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.

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