Drawing on the narrative tools of the creative writer, the unique strengths of a visual and aural media, and the power of realworld content truthfully presented, Documentary Storytelling offers advice for producers, directors, editors, and cinematographers seeking to make ethical and effective nonfiction films, and for those who use these films to educate, inform, and inspire. Special interview chapters explore storytelling as practiced by renowned producers, directors, and editors. This third edition has been updated and expanded, with discussion of newer films including Waltz with Bashir and Why We Fight.

Sheila Curran Bernard

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or by its title in the case of Sheila Curran Bernard’s Documentary Storytelling – Creative Nonfiction on Screen. Yes, the book is about storytelling in the field of documentary but most of all it is a very practically oriented book filled with hands-on advice on most aspects in the process of creating a documentary film. Bernard lets you know her take on such diverse topics as researching, planning, shooting and narrating your story in easily accessible language made even more accessible by providing many pieces of advice with concrete examples from existing films such as Kurt & Courtney, Waltz with Bashir and Daughter from Danang. The book is cleverly divided into three main parts. The first part, Understanding Story, deals with Curran Bernard’s perception of what a story is and how it should be presented in filmic form alongside such terms as arc, plot, character, theme and structure. Naturally I don’t agree with all Curran Bernard has to say about story – for instance I don’t consider Super Size Me to be an essay-film but rather a more conventional documentary with a personal journey as the driving engine of the film – but I believe Curran Bernard does a great job in making clear what kind of elements a documentary story should consist of and how one best works with story. Of course a problem in a book like this one and similar how-to-do-books is that they tend to present a certain recipe and thus overlook other ways of doing things. I am sure Bernard Curran does not intend to just talk about one single way to make documentary but now and then you feel like this is the case. For instance, Bernard Curran is a firm believer in planning and knowing your story beforehand (which is not the same as constructing reality into something that it is not) but even though I agree that most of the time you will get a better result by “having an idea of the narrative spine on which you could hang your subject and having at least some idea of themes you want to explore”, I still think Bernard Curran overlooks the power of intuition and curiosity which has also created a number of amazing documentaries through the years. The second part of the book, entitled Working with Story, is probably the most relevant part for aspiring filmmakers to read. In this section Bernard Curran goes through most of the practical elements of creating a documentary from pre-production tasks such as how to research your story, creating a pitch, casting your film, fundraising (although not that much is said about this part of moviemaking) to the production itself with shooting and doing interviews and finally postproduction such as editing and creating a voice-over for your film. The advice is extremely concrete and functional such as: “Think of shooting your documentary the way you would shoot a dramatic feature: Within any given scene, you want wide shots, medium shots, close-ups and cut-aways” or this one about test screening: “Make it clear that you will be asking for their reactions, both positive and negative. Ask them to please stay in the room for a few minutes immediately after the film ends.”

Now and then the advice becomes a little too banal for my taste. Of course it depends on your level of experience but I believe only very few people need to be told to “never mark up a libraryowned book or magazine” because other people need to use the book after you. But if you can put these redundant pieces of advice aside there are many vital lessons to be learned for the up-and-coming documentary filmmaker. And as well structured as the book is, the advice makes even more sense when reading part 3, Talking about Story, in which renowned documentary filmmakers such as Nick Fraser, James Marsh and Deborah Scranton talk with the author about their work. Bernard Curran manages to stay on track in the interviews and gets the filmmakers to talk about the themes of the first two parts of her book and how these elements and themes relate to the individual works of the filmmakers. The three parts of the book play extremely well together and all the way through and amongst the thousands of pieces of advice Sheila Curran Bernard keeps her focus on story which for her seems to be the most important element in any documentary. No matter how great a shot you have in a film or how rare an interview you got, you still need a story. Without story, nothing else matters. I tend to agree with her even though I do remember seeing documentary films without much story which still made a huge impression on me. This does not, however, change the fact that Documentary Storytelling is a very valuable book for any aspiring filmmaker or for anyone out there who is interested in story and what story can do.


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Steffen Moestrup
Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.