Teaching Op-Docs: Women’s Stories and Issues

One of the key requirements for the web documentary assignment in my class is that my students focus on women and women’s issues in some way. My current university consists of an all-women’s liberal arts core, so this requirement connects with the school and its women-focused mission.

A handful of the shorts appearing in the Op-Docs series specifically focus on women and their stories, and this post offers a round-up of some of those stories.

Most films in that handful represent women facing challenges in some way.

One challenge centers on health-related issues. The recent “Midnight Three & Six” tells two stories, a mother and her Type I diabetic daughter. While the daughter tries to grow up with this life-threatening disease, the mother balances caretaking with worrying and hovering and letting go.

In “A Marriage to Remember“, a marriage takes the center role, but the filmmaker’s mother deteriorates quickly following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Lost Every Day” shows how a woman lives with Developmental Topographical Disorientation, a condition that prevents her from having a sense of direction. “Flo: Portrait of a Street Photographer” shows Flo Fox’s dedication to her photography despite being nearly blind.

Other challenges are about economic instability and the future. In “Running on Fumes in North Dakota,” Jenny describes her difficult life as a truck driver in an isolated boom town. She sees working there as a means to making a better life for herself, but at the same time she fears for her own safety.

Sarah’s Uncertain Path” offers a profile of a pregnant 15-year-old living in Missouri who wonders about her future. “The Caretaker” weaves together two women’s stories. Joesy is an undocumented immigrant from Fiji caring for the aging Haru Tsurumoto, 95. Though working long hours for low pay and facing an uncertain future, Joesy maintains a strong and meaningful relationship with Haru.

Several interesting women-centered Op-Docs are portraits. “VHS vs. Communism” offers a great example in showing the woman who illegally dubbed more than 3,000 films during the Communist Romania. Irina Margareta Nistor talks about the excitement the dubbing brought for her in that she could see the films and see a world outside her own country, though she ran the risk of getting caught and being punished with each dub she made.

Marie Wilcox is the last native speaker of the Wukchummi language, and she works to document the language before it is lost with her death. “Who Speaks Wukchummi?” follows her and her family’s preservation efforts.

A couple filmmakers turn the camera onto their own lives. Judith Helfand’s “Love and Stuff” is humorous and sad all at the same time. Upon her mother’s death, Helfand must clean out the home and decide what to keep. Helfand catalogs some items that she keeps: gloves, shoes, nail clippers, dentures (!). She also catalogs some of the items her mother keeps, including an entire elephant figurine collection. One of my favorite shots in the entire Op-Docs collection shows the elephants lined up on parade as the camera pans slowly down the line.

Another portrait, Paula Schargorodsky’s “35 and Single” explores the questions of children and marriage for herself through her upbringing and current status.

Dressing Up the Computer’s Story for an iPad App

iPad apps make for an interesting way to explore interactive documentary, and The Computer Wore Heels offers an engaging story about women’s contributions during World War II.

This story provides another take on Rosie the Riveter, the iconic image from when women worked in factories throughout the war. Written by LeAnn Erickson, The Computer Wore Heels tells the experiences of several women who worked as computers for the U.S. Army. All of these women excelled in math, pursuing degrees in the subject at a time when some colleges and universities actually prohibited women from studying the subject.

In working as computers, the women would calculate how bombs would fall under certain conditions for the artillery range tables. Other women worked as the first computer programmers on ENIAC, or the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, which processed calculations at much faster speeds.

Drawn from Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II, the app follows several key characters on their journeys to, during, and after the jobs, including Betty Jean Jennings, twins Doris and Shirley Blumberg, and others. It shows their long work shifts, co-worker camaraderie, and uncertain futures against the backdrop of World War II’s unfolding events at home and abroad.

The app consists mostly of an interactive book that is grounded in smart writing with related multimedia features. The book itself is styled to look “old,” with a light sepia tone and old maps, graphics, and mathematical formulas as part of the background. Even the font evokes the old typewriters.

Divided into twelve chapters, the book includes audio, video, still images, and other archival materials. Some of these materials are recreations designed to mimic the style of the era’s newsreels, while others include pictures of the women and newspaper stories from the time. Two unique additions are a flight diary that outlines a man’s mission and an ENIAC flowchart drawn by hand.

The interactive materials also contribute further background or asides to the main story. One provides details about the different computers developed at the time, while another provides a short biography of Alice McLaine Hall, an African-American woman who earned a college degree in math and worked as a human computer.

While you can read the story without touching on the interactive features, they do provide that “something extra” to the app’s experience. In chapter 2 for example, the text begins, “Swing music poured out of the large desktop radio as Betty Jean danced around the parlor,” and a snippet of a swing band tune plays.

The book is easy to navigate and provides directions on how to use the app. Though embedded throughout the story, the materials also appear in three galleries that offer direct access to them. Each item receives a brief explanation and source credit, and each one disappears with a tap, taking you right back to where you left off. Overall, the app tells a great historical story in a stylish and accessible way.

Teaching Op-Docs: Starting with the Big Questions

For a junior-level course this semester, I am using The New York Times’s Op-Doc series as a model for talking about journalism, documentary, and online video. In addition to watching multiple entries in the series, my students will be creating one of their own that focuses on women and women’s issues in some way. That focus aligns with my current university’s mission.

The class started with two “big picture” questions: What is news and what is documentary? One of the texts we are reading outlined their differences through production practices and aesthetics. For example, in television news the reporter appears on camera, while in documentary the maker remains behind the camera. For another example, television news places the character as secondary, while documentary places character as central. Both lists separated the maker from the story, however.

We watched several titles this week. Since we are in Baltimore, I found it fitting to open with Lotfy Nathan’s “Riding with the 12 O’Clock Boys.” In addition to the perfect local subject, the short raised questions about news values such as timeliness and about techniques such as narration with the voice of authority ranting at the beginning.

We also watched Laura Poitras’s gut-wrenching “Death of a Prisoner.” This one raised a lot of questions about balancing fact and emotion. With something so harrowing, how do we not get lost in all that emotion? For some, it seemed the emotion offered the only angle for this story in contrast to all the news information out there. One student was quick to point how the voice of authority at the opening (archival footage of a Barack Obama speech) of this one contrasted with the previous one. Here, the archival material provided background information, while in the other it set a tone that the documentary addressed the counterpoints on.

Dawn Porter’s “True Believers in Justice” and Jason DaSilva’s “The Long Wait” rounded out the week. These two resonated more than the previous two shown earlier in the week. The portrait of Travis Williams and his passion for being a public defender is engaging. The opening sequence of the tattooing draws us in, and its significance for Williams gives it an even greater weight. One student pointed out how it offered a stark contrast to the popular culture representations of lawyers.

Up to this point, none of the documentary makers appeared on camera, and so the question became, what about documentary makers who do become subjects in their own documentaries and do appear on camera? I always think of A. O. Scott’s term from when he wrote a review of Tarnation: “narci-cinema.” Jonathan Caouette’s documentary tells the story of his life and his mother’s mental illness that follows the traditions of autobiographical documentaries. Some of the more memorable documentaries in recent memory similarly feature a strong central presence; just look at the works of Ross McElwee, Morgan Spurlock, and Michael Moore.

Of course, my students think of confessional and other videos made by individuals on YouTube. Coming at it from different angles, but we ended up on the same page.

Jason DaSilva’s piece became a perfect answer to these questions. DaSilva is the narrator, central figure, and key instigator of events in this piece. “The Long Wait” shows DaSilva’s experiment in getting from his home to a coffee shop using public transportation in New York City. Due to early-onset ALS, DaSilva gets around using a scooter, which allows some mobility but also quickly shows its limitations. He works through the transportation maps and options, raising all the questions about elevators and other forms of access. While his friend made the trip in less than fifteen minutes, DaSilva took almost two hours.

One of my students loved this one, pointing out that the wait actually referred to three waits: DaSilva’s own, his friend’s, and the city’s for updating its accessible transportation options.

But how to balance personal experiences with larger issues without coming across as absorbed or narcissistic? DaSilva balances well his experiences with the larger issues he and others face on a daily basis. Another balance might be to bring in interviews with others for an additional point of view. We will revisit this again, as several Op-Docs start with an individual’s experiences in some way.