Superglue-ing Dead Flies to Create Reality: Two Wildlife Filmmakers’ Memoirs

Nature documentaries can be amazing: The majestic scenery, the wild bird’s melodic call, the killer snake’s dramatic close-up, the lion’s gruesome assault on the savanna. But these documentaries’ awesome spectacles hide the obstacles that go into capturing them. While human participants generally offer some degree of decorum, animals don’t sign consent agreements or take direction.

Memoirs by wildlife filmmakers show just how challenging it is to navigate the line between the real and the visual while working with wild animals. For this post, I read two memoirs, Snarl for the Camera: Tales of a Wildlife Cameraman by James Gray and Shark Tracker: Confessions of an Underwater Cameraman by Richard Fitzpatrick.

The memoirs share themes. Both writers fell in love with animals and nature as children, and both studied everything they could about them, either through university studies in Fitzpatrick’s case or more independently in Gray’s case. Both books recount experiences with different species. Gray and Fitzpatrick face perils when the animals get shy or aggressive before the camera, and they also face equipment issues in getting just the right shots and hauling expensive equipment around the globe.

Richard Fitzpatrick’s memoir had “shark” in the title so of course I had to read it. A specialist in filming marine life, particularly around Australia, Fitzpatrick recounts meeting undersea creatures both exotic and mundane: great white sharks, grey nurse sharks, eels, squids, jellyfish, clownfish (like Dory), and pearlfish, which take shelter in a sea cucumber’s anus. While majestic sharks and other venomous creatures comprise some of his filming obstacles, what was the most troublesome? Spawning coral. He writes

Of all the events I have to film, coral spawning stresses me out the most. Getting the location, the timing and the light right is one thing — then you have to hope that the sea conditions will be favourable.

With four years lapsing before successfully getting that footage, no wonder it is so stressful.

Filming underwater with sea creatures poses multiple threats: oxygen depletion, decompression sickness, equipment failure, and animal attacks. Despite them, Fitzpatrick maintains an energy and excitement about interacting with and filming these creatures. He also recounts a couple of occasions when he plays jokes on other scientists and divers, not to mention his own injuries and hospital runs.

Not all of the challenges in filming wildlife come from the animals. One incident in particular caught my attention because it resonates with Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about Tilikum the killer whale, his horrible living conditions, and his killing of his handlers. In 2003 Sea World in Australia planned a shark exhibit, and Fitzpatrick was asked to examine the condition of a captured tiger shark. He concluded that the shark, which was held in too small of a space for it to move freely and thus was damaging its body (and probably its mind), should be let go. The backlash he experienced was swift, isolating, and defamatory. Even Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, accused him.

While Fitzpatrick’s recollections focus mostly on filming under the sea, Gray’s memories stay mostly on dry land. Gray offers experiences in filming a wide variety of animals from around the globe: polar bears, panda bears, caimans, fiu-fius, stick nest rats, gibbons, and vultures. What I appreciate about Gray’s memoir is the level of detail he provides in his writing. He delves more into the process of getting just that right shot, which often results from a series of near and far misses and a handful of successes.

Some of these processes might raise an eyebrow. In one assignment, Gray needed a shot of a cricket with a fly on its back. Crickets jump, and flies, well, fly, so how … ? Gray explains their staging:

We put a dead fly on the back of a live cricket. At first the cricket’s movements unseated its jockey, but with the application of a drop of superglue, we had that shot.

In another assignment, Gray needed to film human lice laying eggs. He jokes about his previous experience with lice as a parent: “Poisoning them, squashing them and eliminating them with eye-stinging shampoo were more in my line.” But then he learns that in order for the lice to breed, they need a steady diet of human blood. To feed them, Gray volunteers his own arm as a food source, and he donates his own hair stuck in plasticine for their egg-laying site. The jokes continue: “Lice that refuse to breed sounds like a dream come true for people working in public health, but for me it was a problem.” This kind of humor weaves throughout the book.

Gray in particular focuses on equipment and its uses in getting just the right shot. He mentions using a wind-up Bolex for his first film. Weather hazards affect camera performance, and some shoots require getting down into the mud or freezing in arctic winds. Getting aerial shots from a helicopter require rigging the camera with bungees. Gray also explains something he calls “camera courage,” which arrests the dangerous reality of the animal on the other side of the lens, rendering it a “harmless” image instead. This courage appeared while he tried to film a panda and an elephant, but someone pulled him away just in time.

The biggest surprise of wildlife filmmaking to those used to seeing the drama and glamour of nature documentaries? Waiting. According to both Fitzpatrick and Gray, waiting is the hardest part. Fitzpatrick notes the “hours of utter boredom that come hand in hand with shark research. Discovery Channel never show that side of things on their ‘Shark Week’ documentaries, but in reality waiting makes up larger proportion of the job.” Gray recalls days of strategic waiting for hearing mating calls or capturing polar bears emerging from their winter dens.

Both authors share concluding thoughts in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick ends with “Richard’s Rules,” which include treating airlines with respect when checking in camera cases, wearing “rubber gloves when handling electric animals,” and staying “away from the pointy end of a shark.” James ends with a rumination about his intentions toward becoming a cameraman in the first place: “In light of my experience though, I’m not quite sure how much I have been helping to save the world, and I’m even starting to wonder whether being a cameraman puts me on the side of the good guys at all.” He also wonders about these wildlife films just being free adverts for the tourism industry.

Four Tools for Getting Started in Social Listening

Social listening refers to the practice of tracking what is said about a subject in the news, in blogs, and in other areas online. Usually, social listening connects with brand management, wherein companies monitor discussions around their products and reputations. But social listening is also a good strategy for building content knowledge and mastery toward an effective blog.

Many — perhaps too many — online tools exist for social listening. Some tools are web-based, others are app-based, and still others are desktop-based. Some feature syncing across platforms and devices, while others stand alone. Some even come right to your inbox.

This abundance creates the potential to customize these options to your preferences. Many tools offer similar functions, but though they might try, no single tool offers everything you need in one place. The best approach for starting involves choosing a few options, trying them for a while, and then evaluating their effectiveness.

What options you choose depends on where you “listen” most online. Listening can occur on news sites, social media sites, blogs and blog networks, hashtags and trending topics, dedicated content apps, and even general web searches, just for a few examples.

Below are four tools I use for social listening about documentary.

1. Google Alerts

A Google Alert delivers email notifications of web search results. Enter your keywords in the search box, and then tweak the frequency, sources, language, location, and quantity below. Add your email address and that’s it!

Setting up a Google Alert
Setting up a Google Alert is a simple process.

I created a daily alert for the word “documentary” in order to discover as wide of possibilities possible. The daily email arrives with 100+ links from both quality sources and some more questionable ones (read: ads). The expected news sources appear — Variety, The New York Times, indieWire — but some unexpected links include festival announcements, local newspapers, and crowdfunding campaign listings. One local news story announced the new director of the Hot Springs Film Festival, while another webpage announced a new program at the Big Sky Documentary Festival.

2. RSS Reader

RSS” stands for “really simple syndication.” Syndication is the process of distributing content to multiple outlets, such as newspapers or television channels. An RSS reader gathers content from multiple outlets into one place, such as an app or a website.

I use an RSS reader called Reeder 3 for MacOS. Reeder makes it simple to add a new feed:

Reeder 3 greatly simplifies the adding of RSS feeds.

The reader then will update with new content as it becomes available. Note that some RSS feeds show only a preview of the content and thus require you to visit the site, and some RSS feeds include ads. Reeder also allows grouping feeds, tagging links, and opening them in Firefox.

Sites such as Nonfics and the Center for Media and Social Impact offer the option to add their content to a reader. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter used to allow RSS, but in closing their platforms they eliminated the option.

3. Hootsuite

While an online presence manager first and foremost, Hootsuite also functions as a tool for social listening. It aggregates multiple social networking accounts from sites such Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube into one place.

Hootsuite allows the management of multiple social networking sites.

Within a specific social network, Hootsuite features the monitoring of multiple feeds. With Twitter, for example, feed options include mentions, retweets, followers, lists, and likes. I use some private lists on Twitter to follow some key accounts, and Hootsuite offers more direct access to them than using Twitter itself, which buries them under a menu.

For each social network, Hootsuite offers options for customizing your views.

Hootsuite comes in both web-based and tablet app-based access. Admittedly, I use Hootsuite the least among these options since it requires logging in to a website when using a desktop.

4. Email Newsletters

Multiple organizations and websites release free newsletters. (Some sites are a bit obnoxious about requesting you sign up with those pop-up screens.) When done well, these newsletters bring new information conveniently to your inbox.

The range of materials I have received so far has been interesting. New Day Films sent a brief one announcing new films. The International Documentary Association sent event notices, new releases announcements, and information overviews. The National Film Board of Canada has been excited about the nation’s 150th anniversary, and it has been sending links to all kinds of neat shorts and features such as “Canadian History in 10 NFB Films” and William Shatner singing “O Canada.”

Docs in Progress even invited me to me to submit an update about my documentary. (Maybe someday!)

The tools mentioned above are only a start with practicing social listening. The ones you use depend on your site goals, and the ones you begin with are just that: the beginning. The tools and their applications will change as your blog develops and grows.

Book Goes Behind the Scenes of Oscar-Connected Documentary Productions

Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.

Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.

For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.

To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.

Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.

While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.

Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.

Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.

These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.

Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.

The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.

Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.

New Documentary Offers Advice for Thriving with Age

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, from HBO.

Popular media and culture celebrate youth. Soft news stories show us how to feel young and look young in 73 easy steps. Rates of cosmetic surgery increase each year. If 60 is the new 40 and 50 is the new 30, then 41 must be the new minimum drinking age. Time to get your new fake IDs, folks.

Of course, none of these ideas focus on actually staying young because reality and science fiction haven’t caught up to each other or the naked mole rat — yet.

But, a fascination exists when octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians do, well, anything: dancing, running, writing, sky diving… Betty White continues acting in her 90s, starring most recently in Hot in Cleveland. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a reputation for being a “badass” in her 80s as she continues to write strongly worded dissents and inspire jabot-ed Halloween costumes. And as Norman Lear complains in HBO’s new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, people shouldn’t be surprised he can still touch his toes at age 93.

Directed by Danny Gold, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a life-affirming and witty documentary that provides an elegant and positive way to think about aging with vitality. With the help of his nephew George Shapiro, Carl Reiner, 95, is our host in examining how people in their 90s not only live, but also thrive.

Ida Keeling took up running at age 67 to cope with her sons’ murders. Now 100, Keeling continues running and breaking records.
The documentary offers a series of portraits and interviews with nonagenarians and a couple centenarians. We meet 100-year-old Ida Keeling, who took up running after her sons’ murders to cope with depression. She was 67 at the time, and now she continues to break records with running at her age. Yoga expert Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, learned to tango. Ray Olivere continues painting portraits, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin continues sky diving and living in the house he built with his own hands.

The portraits and interviews also offer a who’s who in entertainment: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Stan Lee, Irving Fields, Betty White, Patricia Morison, and Harriett Thompson. All of them continue to engage life. Carl Reiner and Betty White write books. Tony Bennett still sings, and Irving Fields still writes songs and plays piano at a hotel. Harriett Thompson runs marathons.

Dan Buettner serves as the longevity expert in this documentary. He cites five keys to vitality:

  1. Physical fitness
  2. Cognitive awareness
  3. Life informed by passion and values
  4. Contribution
  5. Ongoing achievement

Reiner adds a sixth item to that list: A sense of humor. Along with all the stories, so many of them have jokes. So many jokes. Fyvush Finkel, 92, cracks, “Half of my life is gone already.” In a conversation with Betty White, Reiner says, “You don’t lose your interest in sex but you lose your power.” Even the title comes from a joke by Reiner, though it is thrown on its ear when Reiner sees an older picture of himself in the obit for Polly Bergen.

Rounding out this gentle documentary are a bouncy jazz soundtrack and animated bits from “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketch done by Reiner and Brooks in the 1960s.

Aging terrifies many of us, but it shouldn’t. While this documentary won’t undo the deeply held ideas about growing old, its light-hearted approach does offer a better way to think it.

Five Benefits of Social Listening for Bloggers

One of the strongest tools for blog writing is social listening. Social listening refers to tracking what companies, news media, influencers, bloggers, and others are saying about your blog’s topic or focus, your blog, and even you. Though generally used by corporations for brand management, social listening adapts easily to other content and website goals. Social listening offers many benefits for bloggers. Here are five to consider:

1. Keeping Current

A regular social listening habit keeps you updated on what’s happening in your content area, such as key events, hot topics, big debates, and deep changes. Keeping current helps you maintain fresh blog content and fresh perspectives even on old ideas. It also offers you an edge in that you avoid including outdated materials and ideas in your posts.

We live in an exciting time for documentary, with so many new technologies, releases, festivals, fundraisers, distributors, makers, and many others. I use social listening to learn about the new titles coming out, their critical reactions, the emerging debates, and the new technologies. Virtual reality has been a particularly enthusiastic and divisive subject, for example. I also hope to discover projects outside mainstream documentary cinema and the festival circuit.

2. Seeing Trends

Within all the information out there, patterns do emerge. Learning to spot what’s new, what’s just starting, and what’s fading will set your content apart. Seeing those patterns — and writing about them — gives you an edge over other bloggers who cover the information but not the bigger, changing picture.

Part of seeing trends is also learning to identify when an idea is really not a trend at all. One example that regularly comes up in documentary promotion is when a production claims to be the “first” at something — topic, approach, interview source, or something similar. While an unoriginal marketing point to begin with, a closer look often reveals others who have tried that very same thing.

3. Developing Expertise

Expertise is a process, not a product, and developing expertise is ongoing, not a destination. Social listening allows you to deepen your knowledge in your topic — whether you are just starting or have been engaging it for a long time. That continuing process helps in keeping new topics flowing and in developing new content directions, while at the same time allowing you to revisit ideas with new perspectives from time to time.

I have been studying and following documentary for more than 20 years, and I still learn something new or different every day about the field and its changes. For example, many new documentary organizations have started and flourished during these last 15 years. Looking at the Washington, D.C, area, Docs in Progress started in 2004 and became a not-for-profit in 2008, while Meridian Hill Pictures started in a basement in 2010. And I wouldn’t be able to finish this post if I started mentioning all of the new documentary festivals out there.

4. Identifying Connections

Blog writing can be a soapbox, or it can be part of a conversation. I approach blogging as a conversation, and a key part of that approach is identifying and developing connections. These connections might be other bloggers, experts, influencers, or organizations.

Learning about these connections gives you directions for people to follow on social media. You might learn about a new blog that you need to add to your social listening lineup. While these connections provide sources of knowledge, they also provide potential blog topics, such as with interviews, or even become potential blog contributors.

5. Honing Content

The best blogs have content unavailable elsewhere. Repeating the same listicle with the same angle adds a post, sure, but the post is largely forgettable. Honing content means finding holes in current discussions or gaps in the trends. It means addressing misconceptions or responding to changes.

A few years ago Kartemquin Films tweeted about losing its sales tax exemption because someone perceived their documentaries as “propaganda:”

A Tweet from Kartemquin Films
A Tweet from Kartemquin Films

The term “propaganda” has a long history within the documentary form. Today, unfortunately, the idea of “propaganda” has come to mean any documentary with a point of view someone disagrees with. Having taught persuasion and studied documentary, I saw an opportunity for a blog post commenting on the situation, which I wrote about here.

The five benefits of social listening listed here are far from the only ones, but regular social listening is still one of the strongest tools for building better blog content.

Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.

11 Ways to Boost Your Blog

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave to a women’s empowerment group on my campus recently. I thought the information might be useful to others, so I am posting it here.

Blogs offer a great way to boost your professional image, practice your writing skills, and raise your voice. This post offers 11 quick tips to help take your personal blog to the next level.

The Big Picture

We often think of blogs as soapboxes, places to vent and share our feelings and insights. To elevate your blog, think of it instead as a conversation. Several groups participate in this conversation: you, your readers, other blogs, news media, organizations, and even others beyond these groups. Asking yourself, “What am I going to contribute to this conversation?”, is an easier starting point than, “What am I going to write today?”

1. Choose your passion.

Write about something that interests you! Or, write about something that you want to learn more about. Readers respond more to this kind of energy than blog posts that come from elsewhere. And by going deep into one passion, you will continue to find inspiration to keep writing.

2. Engage in social listening.

Social listening means following conversations about your subject happening elsewhere online. Some ways to listen online:

  • Read the news about your passion
  • Read other blogs
  • Watch videos and vlogs
  • Seek relevant experts or brands
  • Check out Instagram or Snapchat stories
  • Follow relevant Facebook pages
  • Follow relevant hashtag campaigns

Look for patterns, themes, questions, or gaps in the discussions that you might address in your own blog posts.

3. Participate in online communities.

Online, 90 percent of people lurk. Become part of the other 10 percent, and say something that contributes to the conversation. For example,

  • Compliment a post
  • Answer a question
  • Reply to another comment
  • Ask a question

Go beyond the emoji response and actually write something. That said, avoid promoting your own blog in the comments in the other conversations. It’s like getting a commercial break in the middle your Netflix movie marathon.

4. Learn more about your audience.

Audiences like it when you take an interest in them. It also benefits you to learn more about them and their interests. Here are some ways of doing that:

  • Read the comments on your blog
  • Check profiles of your commenters
  • Check out their social media profiles
  • Do a short survey of their interests

5. Change up your blog post formats.

Blog posts can take so many different structures:

  • Interview another blogger
  • Product or service review
  • Offer instructions for doing something
  • Make a list (“Top 11 Ways to…”)
  • Respond to a reader’s question
  • Respond to another blog post
  • Compare options
  • Participate in a meme

This variety helps keep interest for audiences and you.

6. Tell your readers how the post benefits them in the first paragraph.

Online readers scan blogs more than read them. If the first paragraph fails to grab their attention, they will move on to something else. Tell them what is at stake as soon as possible; don’t make them wait for the big reveal.

7. Write a catchy, but not deceiving, headline.

The best headlines provide the subject and the incentive for reading the post, and they do so in a short sentence of 6-8 words. Remember that headlines on your blog posts appear on different social networking sites when they are shared, so avoid using inside jokes or cute phrases that won’t make sense of out context. Also avoid clickbait, or the headlines that read, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!” They turn off audiences, and some sites — even Facebook — prohibit certain phrasings that resemble clickbait.

8. Add 5-7 keywords to each post.

Keywords place your post in search engine results and connect your blog with other posts and articles that share the same keywords. In other words, they offer a way to connect with the conversation.

To determine some keywords, consider your post’s

  • Topic
  • Audience
  • Goal
  • Themes

Be careful not to go overboard with adding keywords.

9. Interact with your audience.

Audiences enjoy when bloggers connect with them and their comments. They also respect when you respond to criticisms gracefully and fairly. Interact with your audience by responding to their comments on

  • Your blog
  • Other blogs
  • Review sites like Amazon and Yelp
  • Other social networking sites

You also can build blog posts around their questions and comments. Be sure to tag the appropriate people when you do!

10. Set reasonable goals and stick to them.

Set a goal of writing a blog post on a certain schedule, such as one post per week or one post per two weeks. Set a goal that is workable within your current obligations and gets you writing on a regular basis. That regular writing practice will make writing blog posts easier and easier.

Another benefit is that regular posting appeals to audiences. It keeps them coming back to your blog and gives them something to look forward to.

11. Limit or balance “I” statements.

Blogs often are written in the first person, or with sentences that begin with “I.” Sometimes, every sentence begins with “I,” especially rants.

Remember that blog posts are as much about conversations and audiences as they are about their writers. Look for a balance between using “I” statements and other statements. Save the “I” for the points closest to your passion.

A Small Review of Three Tools for Archival Research

During the past year, I started work on a history project that involves extensive archival materials. These materials come from the organization’s paper archives and from news archives through Lexis-Nexis, among other places.

While sorting through the papers and files becomes the first step, subsequent steps involve recording, sorting, and annotating. In going through these steps, I found several apps useful for managing information and workflow.

Please note I am firmly rooted in the Apple ecosystem, so my comments and options are limited to Apple devices and apps. After Windows and Word eating my candidacy exam, two 25-page comprehensive exam questions, two dissertation chapters, and two edited book collection chapters, I avoid that operating system as much as possible.

Recording

After sorting, recording the materials for later inquiry is the next step. I started this recording by taking pictures using an iPhone and its camera, but I quickly learned the flaw in this approach. Shaky hands, small device, and micro details like type all result in blurry images that become difficult to read later.

A better solution came through an iPad app called Scanner Pro from Readdle. The app mimics a scanner, but it does much more than that.

Using the tablet’s back camera, the app scans for the document’s edges and takes a picture either automatically or manually. After the capture appears, you can adjust the edges to include the entire page or just part of the document. You then can add pages to that document or start a new document.

The app offers built-in optical character recognition, which makes coding text later on much easier. The app also saves the documents as .PDFs both on device and to a cloud service. With more than 300 documents to move, I found that cloud syncing very handy.

Sorting

Many types of documents appear in this archive: bills, spreadsheets, editing logs, production memos, letters, faxes, emails, contracts, scripts, hand-written notes and edits, and doodles, just to name a few.

Each document tells its own story, but at the same time, each document becomes part of multiple other stories. A hand-written note on a production memo, for example, might connect with multiple productions, organization philosophy, organization culture, operating procedures, and finances. As part of sorting, I could make multiple copies of the same document and put it in multiple places. But doing so makes future discoveries and connections more difficult in that this kind of preliminary sort is based on a superficial understanding of the document’s story. Further investigation might reveal further nuances.

Tagging provides a better solution to this problem. Tagging allows multiple assignments per document, and tags can be organized into different hierarchies. They also are easy to add and remove as needed.

While MacOS offers an internal tagging system, I sought something more robust, perhaps more intuitive. After reading many reviews (particularly this one), I decided to try DEVONThink Pro. Creating, adding, and deleting tags within DEVONThink Pro is simple, and as the system learns, it can suggest other tags that might be useful. Sorting through tags proves easy — with just a couple clicks, every related document appears in one place.

In a world where a 99-cent app seems too expensive, the nearly $80 price tag on DEVONThink Pro might give you some pause. The makers of this program were smart in offering a generous 150-hour trial. It took me nearly 50 hours to tag all of those documents, but the program’s ease of use quickly proved it worthwhile.

Annotating

While tagging offers a superficial sort, annotating moves toward coding the documents. Coding, I am learning, is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple passes before it even starts to resemble something coherent. Part of that might be due to the complexity of this project, however.

For this first pass, PDF Expert offers a great tool for typing on a laptop or by handwriting on the tablet. A simple interface allows quick changing among tools: highlighting, underlining, typing, and writing. Highlights note the relevant data; underlines highlight particularly juicy bits. (Yes, archival research can reveal “juicy bits.”) Typing and handwriting allow me to add potential categories for each piece of information. Aggregation will require another program and probably another post, though.

Like DEVONThink Pro, PDF Expert comes with a price tag that might make you cringe, but it offers several advantages over Adobe systems and even Notability. One key advantage is that the price tag happens once, while with Adobe that amount covers only four months of a subscription. PDF Expert also works with the cloud subscriptions you already have, unlike Adobe which requires using their cloud. Further, changes made to a document in PDF Expert appear in other programs, unlike Notability which used to keep your notes in their app. Plus, I can work offline if I choose to do so.

Merchandise Extends the Hoop Dreams Experience

With every new blockbuster arrives a bevy of branded media, merchandise, and cross-promotions. Soundtracks, television specials, DVDs, and novelizations expand your media collections. Elsa dolls, Batman key chains, and Shrek Twinkies extend your movie experience while they shrink your wallet.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if Hollywood will ever let it go.

Documentaries for the most part fail to fit neatly into these branding machines, but a few exceptions exist. Warner Bros. released a March of the Penguins bonus set with postcards and plush penguin toy. Morgan Spurlock perhaps demonstrates this disconnect most clearly in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, wherein he attempts to solicit funding for the documentary through paid sponsorships. In addition to POM Wonderful, other products and brands include Mane ‘n Tail, Old Navy, Seventh Generation, and Sheetz, a gas station chain familiar to those living in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

While these two titles lean on the lighter side, most documentaries address more serious issues that make further branding ridiculous. A Born into Brothels T-shirt or The Thin Blue Line backpack are inappropriate. (An Errol Morris bobblehead, however, might be a hot commodity.)

Some documentaries offer movie promotion items such as posters, cards, and autographed stills, but rarely more than that.

Hoop Dreams is a tasteful exception. In exploring the film’s history in the Kartemquin archives, I discovered documents that mentioned Hoop Dreams-branded merchandise. T-shirts with the Hoop Dreams brand sold in J.C. Penney’s stores in the mid-1990s, for example. Turner Publishing released a tie-in book by Ben Joravsky, for another example.

Where does one look for these now-vintage items? Why, eBay, of course. Much to my surprise, I found both official merchandise and memorabilia related to the film, its distribution, and its stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee.

Turner Publishing’s book proved the easiest find:

The front of the hardcover edition of Hoop Dreams, by Ben Joravsky.

This branded pencil connects with the distribution through Fine Line and Turner, but it makes no mention of Kartemquin:

Hoop Dreams pencil
A Hoop Dreams pencil with the New Line Home Video and Turner Publishing logos.

Two of the branded T-shirts showed up in the search results. This green one features a player with a basketball head holding an old-school cell phone. The writing reads,

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
An official Hoop Dreams T-shirt. Check out that original flip phone!

Defense
You can’t do it
Shut me
down?
I toy with your
Existence
Fake left
Fake right
Take you (any which way)
You need
Help
Fool
Time to dial

A small patch reading, “Hoop Dream 911,” appears on the sleeve.

The black T-shirt is more understated with just the Hoop Dreams logo on the front and back.

Hoop Dreams official T-shirt
Another official Hoop Dreams T-shirt, this one with more understated logos.

Both T-shirts bear tiny writing that claims copyright for “Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc.” I wonder if any other documentary production houses can make the same kind of claim.

Memorabilia also appear on eBay. Memorabilia differ from the branded merchandise in that they may not be official, but they still connect with the film in some way. Trading cards for Gates and Agee are the most popular find. But then I came across this T-shirt:

Hoop Dreams commemorative T-shirt
A Hoop Dreams T-shirt commemorating the television broadcast in November 1995. The shirt is signed by both Gates and Agee.

The T-shirt commemorates the Hoop Dreams PBS broadcast on November 15, 1995. On the front a screenprint shows Gates holding a basketball, with below the logos for Chrysler, Kartemquin, PBS, and KTCA, the Twin Cities PBS-affiliate and producing partner. On the back appears a screenprint of Agee, ball in hand, in mid layup.

Two additions make this T-shirt special: signatures from Gates and Agee. Gates wrote, “Hoop Dreams,” while Agree wrote, “#4,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “’95.” I asked the eBay seller if they knew more about the shirt, and the seller said the person who originally had the shirt worked in sports promotions and probably did an event with the film’s broadcast and the two stars.

While Kartemquin and Fine Line no longer offer Hoop Dreams merchandise, Arthur Agee still uses the film’s name for his own company, Classic HD Basketball Clothing Co. The company features autographed Hoop Dreams posters, DVDs, and books, as well as T-shirts and basketball shorts. Part of the proceeds go toward renovating and equipping a basketball court in Chicago so that others can shoot for their own hoop dreams.

My Life I Don’t Want Tells Story through Girls’ Eyes

My favorite film from last month’s Speechless Film Festival is My Life I Don’t Want, created by Nyan Kyal Say. The appeal of My Life I Don’t Want lies in its simplicity in story and style, though that simplicity also belies much complexity about girls’ experiences in Myanmar and elsewhere.

Title image for My Life I Don't Want
Title image for My Life I Don’t Want

My Life I Don’t Want is a 12-minute animated documentary that represents the collective experiences of girls’ lives in Myanmar through the childhood of a single female child. Her growing up appears as a series of scenes. The series starts with her joyful welcoming into the world and her growing curiosity about school, but it quickly reveals her secondary status.

This status follows a heartbreaking cycle that begins at home and affects her in school and beyond. When the girl and her brother study in one scene, the girl experiences constant interruptions with household chores such as doing laundry and cleaning floors. She is exhausted and unable to concentrate after all of the interruptions, and her school marks suffer. Her brother studies without interruptions and excels in school. Instead of understanding her struggles, her parents express deep disappointment.

The obstacles grow bigger and more dangerous as she ages. She gets kicked out of homes, boys exploit her for sex, and one man even tries to traffic her. In one scene, she attempts to escape the threats, but they all loom menacingly over her as she runs. She ends up pregnant, standing at an edge with the rain pouring down.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
This still from My Life I Don’t Want shows the visual simplicity of the short.

A moment of reckoning, to be sure, but in that, grace appears and offers a hand. For the first time since almost the start of the short, the girl smiles.

The audio and visual styles complement the seemingly straightforward story. In line with the festival’s strong emphasis on visual storytelling, this short uses no specific dialogue. No words are needed.

The animation style also complements the simplicity of the story. Creator Say maintains spare settings with stark backgrounds, such as two desks for the children studying or a bench and tree for the girl meeting a boy. Other elements only appear when necessary to advance the story, such as the girl bringing out a clothes line or a mop and pail during cleaning.

Still from My Life I Don't Want
Another still from My Life I Don’t Want showing the girl in line for starting school.

Recent live-action documentaries show girls’ circumstances around the world. While some films celebrate girls’ cultures and their successes, many films focus on their plights and the challenges they face just to survive. They struggle for education, health care, and economic opportunities, while they fight against forced marriage, childbearing, and prostitution.

These documentaries can prove quite traumatic to view. Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky visits six countries around the world, showing young girls who have been raped, prostituted, molested, and otherwise exploited. In one segment a girl accuses an uncle of rape only later to lose her home because of her family’s shame. That same segment mentions a 3-year-old being raped as well.

It’s a Girl examines gendercide, or the systematic killing of girls simply because they are girls. This documentary visits India with its practice of selective abortions and visits China with its one (now two) child rule. Both of these countries prefer male children, and the documentary shows these preferences’ effects. Girls end up aborted, abandoned, and murdered.

An opening interview in It’s a Girl spikes this point home. An Indian woman speaks matter-of-factly about killing her newborn daughter. She offers no apologies or remorse. And, chillingly, the recent killing is not her first one.

Both It’s a Girl and Half the Sky make for difficult viewing, and they focus on the cultural implications through multiple interviews and stories. My Life I Don’t Want speaks to these broader themes as well.

But what I really like about My Life I Don’t Want is its focus on a single girl’s story told through her point of view. We identify with her, and the story, animation, and the soundscape all point to that identification. The story is still harrowing, but ultimately, it is her story.