Should documentary filmmakers be taking the screenwriting credit as much as they do these days? That’s the question posed in an article I wrote for The New York Times this Sunday. I thought it would be interesting to open the discussion to the POV-faithful, hoping that filmmakers and doc fans alike will weigh in.

The issue is this: It’s become more common for theatrically released documentaries to feature a writing credit. The credit is even being used on films that don’t have any scripted narration, such as Asif Kapadia‘s Senna.

The rationale, as put forward by the Writers Guild of America, as well as doc filmmakers with whom I spoke, such as Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri (October Country, Off Label), is that there doesn’t have to be any actual writing seen or heard on screen — it can be in the writing for an outline that structures the film, for interview questions or for post-production.

Is that the sort of writing that warrants a writing credit? Is it a betrayal of the nonfiction principles espoused by doc legends such as Richard Leacock? Do you care?

Joe Berlinger (The Paradise Lost trilogy), whom I consider one of the most important doc filmmakers of the day, certainly does. He told me in the Times story, “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.”

On the other hand, I quoted WGA East Executive Director Lowell Peterson as saying, “Writing story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That’s writing… Writing stuff to structure stories is writing. And yes, I think people should get a writing credit for that.”

What do you think?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen