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Narrative / Non-Narrative

A suggestion was made at the Home Movie Summit, with a general sense of agreement, that a fundamentally useful distinction that can be made within the corpus of Home Movies is “Narrative” vs. “Non-Narrative.” In the taxonomy of Home Movies presented in Section III below, several Genres might be regarded as “Narrative” films – in particular, “Amateur Drama” might be regarded simply as a “Narrative Home Movie.” However, the presence of several other types of “Narrative” films distinguished in the taxonomy below suggests that this broad division, while useful in itself, should not preclude further distinctions within the rich variety of both Narrative and Non-Narrative materials. Herewith an attempt to distinguish the two:

NARRATIVE FILM – In the simplest sense, Narrative tells a story, and the subjects in the film “play parts.” The presence of structural devices such as title cards, “cast” lists, intertitles propelling a storyline, or a soundtrack with scripted dialogue may signal a Narrative mode of film making. “Acting” behavior on the part of participants, such as dressing up in costumes, adopting roles or names distinct from their “real” selves, and performing scripted actions also characterize Narrative Home Movies. Perhaps most essential is the sense that events in the film proceed in a deliberate way, having some kind of “narrative arc” – which is to say the action is to a significant degree “plotted.”

NON-NARRATIVE FILM – The use of prefix signals that this term is simply defined as the negation of Narrative film. Attempts to define Non-Narrative in an affirmative mode tend to flounder (Is non-narrative film “unstructured,” “raw,” “spontaneous,” “unscripted,” “naturalistic” …? The objections are immediate and obvious).

As with any attempt at definition, interpreting and applying the rubric is challenging. Is a film account of a boat ride, with a beginning (boarding), middle (sailing) and end (disembarking), with everyone “being themselves” a Narrative film? What if there are title cards? What if Jimmy pretends to be a pirate in an isolated sequence? Isn’t anyone aware of being filmed “playing a part” in some sense? Mightn’t some viewers discern a suburban “Narrative” even in the most casual and spontaneous of Home Movies?

Still, difficulty of attribution and distinction will be common to many of the Genres outlined below, and the challenge raised by “grey areas” should not discourage us from applying useful terms to the many many films that unambiguously deserve them. And crucially, it is often the very questions that are raised in protest to a Generic term that point the way to fruitful intellectual study and refinement of our understanding of Home Movies. Best to make a start.