Writing a Documentary
by Laura P. Valtorta

Whenever I watch a documentary film, the credit for writing takes me by surprise. How can anyone write a documentary, since it’s a recording of real life, and unscripted experiences?

While making my sixth documentary, “Mehndi & Me” (completed today, July 27, 2017 – Yahoo!) I finally figured it out. I was the writer, because I was piecing together the “script”: a list of film clips typed up in the order they should appear in the final product. With “Mehndi & Me,” a portion of the draft script, with inexact times, looks like this:

Mehndi & Me (short film)
Summer 2017

Version 1 – 07.08.2017 Laura P. Valtorta
Clip # Description Beginning and end of clip (dialogue) Music & special effects Beginning and end (seconds)
GoPro 168 Six bare hands in circle Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:00 to 0:07

(7 seconds)
GoPro 172 Hands in circle, painted Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:12 to 0:25

(13 seconds)
Laura’s shot, outside of law office Shaky shot proceeds from side of building to sign 9 seconds

MVI 134
Lynn’s shot Laura introduces theme “I’m just glad to be here in Columbia, SC; and I can get mehndi from a real artist from Bangladesh.” First time this is said, NOT repeat 0:16 to 0:27

(11 seconds)
MVI 130
Lynn’s shot Silent shot of Laboni Laboni’s music with singing 0:11 to 0:21

(10 seconds)
MVI 122
Lynn’s shot Dianne, Laboni, Laura, & Kimberly at table “I would love it if you got 2 designs…more balanced” No music 0:10 to 0:17

(7 seconds)

This is my personal version of a documentary script. Others might use a storyboard with pictures or drawings. Sometimes I begin with a storyboard after shooting and proceed to the written script. In any case, writing a script is the step taken before editing, when the film is actually cut.

Before putting together a script, the director must first shoot the film (the most joyous part of the process) and then review hours of clips, making a complete list of what’s going on in each clip. Reviewing the raw footage is tedious. The Editing Decision List (EDL) that results is a giant list of clips with times and descriptions. These are the ingredients used to assemble the script.

For a documentary, the middle process is something like this:

• Plan the shoots
• Shoot the film
• Review the film clips and prepare Editing Decision Lists (EDLs) ugh!;
• Choose elements from the EDLs to write a script;
• Edit the film and promos; add music

Before all this, after conceiving an idea for a documentary, I secure the music and music rights. Music must be available during the editing process.

For me, making a film is teamwork. I could not make any of my films without the help of either Genesis Studio (owned by Cliff Springs), or the indomitable Lynn Cornfoot, who works at South Carolina ETV.


Laura w pants & car cuba.jpg

By Laura P. Valtorta

The Los Angeles Times has an excellent preview of upcoming movies. I am sharing some with the MoOOOOvie GrooooP. Here are some of the films previewed, in the order from frantic to passive, that I want to see them.

Lady Bird
Catholic schoolgirl tries to escape. Starring Saoirse Ronan (she was great in Atonement, so-so in Brooklyn. The director is a woman (Greta Gerwig), and the film is described as having an Indie Spirit, so I’m in.

The Meyerowitz Stories
Brothers Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller suck up to artist father, played by Dustin Hoffman. I just love these three actors. And where has Adam Sandler been the past few years? He was one of the nuttiest in Mixed Nuts.

The Current War
Normally I would find a fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse a snooze, but this film is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His first film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the best film of 2015 IMO.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Okay, actor Annette Bening can come across as a bitch. But she redeemed herself in 20th Century Women, so I want to give this one a try.

Boston Marathon victim finds new strength. Star Jake Gyllenhaal made himself a person of interest when he starred in Brokeback Mountain, so I want to see this film, even though the premise is tired.

First They Killed My Father
A story about Cambodia. I enjoy watching director Angelina Jolie defy all stereotypes. She uses her stardom to find meaning.

Our Souls at Night
You can’t ignore Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, especially after Fonda starred in a wonderful HBO series with the great Lily Tomlin, called Grace and Frankie.

The Shape of Water
I don’t care for the actor Sally Hawkins, but some people in our group like her. This one is about a mute janitor. At least she won’t be talking.

Laura and the Angolan women 061515(12/11/2016)

by Laura P. Valtorta

Margaret Atwood, who has written five dystopian novels, starts from a platform of modern civilization in first-world countries (people working, children being educated, women treated as $.68 citizens) before plunging into a future that looks both grim and strange. In the MaddAdam trilogy, her diving board is present-day corporate control from which she dives into the soup of the future – a world where the environment has collapsed and big companies protect half of the population in sealed communities. She has a platform of values that she respects: love and camaraderie. The healing qualities of hard work such as gardening. But she attacks anyone who can’t think for herself. The books are hilarious.

Franklin Schneider has no such platform. His creative memoir, Canned, how I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment, begins with the premise that life stinks, all of it. He tells the reader why in an entertaining way. The reader may or may not agree, but the quality and funniness of the writing help to deliver his message. Because Schneider rejects everything (except sex and books), his insights are often deeper and more unexpected than those of other writers. He makes the reader question values that western society forces on us as given: family is desirable. Work is always good.

Donna Tartt, in The Secret Friend, starts from the premise that Mississippi life in the 1970s was terrible for everyone because of economic deprivation. Her central character, a young girl, hunts down a supposed killer who has not committed the murder. Nobody understands anybody else in Tartt’s world. The reader can see inside the minds of the main characters, but they hardly ever understand each other. In this way, she attacks some prejudices about the South and reinforces others. She does accept the conventional premise that people need money and ambition to make life work. The book is 95% funny and filled with snakes.

While writing my current novel about the barriers America has built around skin color, I am starting from the traditional notion that family can make a person strong. Friends are important in Doris & Carmen, but Americans, living in compartmentalized worlds, are never free to choose the friends they need. People who can break down the boxes are stronger than others. My main targets are the American legal system, greed, and lawyers.

Humor is what ties these writings together. Nobody wants to depress her readers, and human stupidity is an easy target. Laughter is what makes the message stick.

Fountain inside Emperor 062016from the Tarot Garden in Tuscany by Nikki de Saint Phaelle

by Laura P. Valtorta

Before sitting down to write prose, paint a picture, or conceptualize a film, it’s important to understand the message that the art will deliver, whether it’s the juxtaposition of shapes and colors, or a philosophy about the meaning of life. These days, I’m writing a novel about diversity that I hope to translate into a film. My films are mainly about women’s rights and ordinary people who ought to be famous. Without a message, art is empty.

The films at the 25th annual St. Louis International Film Festival ( are helping me to retain my confidence in the United States. They celebrate diversity of every kind (language, age, skin color, gender identity, and cultural heritage). I was struck by the clear messages in each film, and how they inspired me to think. I’m proud that “The Art House” is being screened here.

The first film that struck me was “A House Without Snakes,” a short about the bush people of Botswana. Is it better to go away to engineering school in the United States or stay on the land that has sustained people for hundreds of thousands of years?

Yesterday I watched Rendezvous, a feature-length comedy/adventure by Amin Matalqa, a Jordanian-American man who grew up in Ohio. The story is straightforward and predictable; a doctor travels to Jordan to retrieve the body of her slain brother who was an archaeologist. She gets caught up in a plot to steal some ancient scrolls. There are plenty of car chases and funny mishaps. What’s unique about this adventure is that the doctor is a Jewish-American woman who falls in love with a Jordanian-American man. The villains are extremists of every sort – including Christian fundamentalists.

Even though I’m trying to pace myself, I saw two features and a block of shorts yesterday. The first feature was After the Storm, by Hirokazu Koreeda: a Japanese comedy about a has-been novelist who becomes addicted to gambling and neglects his family. Koreeda seems particularly worried about Japan’s aging population and the break-up of families. No diversity in sight in this Japan. Looks to me like they need some immigration and new blood.

We can count on art to help us. Recently I’ve been reading Canned: How I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment by Franklin Schneider. This Schneider guy is nuts, but I love him. In his depressing way, he has a lot to say about American society and our consumer-oriented values. This is definitely a message book. One that makes me laugh and ponder the world. That’s what good writing does.



Captain Fantastic


Pupo Sicilianoby Laura P. Valtorta

Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross (he played Alby Grant from the compound in Big Love) is a deeply moving story about a family that lives off the grid and gets punished for it in a way. I loved the philosophies of this film, especially when the family eschews religion and anything having to do with consumer society. They learn about literature, biology, and the Bill of Rights. I like what the kids are learning in this particular home-schooling environment.

Viggo Mortensen is perfect as the father because I don’t think the guy is acting in this one. All of the children in this film are convincing.

The roles of the capitalist grandfather (Frank Langella) and the subservient grandmother (Ann Dowd) were both caricatures.

I’ve seen a couple of scenes from this film already – in particular Dances with Wolves, when they share the heart from the recently killed buffalo. The funeral scene on the beach with the family singing should not have been so “produced.”

Otherwise – this film moved me to tears and made me reflect on our insulated society.It also includes much-appreciated full frontal nudity of a man, for a change.


by Laura P. Valtorta

Our trip to the Tarot Garden in Capalbio, Italy, two days ago reinforced the idea that art inspires art. Looking at modern art, and the fantastic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, helps me to write better.

Before visiting the Tarot Garden, it’s important to read the sweet, chaotic, horrible story of Niki’s life. A recent article in The New Yorker allowed us to do that.

The giant tarot sculptures built by Niki and her friends and the people of Capalbio emphasize the sadness and the chaotic nature of life and love. “Death” is one of the most beautiful sculptures. She had abandoned her young children years earlier and spent time in an insane asylum.

The sculptures are ceramic and mirror tiles, reinforced by steel and cement. Niki lived alone inside the Empress for many years while building the 14-acre garden.

The poignancy of this garden comes from knowing about Niki’s sad, messy, creative life and seeing the joy she infused in the gigantic sculptures. On the side of the Impiccato sculpture is a love story in tiles with drawings that illustrate the first meeting, desire, love letters, breaking up, and remaining friends.

Any artist – writer, painter, sculptor, or musician – can benefit from walking through Niki’s garden. It took her seventeen years to create and shows how steadfast her passion for beauty was.


Laura at St. Lawrence Film Festival 2015


by Laura P. Valtorta

There is so much to say about contemporary music that I’d love to write album reviews. The problem is, you have to attend concerts to do that. I only venture to a concert when I’m really, really excited about a band, and then it usually ends in disaster.

In 2015, I was in Austin for South by Southwest, where there was a peripheral parking lot concert by the Malian band – Tinariwen. I am a huge fan of Tinariwen – their music, the beautiful varied colors of their skin, their soulful danceable sound, and the lyrics (which boil down to “Hey, we love the desert. The desert is great. All my friends live in the Sahara”) in some tribal language translated in the liner notes.

At SXSW, the concert was attended by a huge crowd of drunken people. Wait a minute – Tinariwen is a Muslim band. When do I get to enjoy one of the two facets of sharia law that I admire – the ban on alcohol? Apparently not at a concert in Austin. The audio was too loud and ear-splitting. The whole experience made me want to rumble. I actually shoved a couple of men out of my way. My children loved the entire experience.

Last Saturday the indie rock band Alabama Shakes came to Charleston. I love me some Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard is amazing, and when she screams, I jump up. I love the hairy style of Zac, who plays the bass. I own both their albums and listen to them regularly on the stereo and on Youtube. The story of their rise from Athens, Alabama to the world stage really inspires me.

But a concert? I broke down and purchased three tickets.

The people-watching at the Volvo stadium wasn’t much fun – a bunch of white people purchasing alcohol. Yes, the white people were of various ages – from teen to ancient – but staring at the vast audience gave me snow blindness. I counted 20 black people. This amazed me because Brittany Howard is part African-American.

With Marco and Dante shielding me, I vowed to ignore the drunkenness and enjoy the show. The performance did not disappoint. Brittany came out in a wonderful dress (natural hair!) and did her thing. She played the shit out of that turquoise guitar. She screamed and she sang. “Don’t wanna fight no more,” was a showstopper. “Dunes” killed me. I had a clear view of Zac. I was clapping and swaying.

After the show, I exited the stadium happy and suggested we walk to the car. The evening was limpid. Marco insisted we take the bus. “It will save time.” We had a long drive ahead of us to Columbia.

As soon as I sat on the bus, I put my hand down in a pool of vomit. Sigh.

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