This short video essay explores my experience of recutting an observational documentary into an ABC TV (Australian Broadcasting Commission) documentary. The broadcast documentary is called The Communicator (2022). As the film was being restructured for the broadcaster, following their notes, I found that the scenes filmed in non-working environments diminished in value.
In this new cut, action was confined to the workplace of the central character, Bekti Andari. While the domestic sphere was used to provide insight into Bekti’s character, it was not considered to be a site of action. The placement of action in a particular type of location (the workplace) meant that the narrative drive was focused upon Bekti’s workplace self and what she did in that space. Her job working for a group of scientists attempting to reduce dengue infections became the driving force of the film. The broadcaster notes also required that a traditional narrative structure be used, essentially one in which there is an obstacle that needs to be overcome. In the new cut, Bekti’s obstacle was communicating complex science to busy women in the local communities.
The new edit for the broadcast raises two key issues which can be linked: firstly, the confinement of action to the workplace; and secondly the use of the classic hero narrative in which the hero must overcome an obstacle.
Workplace valued as a site of action
There are interesting parallels between the broadcaster’s notes and the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato, who analyses the value boundaries that we establish in society with regards to productivity. I contend that what is valued as productive in economics and action in a narrative are aligned. For Mazzucato, value is subjective and 'has not been fixed' and the boundary’s 'shape and size have shifted with social and economic forces' (2019: 9). Mazzucato explains that the 'care given by parents to children or by the healthy to the unwell' (2019: 11) have only recently been considered as of productive value, e.g. been placed within the production boundary. Those actions that occur in the domestic space are traditionally considered not to be of productive (or narrative action) value.
I suggest that the broadcaster’s preferencing of the workplace as a site of action over the domestic sphere adheres to these wider societal notions of what is of productive value, as outlined by Mazzucato. The broadcaster was asking me to create a story where the narrative aligns with dominant ideas of social productive value. I also suggest that the previous cut I created of the film, in which action was considered to be of equal value in all sites, and where there was not a clear obstacle to overcome, adheres to a feminist critique of dominant narrative structures as outlined by Ursula K. Le Guin (2019) and Donna Haraway (2016).
Challenging the hero narrative
In her 1986 essay 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction', Le Guin states that the type of narrative where there is a significant obstacle to overcome by the lead character who brings about change is 'the story that hid my humanity from me' (2019: 33). Le Guin sought to create stories that can be perceived of as unheroic, where 'and then next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human' (2019, p. 32). These are not stories about a unique challenge that is overcome, instead the mostly small and daily obstacles are what the character/s face on a regular basis. Le Guin challenges the primacy of the heroic narrative form, instead wanting to write about 'what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else' (2019: 37). I suggest, as does Le Guin, that this includes actions that occur in domestic spaces.
If we give equal narrative value to the domestic as well as the work sphere as sites of action, that narrative can easily shift from a linear heroic story to a ‘carrier bag’ story. Of course, an heroic story can unfold in a domestic space; for instance, stories about royal families often do this, but the inclusion of the non-workspace can open up a different understanding of what action is, and where the narrative is heading. Including the domestic place as a site of action can challenge the linearity of storytelling and encourage the creation of narratives that possess iterative qualities. Instead of the character gaining a deeper understanding through overcoming obstacles, and changing their world, maybe all the character must do is live their daily life in what Le Guin calls 'the life story' (2019: 33).
Effect on the viewer?
The non-heroic story can inspire the viewer to act and undergo change, even though the central character does not necessarily create change themselves. Merely seeing another way of existing in the world as a human can be enough to inspire the viewer to question their current life choices. This inspiration can take place through giving value in the narrative to the domestic sphere as being of equal importance in the character’s experiences.
Gough-Brady, Catherine. 2022. The Communicator Snodger Media; ABC TV. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/watch/compass/the-communicator/13879086
Haraway, Donna. J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble : Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
Le Guin, Ursula. K. 2019. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota.
Mazzucato, Mariana. 2019. The Value of Everything: Making and taking in the global economy. Penguin.
 For instance, in her 2019 book The Value of Everything: Making and taking in the global economy
Catherine Gough-Brady is an award-winning documentary producer and director who publishes on the emergent use of video as a method of academic discourse, and the relational nature of documentary production processes in journals including Media Practice and Education, Screenworks, [in]Transition, The International Journal of Creative Media Research, and Cultural Geographies. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on the intersection between creative practice and theory. Catherine produced and directed six ABC TV documentary series, including Legal Briefs (2016) and Ethics Matters (2017). She created 11 radio features for ABC Radio National. She is currently in post-production on a TV half-hour for ABC TV called The Communicator. Catherine is Head of Postgraduate Studies at JMC Academy in Australia and is an associate editor of Screenworks.