar- winning director Alex Gibney has taken a writing credit for adapting or writing the narration for all of his films. And, like a growing number of documentary filmmakers, he is a member of the Writers Guild, which provides protections for residual payments, as well as pension and health benefits.

In his documentaries the "writing is actually writing," Mr. Gibney said, because he sits down to type out the narration. (Mr. Gibney has won Writers Guild Awards for "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," in a category for nonfiction films that was established in 2005.)

He is "not always wild about the idea" of a writing credit when there is no narration heard or print seen on screen. The problem arises, Mr. Gibney said, when a film is registered, through a production company or a filmmaker, with the Writers Guild, which prescribes that a writing credit appear if all of the benefits of membership are to be achieved. "Even if there is no writing that happens," Mr. Gibney said, "the guild takes the position that someone has to take a writer's credit."

The Writers Guild, however, sees no gray area there. "Writing story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That's writing," said Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America East. "Writing stuff to structure stories is writing. And yes, I think people should get a writing credit for that."

The guild's position has been less controversial for producers of nonfiction television, where the writing credit has been commonly applied -- from scripted reality-based TV shows in the nether regions of cable to heavily narrated "Frontline" segments on PBS.

While writers once had low status in Hollywood, increased awareness of the filmmaking process, as well as A-list screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and auteur writer-directors like Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson, have made writing a film more prestigious. …

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