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The Carrier Bag Theory of Nonfiction Filmmaking: What Documentarians Can Learn from Ursula K. Le Guin

A woman in a blue floral house dress sits at a wooden dining table with a pen and paper, surrounded by curated clutter in wood-paneled room.For Your Peace of Mind, Make Your Own Museum, courtesy of the filmmakers

I teach documentary studies and production at the Skidmore College MDOCS program and run the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute. When non-tenure track faculty recently organized to form a union, MDOCS curated a series of labor-related films to add to the conversation around labor organizing on campus. What should have been a fun project became increasingly frustrating because all the documentaries we found centered strikes—the most conflict-oriented, high-stakes and visible side of unionization. What we wanted to feature were the less-visible processes of labor organizing: meetings, conversations, collaborations and negotiations. We ended up screening two excellent films about striking workers, and although the screening generated thoughtful conversation in the audience, we were concerned the takeaway would be that unionization inevitably leads to a strike, when what most likely awaits non–tenure track faculty at Skidmore is a banal and protracted, but very important, process of negotiation. 

It should have been no surprise that it was so hard to find documentary films about labor organizing that do not revolve around a strike. The documentary film industry loves action-driven, conflict-oriented storytelling. We documentarians often find ourselves looking for or exaggerating conflict to heighten the stakes and make our work fit into a palatable three-act structure: a hero (or a small group of heroes) journeys forward in time through rising action and turning points toward a neat resolution. Reality is messier and much more interesting than this structure. As makers, teachers, gatekeepers and audiences of nonfiction, how do we break free from this singular approach to storytelling, and why is it imperative that we do so?

For the past few years, I have been obsessed with the sci-fi fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin. I am deeply inspired by her political imagination, her relationship with nature and her challenges to pervasive and supremacist ideas about race, gender, sex and domination. I have also learned from her essays on writing. In 1986, Le Guin published “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,”  a witty and direct essay that has been instructive to fiction writers for decades, and which has a lot to teach makers of nonfiction as well. 

In the essay, Le Guin confronts the “Hero’s Journey,” an idea popularized in the work of the mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes story structure like this: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: Fabulous forces are there encountered and divisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The hero can be a heroine and, as Campbell makes clear, the formula can be found in myths and stories worldwide. The outsized influence this framing has on the ways storytelling is taught, and on the industries in which story is currency, makes it hard to see and create outside the Hero’s Journey. These are the journeys of Odysseus, Harry Potter, the Star Wars franchise and indeed much of popular fiction. These are also the journeys of much of popular documentary: What has been deemed the first American documentary, Nanook of the North, the recent Academy Award–winning My Octopus Teacher, the detective yarns of every true crime series on Netflix and even movement-oriented films like Knock Down the House (2019) follow its formula. Many of these works are good stories, entertaining, meaningful and poignant, and I am not saying that they should not exist, but there is much they do not, and perhaps cannot, reflect. 

In “The Carrier Bag of Fiction,” Le Guin offers another way of seeing story: “So the hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it. I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag.” She bases her preferred shape for a story, “the Carrier Bag,” on what anthropologists have cited as the first tool: not a weapon, but a bag, used to gather, keep and hold dear items of both necessity and joy. Narratively, this bag is a seemingly bottomless vessel for the valuing of experiences, ways of being and conceptions of time.

Many nonfiction makers—Black Audio Film Collective, Trinh T. Minhha and Jill Godmilow, to name a few—have long created documentaries outside the Hero’s Journey. However, as acclaimed as these works were at the time of their release and as resurgent as they have become since, they were and remain on the periphery of the documentary industry, especially in the United States. The structure of the Hero’s Journey has been used at the service of powerful, destructive, and uniquely American ideologies that justify exploitation and conquest ––the American dream, foreign policy driven by American Exceptionalism, and the country’s obsession with rugged individualism. More expansive forms of storytelling can be a powerful and underutilized tool to confront these corrosive ideologies. Which is why those of us within the documentary ecosystem must ask ourselves: Who does the hero leave behind at home? What fills the days of those left behind, if not mysterious adventure and decisive victory? What if those left behind do not want the hero’s boons, so graciously offered? What—or who—has the hero worn down under their feet? And if we exit the well-beaten path, what will we find thriving in the forest? 

Throughout her career, Le Guin constantly rethought and rewrote her ideas and was shaped by conversations with her readers. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” ends with what I view as an invitation for all of us to take part in re-writing the story of story: “Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.” If Ursula K. Le Guin were alive, I would love to have this conversation with her. In my fantasy, I would invite her to tea and chat about the following films and framing.  


Caliban and the Witch, the pivotal text by scholar, teacher and activist Sylvia Federici, explains how the turn toward “rationalism” in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe obliterated looser understandings of time and space at the service of capitalism. Such understandings were associated with “magic” and “witches,” with the feminine, that needed to be reined in and controlled through the terror of the witch hunts. Federici goes on to make the case that this rationalism of time and space is also used at the service of colonialism and empire, to cleanse different ways of being, including temporal, throughout the world. 

Different concepts of time persist. Why should we further obliterate them with an insistence on linear, forward-moving time in our storytelling? INAATE/SE (2016) by Adam and Zack Khalil centers the Seven Fires Prophecy, given to each generation of the Ojibwe, that foretold the arrival of colonizers, the ethnic cleansing of the Ojibwe and the eminent revitalization of Ojibwe culture. Instead of diminishing the consequences of and resistance to colonialism through straight linearity, the film emphasizes the reoccurrence of the prophecy in different eras. 

Colonization and its penal legacy have also mandated new understandings of time. The mesmerizing Dry Ground Burning (2022) by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós is a speculative documentary co-created with, and featuring, a group of formerly incarcerated women living on the outskirts of Brasília who take control of their economic livelihood and social conditions. The film unabashedly disorients viewers by bouncing around in time, an approach that emulates the temporal whiplash that traversing between the limbo time of prison and the ongoing time of the outside world can create for formerly or perpetually incarcerated people. Additionally, the collaborative approach Pimenta and Queirós take, creating the narrative with the film’s subjects/actors, offers a direct response to Bolsonaro’s fascistic desire to control the narratives and agency of poor Brazilians.


Conflict is an integral and necessary part of human experience, and neither Le Guin nor I think that conflict should be excluded from story; it just should not be the only thing that drives it. In a 1987 essay on conflict and narrative, Le Guin puts it this way: “People are cross-grained, aggressive, and full of trouble, the storytellers tell us; people fight themselves and one another, and their stories are full of their struggles. But to say that that IS the story is to use one aspect of existence, conflict, to subsume all other aspects, many of which it does not include and does not comprehend.”

My current project, Lyd (forthcoming 2023), which I am co-directing with journalist and filmmaker Rami Younis, is about the Palestinian/Israeli city of Lyd, where conflict is part of everyday life, and there is conflict in our film. However, we did not want conflict to rule our film. The canon of films about Palestine and Israel often revolves around conflict and victimization to the exclusion of everyday moments that describe actual existence, which, especially in occupied territories, is also a form of resistance. Our film centers scenes that revolve around the day-to-day—telling jokes, preparing food and teaching. We also present a parallel reality through animation, where the city’s residents live normal lives in an unoccupied Lyd—going to school, making art and throwing celebrations—free from the violence of their past and the trauma of their present. However, despite our efforts, we have not yet been completely successful, especially when presenting the film in grant proposals and pitches to potential funders. We often find ourselves returning to the words “conflict,” “journey” and “rising tension” to elevate the stakes of the film and make it more attractive to decision-makers. 

RaMell Ross’s gorgeous film Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) managed to break through the rigid constraints of the U.S. documentary industry and receive an Oscar nomination despite its refusal to center conflict. The film prefers to linger with the Black residents of Hale County, Georgia, taking part in intimate moments of domestic and community life. I spoke with Ross for this article, and he described this choice as a philosophical decision rather than a structural one, “The way Black people have been envisioned on film is filled with plot points of trouble and transcendence,” he says. “Building the film around the poetic interstitials of people’s lives counters the struggle narrative.” There is also a refusal to center decision-making or “sites of judgment,” as Ross puts it: “Watching someone else make decisions is a distraction from the larger forces that determine a person’s trajectory.” Such an approach, he argues, puts undue weight on individual decision-making and none on the racial-capitalist system that governs life in the United States. 

It was incredibly challenging for Ross to convince funders to invest in Hale County This Morning, This Evening. At pitches, people would ask where the characters were and comment that they were indistinguishable from one another. It was only after Ross showed veteran producer Joslyn Barnes a 30-minute sample and she was convinced of his vision that the industry started to seriously commit to the film. 


Having multiple characters is relatively common in rhetorically structured, talking-head documentaries, but less common in narrative-based documentaries. Although beautiful polyvocal essay films are resurgent within documentary spaces and PBS, such as Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall (2020) or Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016), they are not often made more visible to wide audiences on larger streaming platforms like Netflix or HBO. Polyvocal films are often deemed less personal and less capable of generating the all-important holy grail of documentary—audience empathy. 

In David Naimon’s podcast Crafting With Ursula, Le Guin’s biographer Julie Phillips shares that Le Guin was challenged by feminists for centering male heroes in her novels. Le Guin countered that she did not want to contort the experiences of women to fit inside the Hero’s Journey, but that she also did not yet know how to write outside of it. This may be seen as an oversimplification of gender, heroes, and care, but the question is salient and valuable:

Do all main characters need to be heroes? In For Your Own Peace Of Mind, Make Your Own Museum (2021), directors Ana Endara Mislov and Pilar Moreno construct an affecting portrait of the late artist Senobia Cerrud through beautiful interviews with other rural, Panamanian women in the artist’s village. As the women reflect on Cerrud’s work, she is not drawn as a hero. Instead, the interviews drift into descriptions of daily life in the village: labor, family, joy and violence. The women are all interviewed in their kitchens and asked to wear the same cornflower blue dress Cerrud wore to embody the domestic and a sense of collectivity. 

Aleph (2021), by Iva Radivojevic, adopts its structure from the writer Jorge Luis Borges. The director plays with multiple narrators and nonlinearity to convey what Borges described as “the unimaginable universe.” In a conversation with Radivojević for this article, she described an open-ended process: allowing the people she met while in pre-production to tell her where the film should go next. Magical realist in tone, the film often followed the dreams of participants to the next location. In the final filming, each encounter is either performed by an actor or by the original person. Because of its unconventional structure and approach, it took Radivojević five years to raise the budget for Aleph and multiple festival rejections before the film finally premiered at New Directors/New Films. Radivojević encountered resistance from decision-makers who often could not follow the multiple characters and did not understand the politics of the film. However, for Radivojević, the intentionally polyvocal form speaks purposefully to the film’s politics. She left her home country during the Yugoslavian civil war at age eleven and has lived most of her life as an immigrant. In a recent interview with Elianna Kan for Metrograph Journal Radivojević shared, “I moved from country to country, language to language, identity to identity; it was a fragmented, non-linear existence. That’s what Aleph is for me. When you move around that much, life starts to become this dreamscape, transpiring in multiple realities. That’s what dream logic means to me—associating things in a way that has a different kind of logic.” As forced migration increases around the world because of the climate crisis and economic inequality, asking makers to force multiplicity into a singular structure may be asking a huge portion of the world to assimilate into an experience that does not speak to or for them. 

Many of these films did premiere at major festivals and have distribution, but they are the exception within the industry, not the norm. Makers are increasingly trained to present ourselves as the hero of our own artistic-biographical story, with our process acting as the journey and our product acting as the boon brought home to audiences, erasing the collaboration that goes into nonfiction storytelling and forcing makers to narrativize our practice and commodify ourselves. This can lead to extractive filmmaking or savior narratives that erase the subject’s agency. It can also be equally problematic when it is expected that makers share stories of how they overcame trauma or adversity to legitimize a connection to the stories they choose to tell. This can feel re-victimizing and can oversimplify identification at the expense of intersectionality and solidarity. The impact imperative, the charge that documentaries must have an impact campaign to further the issue featured in the film, also puts the documentary film in the position of the hero, the champion of a cause, and favors clearly measurable outcomes or resolutions—click this, donate here, sign this—instead of the less-definable impact at which documentaries excel, like generating thoughtful conversation way beyond a post-screening Q&A.

We, the tellers of reality, need to think of story as a carrier bag, a vessel capable of growing and bending in response to what it carries, instead of squishing it along a rigid line that demands conformity. Ursula K. Le Guin drew on a deep observation of the world around her and envisioned fantastical ways of organizing society and understanding reality. In documentary, I feel that we often do the opposite—we limit the possibilities of our complicated and fantastical reality by confining it to one story shape. This must change. I know I said that storytelling does not need to revolve around high stakes, but, without exaggeration, the stakes are real: Fascism is resurgent, the climate is in crisis and economic exploitation is reaching new heights. To organize for a more equitable and livable world, we need to envision it, which we will not be able to do if we train reality to fit on the narrow edge of a spear and only tell stories about heroes. If we do not make space in documentary storytelling for work whose form centers the collective in addition to the individual, collaboration and compromise in addition to conflict, and journeys that do not only march forward in time toward a neatly tied-up resolution, facing these stakes will be a lonely, rigid, divisive and devastating journey. 

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