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Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen [Paperback]

Sheila Curran Bernard
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 31, 2010 0240812417 978-0240812410 3

Updated and improved, with new case studies and conversations with award-winning filmmakers including Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), James Marsh (Man on Wire), and Deborah Scranton (The War Tapes).

Documentary Storytelling has reached filmmakers and filmgoers worldwide with its unique focus on the single most important aspect of documentary media-making: storytelling. Drawing on the narrative tools of the creative writer, the unique strengths of a visual and aural media, and the power of real-world 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.

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Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen + Making Documentary Films and Videos: A Practical Guide to Planning, Filming, and Editing Documentaries + The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production
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Editorial Reviews


"Bernard's brilliant and effective Documentary Storytelling...aims to guide the Errol Morrises of tomorrow with great advice and practical knowledge that every documentarian would benefit from."--Backstage

"Storytelling--that's what this book is about. It's about the story, how to convey that story eloquently, effectively, and ethically...This book is absolutely brilliant."--Krista Galyen, AAUG Reviews

About the Author

Sheila Curran Bernard is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and the author of Documentary Storytelling, a best selling guide to story and structure in nonfiction filmmaking, and , a guide to using archival footage and material in films. Her archival film credits include the series Eyes on the Prize, I'll Make Me a World, This Far By Faith, America's War on Poverty, and School, for which she also co-wrote the companion book. She has taught at Princeton University and Westbrook College and recently joined the faculty of the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 386 pages
  • Publisher: Focal Press; 3 edition (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0240812417
  • ISBN-13: 978-0240812410
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #112,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, writer, and consultant. Full bio at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In filmmaking of any kind, it is the camera that tells a story. Documentary filmmaking is no different in terms that it is still the camera that is the key witness. The difference is in approach and construction. Sheila Curran Bernard's third edition of this textbook is timely and well detailed. "Documentary Storytelling" underscores that no matter the technical aspects of shooting and editing, the improtance of telling a good story in a documentary just as much as in a fictional film cannot be stressed enough.

Research, writing good treatments, and the importance of craft rather than a formulaic model are discussed in detail. Important aspects of documentary filmmaking such as the business side of film - such as budgeting for the film, pre-production, production, promotion and selling and putting your work out in the film festival circuit are also discussed. These are areas of the industry that is usually not given nearly enough attention. Sheila Curran Bernard has put together a great textbook where other documentary filmmakers were interviewed about what they do and the best way to put out work that captivates an audience.

Whether you want to be behind the camera as a director, editor, producer working for a big studio or as an independent filmmaker, I would definitely recommend this book. This new edition would also be great for any film / media studies student or even for communications / media or film departments to consider using this as a teaching text.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very enjoyable read, and very helpful as well! December 21, 2010
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
'Documentary Storytelling' is an interesting book, but unlike what I expected. I expected more of a technical tome on how to make documentaries, with sections on lighting, sound, and editing. What I got was more of an overview of what makes a documentary instead just a 'non-fictional' film.

Author Bernard makes some excellent points on her way to divining what makes an excellent documentary. She believes that documentaries are a sub-set of the non-fictional film. It's not journalism. She expects documentarians to have a viewpoint, and to bring that viewpoint to center stage in his/her film. But she doesn't expect a political diatribe. She writes that the filmmaker needs to be fair, and to present both sides of a story. The filmmaker doesn't have to be impartial, though; he/she can and should have a point of view they want to get across.

One example she cites is 'Harlan County, USA' an award-winning documentary about a coal strike in Kentucky. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple had a definite point of view, which is obvious if you've seen the film. But it does strike a fair note by allowing differing viewpoints into her film.

Another point she made that I've never thought about is that the documentary should be made like a fictional film; that is, it must have compelling characters, and interesting story, strong visuals, and good writing. Yes, writing. Narration is going to be written, and interview questions are going to have to be written. A documentary may not be storyboarded, or have a plot, but it does need to have an orderly progression to it.

A great example of an excellent (even groundbreaking) documentary is 'The Thin Blue Line'. I remember how astounded I was when I first saw this film. It uses all of Bernard's ideas and then some.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I keep giving my copies away! January 13, 2011
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is my third copy of this book, I received it as a review copy, but I'm glad to have it on my shelf again - I keep giving it away to associates who are interested in documentaries. There are other books on the subject that are better technical guides to filming, Directing the Documentary, Fifth Edition, for instance, or even, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, but for someone who is considering whether a particular story would make a good documentary, or who is trying to find the best way to frame a story for a documentary, this is a much better place to start.

I have given copies of this book to potential backers in documentary projects to help them to understand both my process and what I was hoping to accomplish in terms of telling a particular story. In both cases the backer had lots of great ideas they wanted to contribute, but unfortunately, many of their ideas would have sidetracked the story being told. Knowing what to leave out, is sometimes as important as knowing what to put in, but for many people the ability to do this is not intuitive. I have found this book to be an excellent ally in helping potential contributors to better understand the importance of a defined scope in terms of telling a story.

Aside from the pedagogical aspects, this book is a really good read for anyone interested in the art of documentary filmmaking. I highly recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New appreciation for the genre May 14, 2013
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
You'd think a documentary might be easier to make than a feature but really, I think it's harder because you're dealing with realities and opinions. There's less room for manipulation. It's not journalism like the news. It's not fiction either. It's something else - like narrative that draws conclusions or leaves the conclusions to be made by the viewer. There is often a juggling of viewpoints and opinions, some more convincing than others. This book is more theory than technique. I understand that because documentary is such a different beast. The hardest part of documentary filmmaking is objectivity - presenting a viewpoint or conclusion but ultimately through fair presentation or inclusion of an opposing view. What documentaries have in common with fiction is a compelling story and interesting characters. But with different handling.

And remember, just like in fictional filmmaking, what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

The real beauty of this book, however, is that even if you never make a documentary yourself, it helps you appreciate the genre as a viewer with a new understanding.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for independent documentary makers!
The best book on documentary making I have ever read. I really needed to read this! Changed my whole perspective on the storytelling behind the facts. Thank you Sheila!
Published 3 months ago by Jamie Roberts
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and well detailed
Enjoying this book very much. The writing is personable while providing solid information. If you want your documentaries to be more interesting, attract more attention, read this... Read more
Published 4 months ago by LiveSearch
5.0 out of 5 stars Helped me create a compelling branded documentary
I went through this book during writing, production and editing of a branded doc in Greece. It made all the difference in the world and helped me see the real story to be told,... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Panos Sambrakos
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpfull
I am using it for my Documentary Scriptwriting class and it is easy to understand and interesting. Love to read it on kindle.
Published 5 months ago by stephanie viteri
5.0 out of 5 stars Very useful.
Very useful. Full of really good tips for those interested in the art of writing a documentary video. Lots of good examples.
Published 7 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book.
This book is a gem of practical actionable advice to get your documentary made. Wish I read it before I began my first documentary. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Michael G.
5.0 out of 5 stars For Anymone interested in learning about Documentaries
I enjoyed reading this book. It gives information about how to create dynamic storytelling through the use of non fiction film.
Published 9 months ago by DazzleGirl
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and important book
This book does a great job of reminding us of the importance of story and other techniques in documentary that are generally associated with feature films. Read more
Published 11 months ago by International business traveler
5.0 out of 5 stars Good
The book looks new and no mark on it. And the price is much more cheap than it in the book store.
Published 11 months ago by Chenli Ke
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This book is a must have book. Very informative. The structure on how the book is written, is engaging. It's provides good tips, and things to look out for.
Published 13 months ago by Azariah Oldacre
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