Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk & Your Story

Creating immersive journalism and stories

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Photo, Dunkirk the movie Dir. Chris Nolan

There’s a turning period in the early days of cinema captured in Life of an American Fireman (1903) by Edwin S. Porter.

Porter threads his story together not by intercutting between characters, but by showing the same scene at length, then as if pressing the rewind button illustrating the same event from a different point of view. Cinema literature indicates the audience soon tired of this technique and more refined real-time editing approaches were theorised and practised, with Russian filmmakers like Pudovkin at the forefront.

Nolan revives that technique to aplomb in a 21st century way. For some critics the result is messy. Three stories from which characters face a series of jeopardy, edited as page turners in a novel, run alongside and into each other.

There’s an elasticity to this so it’s deployed to, as Tarantino once put it, for audiences to ‘chase the movie’. That elusive edit is brought into the film to close down the chase. To capture this as a videojournalist requires the use of a second camera in real time and a reckoning of the relevant linking shots.

Cross cutting underpins mostly all filmmaking today, though not journalism at large. In his Oscar nominated film To Hell and Back Again (2011), shot on a DSLR, videojournalist Danfung Dennis worked in memory flashbacks to make the film effective, mirroring The Thin Red Line (1998) by Terrence Malick.

There’s an array of cinematic elements that could be discussed in Nolan’s style: the cinematography, CGI or lack of, Nolan’s misrepresentation of the war or how he places the viewer in privileged proximity spaces, particularly using close-ups in a way normally used in POV games e.g. Tour of Duty. And then there’s blue mind — the psychological calming effect of water. Nolan uses oceans and water in all his films to affect intimacy and struggle.

He plays to the inciting incident. Like a novel you’re parachuted into the in media res of an action and so long as its gripping you’ll stay the course, and entertain what comes after the page turn. The residue of the inciting incident creates an expectation to return to the story. The inciting incident also leaves the potential for a back story to which the filmmaker can return.

Remember Inception and Interstellar’s opening scenes, which jigsaw themselves further on into the film. Dunkirk pays homage to Tarkovsky’s oeuvre e.g. Ivan’s Childhood (1962) (also involves water) not for the plot but the implicit and internalised journey or what Hitchcock would call ‘pure cinema’ — minimum dialogue. In videojournalism & cinemajournalism terms, if we mute the sound can you still follow the story?

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David Dunkley Gyimah producer/presenter at the BBC circa 1990s

Before a career in television, which included BBC Newsnight, ABC News South Africa in 1992 and Channel 4 News, I trained first in radio and the use of folley. Dunkirk’s viscerality is its heightened nerve-ending sound fx e.g. planes nose-diving, and sound envelopes. These are re-occurring scores, which are narratives in themselves. Think of composer John William’s Jaws. When a score or sound scape works, it’s a symphony. You forget film and sound are separate (non diegetic) elements unless you look for it, occasionally lapse in concentration as I do, or disagree with the score.

At a presentation at the British Film Institute to an audience I showed how sound and music colour moving pictures. This is Heider-Simmel’s 1940s experiment. Play it in a group and have each person try and make sense of what’s going on. Then add music. This is how one of the attendant’s interpreted it.

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Image by CC Chapman

From watching Nolan’s film, I pondered how his approach from our Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB could be used on your story or mine. I am what’s called a cinema journalist, an iteration of videojournalism whom uses cinema’s tropes and cues in storytelling captured in text books e.g. Documentary Handbook and at SXSW. It formed part of my PhD, which explored cognitivism within media running through photography, documentary, news and cinema.

Whilst the write up below prototypes what I could have done, against what I did, a more elaborate schema points to video hyperlinking to which I was interviewed by The Economist in 2006 about drilling into elusive edits or those left out to further the stories narrative.

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Sir Lenny Henry

Executed in 2001 in this interactive film, The Family, gearing up for his fight with Tyson, interactive hot spots dominate the narrative, but what if body language, AI and or VUI could enhance the film. That’s the next step and something we’re attempting on a national project called the TVC powerful list — a gathering of UK executives from minority background endorsed by Sir Lenny Henry.

GALLIPOLI

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I received an anonymous phone call which developed into an invitation to join a pioneering expedition making its way to the Dardanelles — a sea strait that links Russia (Black Sea) with Europe. There, the Turkish government had just demilitarized a zone where its Ottoman forces in WWI held ground against ANZAC (Allied forces which then included Russia).

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For the first time a diving expedition (Turkish police, ex-British Navy et al) was allowed to the area to search for leading battleships. Armed with a video camera, radio kit, stills camera and diving gear, I set off, for a feature that was destined for the BBC World Service The angle pursued by the BBC was an ethical one. Should divers be allowed into what are war graves?

Otherwise known as the Gallipoli Campaign, Battle of Çanakkale, or Battle of Dardanelles, it‘s been made into several films such as Gallipoli (1981) featuring Mel Gibson, Çanakkale 1915 (2012) and British drama Tell England (1931) directed by Anthony Asquith (son of Brit Prime Minister) and Geoffrey Barkas.

Wars have defining moments indexed by their location, such as Dunkirk, Somme and Gallipoli. Gallipoli’s casualties on both sides were around a million over the eight and half month campaign. The Commander-in-Chief for the Allies was Sir Ian Hamilton. He’s significant for our story.

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Wiki pedia photo
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Photo David Dunkley Gyimah

We’re in Gallipoli. The Nolan approach would have involved mapping out the stories, working towards their convergence, whilst mindful of their individual timelines. Below is how I could have unfurled them. You can hear the linear approach I produced for the BBC World Service below.

Three stories: Opening sequence: Man standing looking into the distance.

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Ian, a Canadian lawyer looks into the distance contemplating the land graves and the campaign in which many men lost their lives. These are profound memories for Ian interested in military history and as a former officer in the army.

Ian is here having answered a call he couldn’t turn down. As a diver, he and his wife Eleanor have undertaken countless dives, but this one is different. It’s the first time civilians will be allowed into Gallipoli’s protected waters and the battle grounds of the fallen. But there’s something else, far more poignant. Ian’s great grand uncle Sir Ian Hamilton commanded the Gallipoli campaign.

CUT TO historian

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Local historian Ali Efes is a celebrity amongst tour guides, but as he packed his bags with paraphernalia about a group of divers gathering in Gallipoli, he’s mind would have wandered. Ali’s grandfather was killed during the war. He’s also well versed in the narrative that local men needed to defend themselves and wives at all cost from the invading force. That animosity amongst some locals with long memories has not subsided over the years. In his bag, he packs something which he hasn’t handled for a while and heads to the harbour and awaits the boat and its tourists.

CUT TO documenter (me)

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The silence is choppy. At times you can actually hear yourself thinking, then it goes quiet then my rapidly increasing heart beat becomes deafening. My breathing has got deeper too. I am hyperventilating. The result of this is simple. I’m consuming air at an unsustainable rate. I have been caught in a ribbon current and I’m being hurtled to the ships bow onto unexploded ordinates.

To escape the current, I look down. Fate awaits me. The ordinate’s aside, I’m near the limit of oxygen diving where narcosis can set in. I look up, salvation, but it is tempered. If I proceed too quickly I risk injury — the bends. If I do nothing, I have roughly seven minutes of air left to make it 40m up. I need to decompress (deco), effectively hover around 10–15m from the water line to rid my system inert gases that have built up inside of me. I go down to avoid the current, hit the shells and then am rejoined by my diving partner. We buddy breath our way up. I hadn’t signed up for this.

At some point our timelines elide

Hamilton, Efes and I are on board the dive ship. Efes asks for a moment to address Hamilton (see video). He reaches for his pocket and pulls out war remains that have been in his family. Whilst paying tribute to Sir Ian Hamilton he extends this to the next generation Hamilton. Emnity dissolves into Friendship. Hamilton and his wife are visibly moved, ‘We are no longer enemies’ says Efes. Years of loss are now buried… The end.

DRAFT TRAILER FOR VIDEO FEATURE

BBC World Service Radio Featured broadcast on Outlook.

Out take from the feature.

*David, named one of the leading writers in journalism on @Medium, is an international award winning videojournalist and Knight Batten innovator in journalism. He’s recently been named visiting professor for one of the world’s leading university in media to be announced in September. Here for more on Cinema Journalism .

If this story grabs you, please pass on, or drop me a line. I love to collaborate, make new friends, and share ideas about possibilities david dunkley gyimah posts.

Forethought

Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past…

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

Forethought

Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past learning, storytelling, media and tech evangelised by Brit journalist, storyteller and senior lecturer David Dunkley Gyimah, embracing the wisdom of crowds and sharing

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

Forethought

Forethought — Looks to the future and reflects through past learning, storytelling, media and tech evangelised by Brit journalist, storyteller and senior lecturer David Dunkley Gyimah, embracing the wisdom of crowds and sharing

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