The Ragged Edge: An Interview with Matt Sienkiewicz

The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story is a documentary about Erik Buell and the struggles of his company, Erik Buell Racing, which is the only American sport bike company. The documentary is directed by Joseph Sousa and Matt Sienkiewicz.

I had the privilege of seeing this film in a rough cut and later in the final piece. Matt Sienkiewicz took some time to answer a few of my questions about the film.

Documentary Site: Racing is such an exciting sport. How did you and your colleague find this great story?

Matt Sienkiewicz, The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story: We stumbled into the story a little bit. I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and my co-producer Joe Sousa was working for The History Channel on this short-lived show called Sliced. It was a strange concept. They’d use a diamond-bladed saw and cut through all sorts of objects, revealing, I suppose, something about their history?

In any case, one of the objects they cut open was a Buell motorcycle, and Joe got talking to Erik and Geoff May, the motorcycle racer. Joe was immediately grabbed by the story and asked if I’d take the 80-minute drive from Madison to East Troy to meet with Erik. I had a similar reaction. Erik was one of the most compelling people I’d ever met. He has a unique voice, a signature style.

And then I got to see the impact that the opening and closing of Buell had on East Troy. I talked to employees who spoke about working at Buell with such reverence and gratitude. You could feel their heartbreak when they told you what it was like the day they got shut down. I wanted to see them get back to work and to document it.

DS: What was your process for getting the footage from the Speed network? Was any of the racing footage your own? If so, what went into getting it? (The on-bike camera shots are particularly exciting.)

Matt Sienkiewicz: Speed said we could use it, charged a small fee. We did get some racing footage on our own, mostly just point, shoot, and whip pan stuff. It actually came out pretty well given our limited lenses and smallish cameras. The GoPro footage is really what makes those scenes work, though.

Documentary is a producer’s medium. The key was getting the race crew to trust us enough to pop that camera on the bike during a real race. We can thank Boyd Bruner, who appears throughout the film, for that footage. He attached the camera and turned it on. The rest takes care of itself.

DS: Similar stories of companies and their connections to small towns occur throughout Wisconsin. Companies have strong ties to the local communities and make efforts to support them. Did you see Erik Buell’s story as part of this narrative? Or, were you looking at other contexts? If so, in which ones did you see his story fitting and why?

Matt Sienkiewicz: There’s a very local story and much broader that coexists in the film.

At the local level, it’s about the ways in which capitalism, for all its flaws, can get it right. Buell didn’t help the local community by making donations or contributing in some external way. It did so by providing competitive wages, good work conditions, satisfying labor, and a sense of purpose. It was proof that a business doesn’t have to be heartless and that American can workers can produce some pretty awesome stuff when given the opportunity.

It’s a labor movie, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It argues that labor in a for-profit business does not need to be alienating and that a business can, under the right circumstances, enhance the life of a community.

Of course, the more global side of the story cuts against the happy local one. As practiced currently, our version of capitalism doesn’t have a lot of room for a responsible company that can very likely make a profit, but requires patience and long-term commitment. I’m confident that EBR (Erik’s new company) has the potential to become a profitable, stable enterprise.

But the investment world looks for faster turnover and greater margins. The idea of making a solid percentage on a long-term investment does not attract the kind of money EBR needs. So, the film is about how business can be a force for good, but today’s vision of capitalism won’t necessarily let it.

DS: Buell experiences a frustrating series of forward steps and setbacks throughout the film. How did those affect the overall editing of the film?

Matt Sienkiewicz: It was a roller coaster. When you start a documentary like this, you don’t know until the very end whether or not you have a story. It was heart-wrenching to see these employees lose their jobs, get them back, lose them again, get them back again, and now, at least for the time being, be in limbo. We had at least five different cuts of the film with different endings, some happier than others.

DS: Your previous production, Live from Bethlehem, involved very different filming circumstances. How was filming in small-town Midwest different? Any unique things you noticed filming there that you have not seen elsewhere?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Well, the language is quite a bit easier. The experiences of shooting the films weren’t as different as you might think, though. I’m a Jewish humanities professor from Boston. Neither a Palestinian newsroom nor and Wisconsin motorcycle factory is exactly my home turf. So both films involved both really trying to understand another culture and, crucially, proving to the locals that I was there to learn about them and represent them as fairly as possible. The Midwestern stereotype of niceness certainly rings true and stands in significant distinction to the Middle East, where people tend to call things like they see them a bit more. But once you get to know someone and they start to be comfortable with the camera, it just becomes a matter of having a conversation, which is a pretty cross-cultural past time.

DS: A rough cut of this film included a voiceover narration, yet it was eliminated in your final cut. Why did you make the decision to remove it?

Matt Sienkiewicz: We’ve done that on the last two films. Generally, voiceover is a crutch, used to hide the weakness in the visual aspects of the storytelling. Our goal is to allow people, as much as possible, to tell their own stories. It’s a bit of a lie of course Joe, Ethan Schwelling (our editor), and I are shaping the story at every turn, voiceover or no voiceover. But when we limit ourselves to what other people say and do, we find things feel more honest.

DS: Any follow-up on the film since its epilogue?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Actually, yes. Looks like EBR may well be back up and running soon enough. We’re about to take off that depressing epilogue. Here’s hoping.

Three Docs on Ice: Science, Spectacle, and Storytelling

Dena Seidel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South recently became available on iTunes. Its topic and telling found me watching two other related documentaries: Chasing Ice and Encounters at the End of the World. All three address in part glaciers and climate change. What differs among them is their focuses on science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Science and the scientific process assume center stage in Antarctic Edge. Seidel’s documentary follows scientists taking a one-month boat trip along the Antarctic coast. They study climate change through penguins, humpback whales, krill, water, and of course ice. They study samples from the water and evaluate animals using very expensive and sensitive equipment.

Multiple experts explain their studies and their significance. Warmer temperatures mean habitat and food availability changes for penguins, for example. The scientists also explain the processes in conducting their studies. Animations visualize these processes.

While multiple experts appear, no one person becomes the forerunner, the “star.” All studies stand on equal footing in their representations.

Instead of starting with science, Chasing Ice begins with stunning ice spectacles. James Balog, photographer and founder the Extreme Ice Survey, believes that photography provides the “visible evidence” needed to show the impacts of climate change through the rapidly retreating glaciers.

Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows Balog’s passion and his study, which involves setting up cameras to capture glacial changes throughout Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and other places. We learn about Balog’s life, career, and obstacles alongside the challenges of the project, including rigging cameras to function within extreme weather conditions.

Both documentaries feature sequences of calving, where the ice breaks and falls into the ocean. In itself, calving might not sound interesting, until you realize the scale: Some of those ice chunks exceed twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Antarctic Edge shows some stunning glacial formations and calving, but they are traveling shots along the scientists’ journey. Chasing Ice, however, makes showing these spectacles and getting them on camera the focal point for highlighting climate change.

A massive calving becomes the climax of the film. Balog sends two scientists to watch a glacier for a month to see if it does anything. After three weeks of nothing spectacular, they record the largest calving event ever caught on camera. (Headphones are recommended for hearing the rumble that accompanies this event.)

While Antarctic Edge focuses on science and Chasing Ice focuses on spectacle, Encounters at the End of the World focuses on people and the human condition. I have written about this film before, but it is worth revisiting briefly here as it shows another approach to science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Funded by the National Science foundation and staunchly refusing to make a film about penguins, Werner Herzog visits Antarctica. While attracted to the natural beauty, Herzog ultimately is more interested people’s stories.

He does speak with scientists, such as a glaciologist who talks at length about ice dynamics and climate change. Other scientists explain the dynamics of the active volcano and penguin insanity. But he also speaks to the people driving trucks, raising plants, and doing maintenance who live and work as part of the community there.

The visuals in Encounters at the End of the World are stunning or utilitarian. The stunning include snowy landscapes, underwater seascapes, and volcanic formations. The more utilitarian show the base and its operations. But ultimately for Herzog, the bigger questions are not science and climate change, but the depressing question of humanity’s impending demise.

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.

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.