The question of how to portray the passage of time in documentaries is one that has frustrated many doc-makers and editors alike.
Personally, I’m a big fan of using “relative time,” in other words, using titles or narration or lower thirds or what-have-you to convey that time has passed in a relative sense rather than an absolute one (i.e. “6 months later…” instead of “June 24th, 2008…”).
The reason why is that whenever I see absolute dates used in a documentary, it makes my mind think that something of really big historical importance is about to happen on that day (like the day Nixon resigned, or the day that Armstrong landed on the moon). If nothing huge pans out, I get a little disappointed and frustrated and wonder why the filmmaker though it was so important to let me know that so-and-so got her driver’s license on “February 24th, 1998” rather than “Sixteen years after she started to try to get it.”
Here’s a twist: instead of using relative time in a forward sense (“3 days later”), why not try it backwards? In other words, if the film is counting down to some big event, why not try using titles or what-have-you to convey that, such as “2 days before Bob’s 90th birthday”?
Unless it’s a historic date or the date is of vast importance, I’d suggest using relative dates in documentaries where the passage of a significant amount of time is portrayed. What do you think about relative time vs absolute time? Chime in in the comments section.
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