Teaching Op-Docs

This semester I am teaching a junior-level course in news writing and reporting. As part of the course requirements, I am having the students create an “Op-Doc” similar to the guidelines outlined by The New York Times. In the prerequisite course, students learn about media writing, including documentary scriptwriting, so this course moves into more multimedia production. The Op-Doc seems to offer the right balance for gaining the skills to make a webdoc and for thinking critically about news and its role within the rapidly changing world of online journalism.

The New York Times defines an Op-Doc as “short, opinionated documentaries, produced with wide creative latitude and a range of artistic styles, covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects.” About 100 shorts appear on the site, and I am slowly working my way through them in order to find representative ones to show and discuss in class. I also am looking for ways to group them, such as through style and subject, so that students can see the patterns occurring and can find their own places within them.

In general, Op-Docs run between 5-10 minutes. Following the definition above, they incorporate a range of styles and approaches to their subjects. Styles include more observational approaches to documentary, more traditional talking heads, and less traditional animations.

Anthony Sherin’s “Solo, Piano — N.Y.C.” seems more poetry in its depiction of the fate of a piano left on the street, while several shorts by Drew Christie pose some intriguing questions and arguments through animation.

The subjects start with the seemingly everyday and reach to the moon — and beyond. “Vigilante Copy Editor,” by Jay Dockendorf, reveals the work of a copy editor in a sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, while Simon Ennis’s “The Man Who Sells the Moon” interviews Dennis Hope, who does just that. (He also sells properties on Mars and Venus, if you’re interested.)

Still other Op-Docs grab you with their stories. When I had asked on Twitter about the most important part of a documentary a bit back, the overwhelming majority of responses centered on storytelling and people. Without either of those, the documentary — short or long, online or on film — will lose audiences quickly.

Shorts face a particular challenge in that they lack the leisure to develop the story slowly. Instead, they must advance the story right away and keep moving, often toward a too-fast ending. The shorts by Laura Poitras and Lucy Walker in particular stood out for me here. For “Death of a Prisoner,” Poitras tells the story of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a prisoner who died in Guantánamo Bay prison after being held there for 11 years. Walker’s short tells the story of his final days and follows the body home to his family. In “Daredevil on a Snowmobile,” Walker tells the story of Caleb Moore, whose career as an extreme snowmobiler ended with a crash during the X Games and his death soon afterward. His death was an unfortunate first for the extreme sport competition.

Each of these shorts challenges ways of thinking about news, opinion, story, and documentary. I will expand more on these points when I have finished watching the rest of them and started organizing the class more.