The Nonlinear Editor | Review: Sheila Curran Bernard's Documentary Storytelling (Third Edition)
Posted Dec 1, 2010

Sheila Curran Bernard's Documentary Storytelling 3rd EditionEyes on the Prize, the monumental documentary on the American Civil Rights Movement that aired on PBS in 1987, was not the first documentary film that made an impact on me—that honor probably goes to the Beatles’ Let it Be, or to a terrifying film on the risks of nuclear power that my father took me to when I was 9. But Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize was the film that defined, in my mind, what a documentary can accomplish in terms of bringing history to life, making history seem utterly contemporary and unignorably real, and preserving the images and voices of people who shaped our world in one landmark interview after another. And it certainly sparked the first flicker of interest in nonfiction filmmaking that eventually landed me here at EventDV. Eyes on the Prize was also the first documentary that I began to deconstruct the second time I watched it, marveling at the intricate mingling and synchronization of narration and the panning of old photographs (a technique that would later become known as the Ken Burns effect) and the way the story was assembled with layered interviews that almost seemed to be speaking to one another. At some point it occurred to me that as powerful as the raw materials of the documentary were, they might not wield quite so much power, or reconstruct the story so effectively, if not for the practiced, guiding hand of the documentarians who put them all together.

One of those documentarians was Sheila Curran Bernard, co-producer of Parts 7–14 of the series, America at the Crossroads (1990). Along with many other major documentary writing, direction, and production credits, including School: The Story of American Public Education, and the IMAX film Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France, Bernard is also the author of Documentary Storytelling, a brilliant book on how to bring nonfiction material to the screen with impact and purpose that instantly reminded me of how fascinating it was to try to deconstruct Eyes on the Prize the second time through. Now in its third edition, Documentary Storytelling (Focal Press) teems with insight and instruction on the documentary craft, from elements of storytelling to divining the story arc of a given topic, as well as more specific script-to-screen information about documentary film production and postproduction, and finding a market for your documentary work.

And why should this book matter to you, as an event videographer/filmmaker? For several reasons. One is that the line between event filmmaking and other filmmaking genres is increasingly blurred as event filmmakers continue to absorb influences from outside the event world, as tools and filmmaking techniques converge, and as event filmmakers aspire to achieve the same sort of impact with their event films that the best documentarians do. Another reason is that for most of us in this industry, shooting events is only one of the things we do; we’re also doing corporate and commercial work, legal videography, biography films, or other types of video production that edge us ever closer to the documentary world. What’s more, when many event filmmakers think about the movie they really want to make, outside of the commissioned work that’s the lifeblood of their businesses, that movie is a documentary on some topic of great personal significance. The information and techniques presented in Bernard’s book may well fill the gaps (probably sizeable, but manageable) between the technical chops they’ve developed in their event work and the storytelling techniques they’ll need to master to produce the feature they aspire to create. And finally, if that’s not reason enough, event filmmakers will most likely be intrigued to find that among the 10 filmmakers/writers/directors/producers interviewed in this edition (including James Marsh, the filmmaker behind the 2008 Academy Award winner Man on Wire, whose presence alone would have justified the book’s sticker price for me) is Brett Culp, celebrity event filmmaker; occasional EventDV writer, subject, or interviewee; and eminently familiar face from the last 10 or so WEVA Expos.

And what is Brett Culp doing in a book about documentary filmmaking? Bernard first encountered Culp prior to WEVA Expo 2008, when he arranged for her to present a seminar on documentary storytelling. “In planning for this third edition,” she writes, “I thought it would be interesting to turn the tables and ask [Culp] to explain how he brings storytelling strategies to the range of nonfiction projects he creates.”

Most of us who have been to WEVA Expo have heard Culp speak on various topics—specifically, topics tailored to an audience of event filmmakers. So it’s fascinating to read an interview with him done outside of that context, on topics more generally relevant to documentary filmmaking and its points of intersection with his own work. Acknowledging that what he tries to identify and capture in each film are “client, mood, and plot,” here’s what Culp has to say on how he approaches his clients and their events from a filmmaking standpoint: “I’m truly going in with no agenda. I am not coming in as a storyteller with my own voice. I am coming in to try to hear their voice[s], and then try to use my skill and experience and know-how to communicate their story in whatever way is most effective for them.”

The structure of Documentary Storytelling is a little more complicated than “client, mood, plot,” but it’s still pretty straightforward. It’s divided into three main parts, followed by an “Additional Material” coda comprising sources and an annotated list of must-see documentary films. (Hello, Netflix!)

First among the main sections is Part I: Understanding Story, which concerns itself with high-level philosophical, structural, and strategic matters. It covers identifying the basic components of a story and how to divine a story in your documentary topic, how to structure a story for effective documentary storytelling, and how to interweave chronological and nonchronological events to build drama and sustain a narrative, without ever revealing key information too soon or too late. Key elements of the “Creative Approach” chapter in Part I include determining the type of film you want to make, such as how polemical or even-handed you want to be. Not necessarily a major concern for an event filmmaker (given that our subjects tend to be fairly noncontentious), but it’s all a question of balance, and to what degree you impose yourself and your biases—personal, stylistic, or otherwise—on your subjects in the film you create.

Part II, Working with Story, focuses in on the practical aspects of documentary production, beginning well before production at the identifying-sources and research stage (including accumulating facts and searching for “the telling detail” that will “enrich and inform your storytelling”); moving on to project planning (pitching your project, breaking your film into sequences, casting experts and nonexperts, choosing opposing voices for a balanced presentation, and casting narrators); preparing a treatment to acquire backing for the project; crewing; and shooting (including shooting “in the wild,” shooting for the story, and shooting for the edit). This section also offers great tips on setting up interviews, shooting them, and drawing out your subjects—all things that have become increasingly important in event and corporate filmmaking. The chapter “Editing” also includes great tips on working with sequences, getting from rough cut to fine cut (an essential element of efficient and story-minded editing we’ve addressed in EventDV more than once), and where to enter and exit scenes.

Throughout these sections, Bernard grounds many of her key points in real-world examples from the finest documentaries produced in recent years. For example, when discussing shooting with the edit in mind and establishing an appropriate point of view in your shots, she refers readers to the wheelchair rugby documentary Murderball and notes that “the film was frequently shot from the point of view of those in wheelchairs.” Bernard also draws on examples from the production processes of her own work; while explaining how to create a chronology that will help a documentarian construct a story and keep its arc in focus, she recounts creating several chronological charts for the 6-hour PBS series I’ll Make a World: A Century of African-American Arts. With multiple columns in the chronology, the filmmakers were able to chart the careers of the artists profiled alongside relevant contemporary developments in American history, and juxtapose individual achievements and historical events that would lend context, depth, and verisimilitude to the series.

Part III is the interviews. There’s all kinds of wise and thought-provoking stuff in these interviews, along with great, revealing stories from documentary film production. Susan Kim, writer of the fascinating documentary feature Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2007), recalls how the depth and intensity of that film sprang from a discussion she had with director Danny Anker shortly after 9/11—in a Manhattan apartment “where you could still smell the smoke”—speculating on how 9/11 would be portrayed and reflected in film. “The most important thing that we were trying to do was pose larger questions,” she says. “If you do that, you’re not going in a celebratory direction. Celebration implies catharsis, closure, finality, that something has been won. And I think the themes we were trying to explore are ones that are still active and alive, even when applied to other atrocities and other things that Hollywood attempts, on occasion, to grapple with.”

As Bernard says in the chapter “Story Basics,” “Ending a film in a way that’s satisfying does not necessitate wrapping up all loose ends or resolving things in a way that’s upbeat. The ending of Daughter of Danang is powerful precisely because things remain unsettled; Heidi Bub has achieved the goal of meeting her birth mother, but even two years after her visit, she remains deeply ambivalent about continued contact.”

Having been utterly enthralled with Man on Wire (2008), the interview I was most excited to read was the one Bernard did with director James Marsh. Man on Wire tells the story of Philippe Petit, the death-defying French tightrope walker who spent nearly an hour walking and dancing across a wire strung between the World Trade Center towers one windy morning in 1974. This was an incredibly complex, entirely illegal, and unsanctioned undertaking that required years of planning and a legion of co-conspirators. Petit also worked up to it over several years by practicing in a field and attempting slightly more modest feats between the western towers of Paris’ Notre Dame and in between the twin peaks of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Man on Wire chronicles Petit’s mixture of single-minded ambition, charm, brilliance, and madness; the baffling, ineffable beauty he created on that wire; and the devotion and mixed motivations of his cohorts. Marsh describes not only the process of making the film but the “very long, intense, and often quite antagonistic collaboration” he experienced with Petit, “which ended up with a piece of work that I think reflected both the story and all the ideas that the story threw up.” Petit brought the same arrogance, passion, and certainty in his own opinions to his collaboration with Marsh that he brought to his own highwire feats decades earlier, which often led to disagreements on the direction of the film. “When we didn’t agree,” Marsh says, “I had—as a filmmaker—a greater responsibility to do things the way I thought were best.”

Granted, managing these sorts of differences is a trickier task in a commissioned project such as a wedding or event film than with a feature documentary, but Marsh’s story reflects the intensely human element that’s intrinsic to documentaries that involve real people telling real stories and experiencing real events in their lives. (Marsh’s recollection of Man on Wire interviewees who told conflicting stories that merited inclusion in the film in spite of their contradictions underscores this point.) When your characters are real people, things just get messier; while some conflicts and contradictions can be absorbed effectively into impactful filmmaking, they can’t always be fully resolved and laid to rest as they would be within a world invented by an artist creating fiction. In the introduction to Documentary Storytelling, Bernard includes a great quote from Erik Barnouw, author of the 1974 book Documentary: “Unlike the fiction artist, [the documentary filmmaker] is dedicated to not inventing. It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself.”

This strikes me as a tremendous challenge, and an invigorating one—it’s what makes this book nearly as inspiring as it is informative and insightful. As someone whose storytelling instincts lean toward fiction, I find the challenges of constructing story from real-life materials a fascinating conundrum. As novelist John Irving wrote in his 2009 novel Last Night in Twisted River, “real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that real novels could be.”

And it’s a different challenge in the event world than it is in the world of feature or TV documentary to make films that construct stories from real life. In most cases, a documentarian has to sell the story twice: first, to a network, foundation, studio, or other investor who is going to back the project; and second, to an audience that is being asked to care about the film and its subject from a position of significant remove. For event filmmakers, more of the battle is won the first time we sell a film, at the time we book the job. After that, the audience is built-in, and a certain degree of audience buy-in (if not audience-bowling-over) is all but guaranteed: The audience generally has a personal stake in the subject because they’ve all been a part of the events featured on screen.

But the greater difference comes in the elements of story at a filmmaker’s disposal and how conscientiously they must be applied to make the film work. Sure, some of the basic elements Bernard identifies as the essential components of story in a documentary can be found and applied in event filmmaking: “a compelling beginning, an unexpected middle, and a satisfying end.” And to a lesser extent, the inductive process of gleaning a broader meaning or importance from the drama at hand is well within the reach of the event filmmaker. As Bernard acknowledges early on in the book, “Story comes organically from the material and the ways in which you, the filmmaker structure it.”

Too often, though, I believe event filmmakers mistake (or simply substitute) technical mastery, strategically placed detail, and the inclusion of the occasional intimate, unguarded shot for a genuine narrative arc, when more often these are simply the visual trappings of emotional filmmaking and accumulation of personal visual detail standing in for character development. And usually that’s enough to sell the film and to make the difference between a piece of work that’s quickly shelved and forgotten and one that is watched repeatedly and earns you effusive referrals.

But the problem with substituting spectacle for story, gestural or expressive idiosyncracy for character, detail for development, and rackfocusing for drama, is that it gets old. Eventually, these ready-made hooks become clichés and become easily recognized as such. Substance, storytelling, and drama derived therein are the only filmmaking elements that transcend time and trend.

If you see your own development as a filmmaker and the opportunity to turn the events you shoot into compelling films as anything more than catchphrases to build into your branding, you need to understand the essential elements of visual storytelling and narrative and how the great nonfiction filmmakers conceive, shape, and present their films. The most important part of that process, ultimately, will be watching those films, deconstructing them, and applying those constructs to your own work. But I can’t recommend a better place to start your journey than reading Sheila Curran Bernard’s Documentary Storytelling, which will put you well on your way.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and programming director of EventDV-TV.