11 Lessons in Smartphone Filmmaking

In early September 2018, I attended a class in smart phone filmmaking presented by Nick Clausen at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. To (third-party) app or not to (third-party) app?

Most smartphones come equipped with enough standard applications that power the device’s options and expand its functionality. Various platforms’ app stores burst with millions more apps for those seeking just the right tweak or feature. It is easy to get lost in choosing just the right app with just the right look and feel in order to make your film. Focus more (no pun intended) on actually using the apps instead of hunting for yet another one.

2. That said, FiLMiC Pro rocks.

FiLMic Pro seriously transformed my smartphone from an entry-level tool into a professional device. Running about $15 USD, FiLMic Pro offers intuitive controls that refine the device’s optical and sound equipment into a well-honed machine. I have only begun to explore this app’s possibilities. More on those later.

3. Expect a case of GAS.

No, not from beans. GAS is an acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. While the smartphone offers an all-in-one device for making videos, audio, and still images, some extra equipment ups your game from amateurish to more polished. Similar to apps, take care not to overinvest in seeking just the right gear.

4. Shake, rattle, and roll.

As such small devices smartphones have issues with getting a stable image. This shakiness particularly becomes a problem in lower light and in motion. Some smart phones offer built-in digital (more likely) and optical (less likely), and FiLMiC Pro provides a digital stabilization option. If you have shaky hands like I do, invest in a tripod or a gimbal. I ordered this one.

5. Bipedal zoom is best.

While many cameras offer both digital zoom and optical zoom, the bipedal zoom is still the best. In other words, move your feet to zoom the camera instead of using the in-device options. The images will be clearer.

6. Sound is hard.

Enough said? Well, maybe not. Sound still remains important yet so often overlooked. Voices become muffled, volume becomes inconsistent, words drop out. With documentary’s focus on people and their speaking for themselves, sound becomes even more important.

The advice I have heard on sound using a smartphone is mixed. Some suggest that using the device’s microphone held close to the speaker is enough, but others suggest using an external microphone, such as a Bluetooth lavalier or a shotgun mic.

7. Power up.

Video recording drains smartphone batteries quickly. With portable batteries running the size of chewing gum and costing about $10 USD, there is no excuse not to have a spare or two with you.

8. Sensor size matters.

No matter how advanced and fancy smartphones get, the sensor sizes on the cameras always will be a challenge. The beautiful bokeh available with a prime lens on a DSLR is more difficult to achieve on a smart phone. Smartphones flatten depth of field and struggle with low light, so avoid Citizen Kane aspirations.

9. Editing options abound.

Editing used to be a complex process that required scissors, reels, and film. Nonlinear editing software allows editing both on-the-fly in the smartphone and in-the-seat on desktop or laptop systems. In-device editing, such as through iMovie, appears helpful for live events or quick turnaround times. The key is to remember the default settings and what they allow and limit, such as the default transition settings and how to undo them.

10. The results can be stunning.

Bad smartphone video is everywhere, but intended results can be stunning. The Painter of Jalouzi, by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, is an excellent example of these kinds of results. This short was recorded on an iPhone 6s Plus, and shots include walking ones and drone ones. Watch it here.

11. ‘Undo’ can be your best friend.

This one speaks for itself.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed, and it offered much inspiration toward developing the multi-media documentary production course.

11 Lessons from a Documentary Bootcamp

In mid-August 2018, I attended a Documentary Boot Camp presented by Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents a first step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. “Not all who wander are lost.”

No single path leads to learning production or a completed documentary. Our fearless facilitator Melody Gilbert picked up a camera and made her first film without formal training. Everyone in the room came to the session from different backgrounds, including marketing, graphic design, high school education, and others. Each of these backgrounds can be useful in learning documentary production.

2. Good documentaries start with good subjects.

People are the beating heart of the best documentaries. Without interesting people, the documentary will end up dull and unwatchable. Compelling people make for compelling stories and compelling viewing.

3. People over style.

People are more important than having a particular visual style. While a documentary might look compelling visually, it will remain just a spectacle without interesting people in it.

4. Story over style.

Every documentary possesses an underlying question, and its story leads us through to answers to that question. While some beautiful cinematic documentaries do exist — think Sweetgrass or Nostalgia for the Light — style should never overshadow or overwhelm the story.

5. Put the time in.

Documentaries require time to produce. In particular, filmmakers should put the time in with their participants in order to earn their trust and hear their stories. Dropping in once in a while might result in the elevator version of people’s stories. Putting more time in might get you the family-reminiscing-at-Thanksgiving version instead. You can guess which one will be more interesting.

6. Access is key, but not everything.

Gaining access to people and situations can represent the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Sometimes that one, larger-than-life figure propels the story and its telling. But what if you can’t access that person? Talk to the people who know them. Those people might offer even more interesting information than the larger-than-life figure.

7. Pitching is an art form. And a negotiation.

One of our activities during the session included writing a pitch for a documentary we might like to produce. Each of us had interesting ideas, but those ideas became negotiations with the other people in the room. My own idea was expanded in several new directions. The direction it goes ultimately depends on you.

8. Watch and discuss.

So much of our media consumption now is based on individual preferences with personal devices that we forget the community part of documentary reception. A key strategy is to watch documentaries for their strengths and improvements with other people in person and talk about them afterward. While the film director’s presence changes the conversation somewhat, audiences can talk among themselves just fine as well.

9. Lather, fail, repeat.

Documentary filmmaking is not for the timid or the weak. It requires bravery in order to set foot into the swirling snakepit of human life. It requires the courage to fail. It requires the strength to pick up and try again.

10. Treasure the gifts.

People telling you their stories is a gift. This present is as true for the person on the bus as it is true for the person sitting before your camera. You telling these people’s stories for other audiences is another gift. It is important to treasure these gifts and honor them.

11. Use the equipment you have.

Filmmaking offers a great opportunity for GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Avoid obsessing over the latest software, hardware, and gadget, and start with the equipment already available to you. A smartphone can capture that quick interview. An extra microphone boosts the sound recording, if needed.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered much inspiration toward developing my own pieces. It further was a useful affirmation of the production flow I had taught in previous classes. In all, a good start.

Revisiting Teaching Op-Docs

Op-Docs refers to the short documentary video series curated by The New York Times. Op-Docs showcase an array of documentary storytelling styles and address a diversity of social issues. I have used Op-Docs as a pedagogical model for short documentary production and am considering them again as I develop an advanced multimedia production class proposal.

In Spring 2015 I first taught Op-Docs as part of an advanced news reporting class at a small women’s college in Baltimore. Two years and a seven-state move later, I incorporated similar lessons into a half semester of a news reporting and editing class. The course description required a public affairs focus, primarily through writing. The incorporation of video diverged from the usual course.

The public affairs focus helped narrow the course to a point, but it raised the question of how to make such a broad subject more accessible? A list of social issues from the Library of Congress helped. Through short brainstorming assignments, class discussions, and individual conversations, students chose one topic to research and report on for the entire semester. Every assignment needed to address the subject in some way.

The thinking was that students needed to develop some expertise on their topic before making the video. That background could help make the video production questions easier. For example, if students interviewed an expert for a written story, that expert could become potential video interview for the short documentary. For another example, if students engaged an interesting angle in a written story, they could develop that angle further in the video.

Students chose diverse topics: mental health stigmas, online privacy, domestic violence, solar energy, indigenous cultures, noise pollution, gangs, paying student athletes, and sex education. After doing some background work on their topic in Lexis-Nexis, they began the written assignments.

The first written assignment was a person-on-the-street story. I have used this assignment extensively in other reporting classes at both rural and urban campuses. It worked best in Boston when my students walked to Cheers (yes, that Cheers) and asked people there about their hoped-for presidential candidates. Repeating that assignment for this class resulted in two challenges: approaching the wary community and phrasing the question. How do you develop a general question about an issue that people on the street might not know about? That challenge helped set up the thinking not only about reporting but also about the documentary hook.

After a series of other written assignments, the class segued to video production during the seventh week. The first video assignment paralleled the first written assignment: a person-on-the-street assignment requiring video recording. The same challenges emerged, but with some additional curveballs: getting signed consent, finding a quiet place, and overcoming even greater reluctance from potential participants. Either way, the videos became useful touchstones for developing the short documentary.

The other video assignments followed a sequence: pitch, script, rough cut, and final cut. The pitch and the rough cut included class discussion and peer review. The script assignment was skipped to allow more time for researching, filming, and editing.

Similar to my previous time using this approach, students struggled most with finding people to interview. It required intensive brainstorming beyond the work they had already completed for writing assignments. This campus just recently started a film and media studies program, but it focuses primarily on fiction storytelling. The mass media program here focuses primarily on writing, so sights of student camera crews working on campus are rare. Perhaps if these crews happened more frequently, the community might be more supportive and engaging.

Interesting to me, students found it easier to maintain a balance among their personal views, their participants’ views, and their films’ stories. In a previous class, some students struggled with what people spoke about in interviews and what they “wanted” from people. They hadn’t developed a trust in their participants and in themselves, and that kind of trust comes with time and practice. Here, while students maintained a stake in their subjects, they also maintained a professional, but empathetic, distance.

Overall, the students’ final shorts were really good. They were required to have three interviews, but otherwise they were free to approach the films however they wanted. Most chose interviews combined with observational footage and on-screen titles.

I recount this experience here toward thinking about what a semester-long course on online documentary production might look like. The short video plays an important role in documentary storytelling, sometimes in theatrical distribution but more so in online enviroments. For example, short documentaries serve as part of web series, advocacy campaigns, interactive experiences. But what about building something more, such as an entire interactive documentary or an augmented reality app? What additional skills might those options involve? What other equipment, platforms, or programs might be needed? Are either of those possible in a stand-alone, semester-length class?

We shall see. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Teaching Op-Docs: Course Wrap-Up and Reflections

Teaching a course about online documentary production proved an ambitious but worthwhile undertaking. Below are some reflections on the course, its strengths, and its challenges.

The Op-Docs Series

The New York Times Op-Docs series made for a very engaging set of shorts to explore journalism, documentary, their overlaps, and their divergences.

The series offers an immense range of subject, form, and style. Some shorts, such as A Threat to Internet Freedom, follow the “documentary formula” with talking heads, media clips, and animations. Others, such as Pass It On or Hotel 22, rely on visuals. Some, such as How to Build a Country from Scratch, use a more intellectual approach to their subjects, while others rely more on emotional, intimate approaches, such as A Marriage to Remember.

The variety among the shorts allows for movement away from the objective / subjective bias that sometimes informs conversations about both journalism and documentary. That variety also encourages richer discussion of the different approaches and their effects (in a limited sense). The more traditional or more intellectual shorts resonate less than the shorts offering personal stories, and reasons why became a further point for consideration.

A particularly engaging question was the role of the journalist within the overall work. Several Op-Docs address their directors’ own experiences, such as The Long Wait, Love and Stuff, and 35 and Single. These three and others opened questions about the role of the documentary maker versus the role of reporter.

Documentary Topics

The course requirements called for a topic about women or women’s issues in some way. My students came up with some great ideas: painful beauty rituals, female entrepreneurs, single-sex colleges, and gender roles, to name a few.

Some Op-Docs do explore women and women’s issues, such as health, economic instability, and marriage, and others offer portraits of contemporary and historical women. I wish, however, more of these issues had appeared throughout the series, and more of the representations offered something other than overcoming obstacles.

Gnarly in Pink offers an example of what I mean here. The short shows three, 6-year-olds who love skateboarding. The short addresses gender expectations, sure, but it does much more than that.

Finding Balance

The balance of asserting control and letting it go as a director seemed to offer the biggest struggle for many students in my class. This balance in particular appeared with story development and participant interviews.

Part of this struggle for balance occurred in developing their story ideas. The best stories come from people, and the best documentaries allow people to tell their stories. Shifting the pronouns from “my” story to “their” story for some proved one of the most difficult discourse shifts throughout the semester.

Participant interviews proved the other difficult balance. One of the most challenging parts of working on documentaries is working with people. After teaching reporting, social media, and research methods over the years, I have learned that many students resist the idea of talking to people and resist even more asking people to do something for them.

But working in documentary and news media means working with people and asking them for on-camera interviews. Finding willing people and then scheduling time with them became a challenge for many students. Some placed their bets on one person, only to find that person unavailable. Others struggled to find people in general due to topic. Frustrating lessons, but important ones.

Then came the interviews themselves. One of my students used the brilliant approach of talking with her participants for a while beforehand, guiding them through the conversation before even turning on the camera. When the camera did come on, the interviews appeared more natural and relaxed. Others struggled to shift their discourses from “what I want participants to say” to “what participants want to say.” With the attachment to “my story” came a strong desire for participants to say things that the directors wanted them to say. They struggled with trusting their participants to tell their own stories and allowing the stories to evolve organically.

The assignment required three interviews. If I teach this course again, I might start with requiring that they find someone to interview right away and then develop the topic from there, instead of the other way around.

Curricular Concerns

I taught this class within a junior-level news writing and reporting class. The course catalog description called for creating and editing video, and I thought this approach would work well within that. Fortunately, it did, particularly in the levels of sophistication and critical thinking about journalism and documentary that developed during course discussions.

If you are considering bringing a course like this one into your curriculum, allow me to make two sets of recommendations. First, require students take a journalism course such as introduction to news writing or principles of journalism and a course in basic video production first. This way, students have foundations to build on.

Second, require separate, longer times for a discussion component and a lab component. Documentary production has its own issues that need to be addressed. We found 50 minutes, three times a week, always rushed.

Teaching Op-Docs: Helpful Resources

Multiple resources, both online and print, proved helpful in developing materials for and running the journalism class using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series. Note that most of these resources are dedicated to documentary production, and not history or criticism. The key ones are listed below.

The New York Times Op-Docs
Videos from The New York Times Op-Docs pages of course provided the bulk of the in-class screenings. Other videos, such as trailers and clips, came from YouTube and Vimeo.

Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling
Kurt Lancaster’s book served as one of the course textbooks, and it became the most useful one very quickly. Brief chapters broke down key ideas into manageable chunks, and examples illustrated well the ideas at hand. Particularly useful was the interview transcription that highlighted the segments appearing in the final short, deftly showing how little of interviews actually end up in the final piece.

How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro
Brief, lively chapters offer key ideas about cinematography for online video in a way that is easy to understand and apply. Steve Stockman writes for a general audience, making the book very accessible and engaging reading.

Directing the Documentary
Of all the documentary production handbooks available, Directing the Documentary, by Michael Rabiger, is one of the few that dedicates an entire chapter to ethics. That chapter became the foundation for ethical issues raised in the class.

Documentary Filmmaking: A Contemporary Field Guide
John Hewitt and Gustavo Vazquez’s book is overall very useful, but its section about the different styles and types of documentaries created a useful framework for grouping and connecting the various Op-Docs, which range widely in subject and style.

How to Write a Documentary Script
Trisha Das’s monograph not only offers the mechanics of writing a documentary script, but also gets into the rationales that make them different from other types of production.

The Documentary Community
Community members often shared their ideas about this class through e-mail and other social networking sites. Specifically, Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films was kind enough to share a model consent form. Tom Kirby at York St John University offered a comprehensive reading list of so many resources out there, including Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye and Sheila Curran Bernard’s work, among others. Matt Sienkiewicz of Boston College helped refine the scope and parameters of the course assignments and requirements.

Many, many others — too many to name here — also offered their thoughts and insights. Thank you.

Teaching Op-Docs: Course Assignments

This spring I taught a journalism class that centered on making a short online documentary using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series as model. Below are the assignments used to build the projects and some of the rationales behind them.

Background Preparations

Coming up with an idea often becomes the most difficult task behind any project, and choosing an idea early is essential to succeeding in a production course. The assignment called for a focus on women or women’s issues, which aligned with the mission of the all-women’s university where I taught. Students could choose their own topic within that scope.

The selection process began with a series of brainstormed topics lists, and the story pitch honed those lists to one idea. Since the project required three main interviews, the next assignment called for a potential participants list with short rationales for their choices. After that, students turned in a background research list, with citations and 1-2 sentences explaining how each source might contribute to their finished piece.

Documentary Script

The documentary script assignment was intended to help organize materials before editing. At minimum, the script needed to show their interviews, the key themes, and the structure and flow. The assignment called for a three-column format with approximate runtime, audio, and video. Students were encouraged to include as much information as possible in the script, though the level of what they included depended on how much shooting they had completed.

Pitching Trailer

The pitching trailer was intended to help hone their documentary as we moved toward the end of the semester. It was meant to envision the overall tone and scope within a 30-60 second clip, which was screened and discussed in class. In preparation for this assignment, we watched and discussed trailers from a wide range of documentaries, including Citizen Four, Hands on a Hard Body, American Movie, The Search for General Tso, Cover Girl Culture, Tarnation, and Vernon, Florida.

Rough Cut and Peer Review

With a four-minute minimum length, the rough cuts were also screened and discussed in class. They were intended to help with the questions arising from the editing process, such as if the voiceover worked, the juxtapositions made sense, the images conveyed the story, and the like. We also revisited some ethical issues about consent and fair representation during this session.

Final Screening

On the last day of class, the final (for class, anyway) cuts were due, and we screened and discussed them. Many doughnuts and bagels were consumed.

Other Assignments

I originally had included two other assignments to accompany the final cut, but class flow prevented having enough time to address them. The first was a 500-word article about the doc and the story it told, similar to what appears with other Op-Docs on The New York Times site.

The other was what I had called an “interactivity statement,” which would have looked at how they might connect with audiences through online civic engagement. Some questions behind the assignment included the following:

  • How might audiences engage with the documentary’s story?
  • How might you handle a range of the audience’s responses, both positive and negative?
  • What are some of the profiles for those audiences?
  • On what social networking sites might you find those audiences? How might you engage them where they are?
  • What organizations and other sites might you reach out to help with spreading the word about your documentary?

If you have any questions about the assignments, please feel free to contact me.

Teaching Op-Docs: Sound and Observation in Hotel 22

Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 became the focus for a session about sound in documentary.

When we think of sound, we usually think of the human voice, which has dominated documentary since the developments of workable sound technologies. Just think of the abundant voiceover narration in Prelude to War and the rest of the Why We Fight series or in Pare Lorentz’s The River. The narration often not only tells us what is happening, but also what we should think about what is happening.

The other part of the human voice comes from talking heads. While people are interesting, too many talking heads frequently are not.

Music is another part of sound. Here, I think of scored music — the Philip Glass scores in Errol Morris films, the Joshua Abrams scores in Life Itself and The Interrupters, and the Virgil Thomson scores for Louisiana Story and The Plow That Broke the Plains. Music links sequences and scenes, and provides another layer of emotion.

Sound effects make up the final part of sound. Effects have the potential to bring a scene to life as much as visuals do. It is here that Hotel 22 shines.

This Op-Doc is about Line 22, a bus route in the Silicon Valley that people who are homeless ride during the night. The 90-minute trip becomes a temporary shelter for the paying riders.

Eschewing narration and formal interviews, Hotel 22 relies on sound effects and observational footage gathered over the course of a week. Sound effects come from the bus, such as the rattling windows, the changing engine gears, the depressurizing hydraulics, and the bing-bong-ing announcement signal. These sounds create a rhythm as the bus progresses through its route.

Other sounds come from people, such as singing and snoring. The snoring carries over a series of shots, mixing with the rhythms of the bus sounds. Oddly enough, it establishes the sense of comfort that the bus provides for people who are homeless riding it.

Some talking does occur. One rider argues with the bus driver to turn on the heat. Another frustrated passenger begins yelling racial comments that result in passengers taking exceptions to his remarks and confronting him on them.

As the route ends and the sun rises, people depart the bus. Birds sing in the background as they sit. Taken together, these people, birds, and bus create a soundscape that adds interest and depth to the observational footage. As a viewer, you want to ask questions, so many questions, but the camera remains patient, letting things unfold as they do in this composite.

Teaching Op-Docs: The Role of B-Roll

As a viewer, I pay too much attention to B-roll.

One reason is that B-roll is often intercut with interviews, and it changes the dynamics of movement within the frame. Even if the people talking are animated in their speech or if the camera roves around the speaking participant, interview shots still are more static than other shots. Intercutting between a talking head and an action shot puts this contrast into sharp relief.

Another reason is that sometimes B-roll just leaves me asking why the shot is there and how it contributes to the overall film. I look for thematic, emotional, or even rational connections between the people speaking and the B-roll intercut with their interviews. If the cutaway offers no clear connection, it just seems odd to me.

Some directors know how to pull off fascinating interviews without much, if any, B-roll. As much as he uses cutaways to create in-film conversations with his interviewees, Errol Morris also knows when to allow a person to keep talking without much, if any, interruption. In Gates of Heaven, Florence Rasmussen seemingly rambles about her life and her son before talking about her deceased pets and the relocated pet cemetery. Three shots — two newspaper headlines and one shot of street signs in this clip — accompany her, and only one headline appears during her rambling.

But figuring out how to visualize stories along with filmed interviews is a key part of putting together an online documentary video, as we have been talking about in my online documentary production course this semester. “A Marriage to Remember” offers a poetic, if poignant, example for thinking about B-roll. This Op-Doc by Banker White and Anna Fitch shows the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. White’s mother, Pam, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 61, and this short shows in part her decline and its impacts on her marriage with White’s father, Ed.

Some of the B-roll footage in this Op-Doc shows a life well lived: painted portraits, old photographs, home movies. Other footage shows a day’s routines, including morning exercise, newspaper check, breakfast. The day’s routines appear twice — first when Pam White is more able and second after she has declined during the year. Time-lapse shots show the sun moving through the day as it shines through a window, growing brighter and deepening to a golden red as it sets. In a way, the B-roll, both of the family memories and the daily routines, shows us the family history while also doing some of the remembering for her.

Not all B-roll needs to be thought out with such precise attention to detail. When that attention does happen, though, the effect is immediate, particularly within this documentary short.

Teaching Op-Docs: Finding Ideas for Documentaries

“Where do you get ideas for documentaries?” is the number one question I have received through comments and conversations over the years. As my students this semester have been working through ideas toward their story pitch assignment, I have been turning over some possibilities for seeking ideas. Here are some starting points to consider.

Life

Many, many documentaries start with and / or focus on the people making them or the people in their lives. The best stories resonate beyond the scope of their telling, connecting with larger social and cultural issues.

Examples abound: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March; Amalie R. Rothschild’s Nana, Mom, and Me; Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation; and Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Hear and Now.

Some makers pursue their own passions or questions. I think here of the documentaries about veganism, such as Marisa Miller Wolfson’s Vegucated. Or, makers take themselves as their own subjects such as Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me or Joe Cross in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.

Communities


As in, geographical communities. Stories weave throughout communities large and small. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “No Guns for Christmas” brings the national gun debates to their home in Ohio. Josh Fox’s Gasland explores fracking’s overall effects starting with his land in Pennsylvania.

One key way to find great stories is to talk with people in your community — the ones in coffee shops, laundromats, bus stops. Not through the phone, but in person. Not through texting, but in person. I once asked a man about his tattoo while he rang up my carry-out order. The tattoo itself was visually interesting, but the story behind it was gut-wrenching as it was a memorial for a family member who had been shot and killed during an armed robbery.

Media

Newspapers and magazines build their reputations on quality storytelling, but their stories represent only a glimpse into what could be much larger ones. For High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing started with a story in The New York Times that mentioned Chinese bloggers.

“I was curious who these bloggers were and discovered Zola’s [one of the bloggers appearing in his documentary] website, which featured a great number of other fascinating reports,” Maing told me in an email. “I was immediately intrigued and wanted to understand how a young man from a small farming village was managing to pull off such daring reporting all over mainland China and in the face of government censorship.”

Through Zola, Maing later met Tiger Temple, the other key figure in his documentary and featured in the Op-Doc “A Long Ride toward a New China.”

Sometimes, one story leads to another, very different story. Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida started with a newspaper article about a small town with a high rate of people “losing” limbs. The final piece, however, veers from its original inspirations.

Magazines, too, offer ideas. Florence Martin-Kessler’s Op-Doc “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers” follows up with several female lawyers who appeared in a 2001 magazine article.

And, finally, books. Multiple documentaries start with books, including Dirt!, Half the Sky, and Food, Inc.

Social Networking

Since they are driven by people, social networks also offers potential ideas. I refer here both to interpersonal connections and online ones. One of the greatest potential documentary stories I ever heard came from a student who got the story from someone who overheard someone else talking in a diner.

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.