Friday, October 14, 2016

Article now available in Romanian!

Many thanks to journalist and film critic Anca Yvette Gradinariu for her translation of "Keep a Close Watch: Analyzing a Documentary's Strengths and Weaknesses" (Documentary magazine, May 17, 2016) into Romanian!  You can read the article here, "Cum Să Analizăm Documentarele," the website of Docuart, an association dedicated to the Romanian documentary.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

New article: "Analyzing a Documentary's Strengths and Weaknesses"

Now online: "Keep a Close Watch: Analyzing a Documentary's Strengths and Weaknesses," in Documentary magazine (publication of the International Documentary Association), Spring 2016 issue. 

Adapted from Documentary Storytelling, 4th edition (Jan 2016), the piece offers a discussion of the critical opening minutes of your documentary, and strategies for close analysis of others' work.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Listening as a Writer: An Informal Guide to Podcasts

I like to listen to substantive conversations (at least 20 minutes, preferably an hour or more) with writers, producers, directors and others in the worlds of film and theater as I walk or bike (or drive), and have discovered that there's a seemingly endless stream of these conversations available online.

Here are a handful of them, in no particular order. If you have a favorite podcast that's not here, feel free to add it in the comments section.  

The Producers Perspective with Ken Davenport
An incredible array of guests. Some recent favorite conversations: Jeanine Tesori, Diane Paulus, David Henry Hwang, Ralph Sevush, Theresa Rebeck.

BAFTA – The Guru Podcasts
This is a goldmine of material, including a screenwriters’ lecture series, in focus masterclasses, and conversations.

Indie Film Academy Podcast/Learning Filmmaking from Filmmakers. 
Recently, I’ve especially enjoyed Alan Watt, author of “The 90-Day Screenplay.”

Some of these have been formatted specifically for audio, but the video ones can also be downloaded just for listening.  Some terrific ones include Shonda Rhimes “My year of saying yes to everything,” Jehane Noujaim (“My wish: A global day of film”); Deborah Scranton (“An Iraq war movie crowd-sourced from soldiers”). There are also playlists of curated talks, such as 12 talks gathered as “The power of film,” which includes two of the above talks.

National Theatre, London: Podcasts

The Dramatists Guild’s “In the Room” Series
Conversations with and between artists including Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown, Emily Mann, John Guare, Tina Howe, Kirsten Greenidge, Wendy Wasserstein and more, drawn from the Dramatist Guild archives.

Others worth noting:
HowlRound: A knowledge commons by and for the theatre community
A couple of series: Matthew Gray’s “Living the Dream” and David Dower’s “Friday Phone Call”

Fresh Air – host Terry Gross often brings on writers, actors, directors, etc.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

2016 Doc Impact Awards

Congratulations to the creators of Chasing Ice, Citizenfour, Food Chains, Miners Shot Down, and Virunga on winning the 2016 Doc Impact Award.

Virunga was produced by Orlando von Einsedel and Joanna Natasegara.

In the 4th edition of Documentary Storytelling, Orlando discusses the role that good storytelling plays in making an impact. "Your film could be about the most important social issue in the entire world, but if it’s a really difficult film to watch, because it's boring for instance, you’re going to limit your audience," he said. When asked how he'd managed to gain the trust of the park rangers, he said, “Early on, they recognized that this film could be a tool to protect the park. It was a vehicle through which to investigate what SOCO and its supporters were doing, but also the end product could show the world what was happening in this park, and try and get the world to rally with the park to protect it.”

For more information on the film, see

Monday, February 15, 2016

Making Choices: Excerpts of a Conversation with Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

MacArthur Award-winner Stanley Nelson’s most recent documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, will air on on PBS’s Independent Lens on Tuesday, February 16, 2016, at 9 pm (check local listings). The film was written and directed by Stanley Nelson, produced by Nelson and Laurens Grant, and edited by Aljernon Tunsil.

I spoke with Stanley last year in preparation of the fourth edition of Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, now available from Focal Press. Here are some excerpts of that conversation.

Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park.
Photo: Stephen Shames  

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Part of good storytelling is making choices about what to include or not include. How do you make those choices while remaining truthful to your subject?

I think the first thing is that you have to draw limits on when the story begins and ends. Sometimes it happens on paper before we start. Sometimes it happens in the edit room, and those are sometimes the hardest decisions to make.

In Freedom Riders [a film about the 1961 Freedom Rides, available on PBS], we wanted to do a long piece about nonviolence and the legacy of nonviolence as it comes down from Gandhi and goes into the movement. When we did interviews, we talked to people about how they were influenced by Gandhi and the Indian struggle. Gandhi had said that the true test of nonviolent civil disobedience would be in the United States, because African Americans were the minority [rather than the majority, as in India]. So how do you change things if you’re a minority? 

But as we got into the film—and so many times this happens—as we got into the editing, a lot of the background stuff had to fall by the wayside because we’ve got to get into the story. You don’t want to start the story in India in 1947 or something. And it’s hard, once you get into the story, to get back and talk about those things. It’s much easier to do in a book. You can always write another chapter in a book.

So a lot of times, the first thing you have to do is say, “Okay, what are the parameters of the story?” And look, in some ways we’re making those up. The BlackPanthers could have gone on to 1982 or so, when the Panthers actually disintegrate... We had thought about starting the film out with a guy named Robert Williams, an African American who advocated defending yourself with guns. Or we had a whole piece on the Watts riots, or Watts rebellion. Then once we got into cutting, we just couldn’t do it. So one of the first decisions is: Where does the story begin and where does it end? That’s really central to how these stories are told.

And then within the film, there are different sequences, obviously. We want a sequence, as much as possible, to lead to something else.

…I describe sequences as chapters. They’re unique in themselves, and then they advance the overall story.

Right. That’s what they do. You really want them to advance the story, or else it’s just kind of there. And I think as an audience you might not, in your mind, connect and say, “Wow, that was a nice story but it didn’t really go anywhere,” but part of you does feel that. You really want each sequence to push the whole forward. 

In the Black Panther film, we look at the LA shootout [an early-morning police raid on Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, December 8, 1969]. There are a lot of different shootouts, but we picked the LA shootout to use because there’s a lot of video—it lasted for five hours, and the press had a chance to get there, and for whatever reason, the police let them get close enough to film it—and it’s a very important shootout. But we could have done others.

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For more information about Stanley Nelson and his company, go to
For more information on Documentary Storytelling, 4th editiongo to

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Airing Tues. Feb 16 on PBS: Stanley Nelson's "The Black Panthers:Vanguard of the Revolution"

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will air on PBS on Tuesday, February 16, at 9 pm (check local listings). Be sure to check out Stanley's interview in the 4th edition of Documentary Storytelling.  The film website is:

And if you like the new edition of Documentary Storytelling, please consider Amazon - Documentary Storytelling 4th ed. They make a BIG difference.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

All 14 hours of EYES ON THE PRIZE to be rebroadcast beginning Sunday January 17, 2016

The WORLD Channel will rebroadcast Eyes on the Prize on Sunday evenings (and at other times) beginning January 17, 2016 -- check local PBS listings or WORLD for details. Episodes 1-6 cover events 1954-1965; Episodes 7-14 cover 1965-1984.

Educators planning to use this series might want to explore these resources:

And a couple of articles about the series' production and issues of archival filmmaking are available on my website.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Third edition available in Chinese!

November 2015 -- New Chinese translation of Documentary Storytelling  (3rd edition). Published by Beijing United Publishing Co. I love the cover!