Exhibit Highlights 50 years of Kartemquin Films History

“Kartemquin Films: Democracy through Documentary, 1966-2016” is a retrospective highlighting 50 years of Kartemquin history. The exhibit is available at Expo 72, 72 E. Randolph St., Chicago. I had the chance to check it out when I visited the windy city a couple weeks ago.

Centered around themes of craft, community, and change, the curated items represent the organization’s history and ideologies, not to mention documentary history more generally.

Kartemquin Films is committed to social documentary filmmaking in the cinéma vérité traditions. People and their stories drive their films. Emotions, particularly empathy, engage audiences to understand the complexities of the lived realities represented before them.

The following John Dewey quote, which appears on the exhibit’s wall, says it better than I do:

“Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.”

Dewey’s ideas inform and inspire throughout the exhibit and the organization’s history. In his University of Chicago thesis paper titled “Cinéma Verité in a Democracy,” co-founder Gordon Quinn cites another of Dewey’s books. One exhibit visitor picked up on the importance, writing a note that stated, “My favorite piece in the exhibit is Gordon’s copy of Dewey’s book with underlined statements that defined his life.”

Two key questions engage exhibit visitors, asking for their written responses on notecards. The first question asks, “Is the personal political?” — a question emerging from sociologist C. Wright Mills’s ideas in the 1950s and amplifying during the social movements in the 1960s. This question pushes a huge turn in documentary production during the 1960s and 1970s. It continues within Kartemquin’s films, and others’ films, even today. On the board, one person wrote, “Is water wet?”, to emphasize what they saw as an “obvious” question.

The other question asks, “Are you happy?” in reference to Kartemquin’s second film Inquiring Nuns (1968). Taking cue from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, Inquiring Nuns follows Sisters Marie Arné and Mary Campion as they ask people in Chicago this very same question. On the board my favorite written response was, “Like Chicago weather, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will change, just stick around.”

The 55-film catalog serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece. By picking up a postcard bearing a QR code, viewers can check out clips from every film across the decades, including 2016 releases Raising Bertie and the upcoming Unbroken Glass.

Not surprisingly, the iconic Hoop Dreams receives particularly detailed attention, with marketing materials, educational materials, archival photos, press coverage, film reels, and the original project proposal. One panel shows the discarded design mock-ups for the film’s theatrical release poster, which reveal part of the struggle the organization undertook to ensure their social messages came through even though mainstream marketing focused more on the overcoming-the-odds story. I had the chance to peruse those Hoop Dreams boxes, and the documents therein further detail the extent of this struggle.

The exhibit also shows connections to documentary film history, particularly through changes in equipment and technology. The famed Camera #1 is on display right in front. The camera shows the ingenuity and flexibility needed when it came to using and adapting equipment toward storytelling goals. One picture reminds us what editing used to be like before AVID and Final Cut.

Quirky gems appear throughout the exhibit, such as a 1980 “thank you” letter from Nicaragua for the gift of an Auricon 16mm camera Kartemquin donated to the Sandista government to “document the revolution.” A taped-up office chair was the seat from which Kartemquin co-founder Jerry Temaner wrote the organization’s founding “Cinematic Social Inquiry” manifesto. Buttons promote films and related social justice movements. There is even information about the mid-1970s distribution efforts via Haymarket Films, a short-lived offshoot company named for the 1886 labor demonstration that was bombed, elicited gunfire, and resulted in multiple deaths. The Haymarket events represent a significant event in Chicago’s labor history as demonstrators sought an eight-hour workday. One photo that I did wonder about showed a man holding a large snake. No text accompanied the photo to explain.

While many cool and interesting things appear in the exhibit, my favorite image appears in the Hoop Dreams section. It is a sketch of a basketball player shooting the ball over an Oscar statue into the bucket. A single T-pin holds it to the wall, and no caption or quote appears to explain it. The image refers to the controversy over Hoop Dreams not earning an Oscar nomination despite its immensely popular reception.

The framed version of this image hangs in the second-floor bathroom in the house on Wellington Street. It accompanies a framed quote from Britney Spears — “Sundance is weird. The movies are weird — you actually have to think about them when you watch them” — and the usual bathroom etiquette signs. To me, the image and its placement say so much about Kartemquin, their perseverance, and the sense of humor needed to persevere as long as they have.

The exhibit runs through August 20. Admission is free. For more information about the exhibit and the schedule of gallery talks, see www.ktq50.org/exhibit.

A Simple Question Belies Depths in ‘The Jinx’

Sometimes an interview question seems so simple that it belies the cultural depths that inform it.

A question like this appears in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Murders of Robert Durst (2015). This six-episode HBO series retraces the unsolved murders linked to Durst through archival footage, reenactments, and interviews, including with Durst himself. Throughout the episodes, Jarecki asks questions from off camera in order to move the inquiry along.

The second chapter, titled “Poor Little Rich Boy,” addresses the traumas of Durst’s childhood and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie. According to the “official” story, Kathie took the train back to New York City, arrived at her apartment around 11:30 p.m., called Robert to let him know she was there, and called her medical school to report her absence the next day. After that last call, she disappeared. After a few days, Durst filed a missing persons report. Kathie’s friends, however, believed that Durst killed her, and they undertook their own investigation into the situation.

Part of Jarecki’s revelations include details about Kathie’s dealing with abuse that escalated during their marriage. It included hitting, kicking, shoving, a forced abortion, and monitoring that required Kathie check in with Robert via telephone wherever she went. Her friends recounted Kathie’s fears over Robert’s potential anger. Kathie also had filed for divorce, but Robert had refused.

The question comes in an interview with Kathie’s friend Geraldine McInerney. With the documentary’s uncovering of these abusive behaviors, they had become the elephant in the room. Jarecki asks, “Why didn’t she leave?”

McInerney pauses for a moment and then replies, “I don’t know. I think she was afraid of him.”

While the question fits the context of the series, it also points to the myths surrounding domestic violence. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Domestic Abuse Project offer information that counter these myths. A hashtag campaign, #whyIstayed, also raises awareness.

Several reasons exist for why people stay in domestic violence situations. Some survivors remain unaware of options available to help them. They face cultural, religious, and familial pressures. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and depression entrap them. Some abuses they endure ensure they cannot leave, such as tight control of finances, transportation, social activities, and communications. Many stay because of their children.

Leaving can pose more dangers to the person’s safety than remaining in the abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone who leaves an abusive relationship is 75 percent more likely to experience separation violence or even be murdered by the partner.

Jarecki’s investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Robert uncovers parallels these issues. The physical altercations increased over time. Robert monitored her movements, such as his calling during the party at her friend’s house the night she disappeared. Kathie’s friend recalls her being rattled by those calls. Another friend questioned why Kathie had to call and check in with Robert when she out.

A tougher decision becomes another example. Kathie got pregnant in the late 1970s, and Robert offered her the choice of the abortion or divorce. In his interview with Jarecki, Durst claimed that he was jinxed and didn’t want children. We have no insight into Kathie’s thoughts.

The police response to her disappearance also suggests the legal issues that might arise in domestic violence situations. Those who claim abuse sometimes struggle with police believing their stories and their seriousness. In the series the police do ask about the state of the marriage, but they figure she left of her own free will. Even with Kathie’s friends telling them about the situation, the original detectives make no further investigation in his disappearance and close the case as a missing persons file, not a murder.

The divorce filing, which had happened three days before, might have been the final straw as it represented a move to freedom and thus posed a threat to Robert’s control over her.

These comments here are not to say that Jarecki’s posing of the question furthers the myths of women staying in domestic violence situations. The question fits the context of the film, and it is a question many viewers might have had. What’s better, though, is how the film answers the question through its investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Durst and the points it raises about that relationship.

Constructing Conversations about Race in ‘Trick Bag’

Kartemquin Films’ Trick Bag: A Black and White Film tackles a tough subject: race issues in 1970s Chicago.

Their 1974 short film shows a series of interviews among people across Chicago during the early 1970s. These people, mostly youth, gather at parks, on street corners, and in people’s homes. Race issues dominate these interviews, though intersectionalities with class -— a theme across Kartemquin’s catalogue -— also appear. Brief sequences of well-chosen music and some voiceover comments set up each scene and its key idea.

Unlike the usual lone talking head, this short approaches these interviews as conversations. In a kitchen, for example, several men sit and talk about their experiences while serving in Vietnam. Each of the men, who remain unidentified, share comments and anecdotes about what they went through there. An African-American man talks about how he had time served and rank and yet white men still got promoted over him. A white man shares his story about being harassed by a higher-up. While the camera cuts from speaker to speaker, we also see and hear some reactions from the others in the room, such as a reaction shot of a man nodding or a two-shot with another man laughing.

Other scenes offer more insights into the interactions among the people talking. One girl early in the film talks about bringing an African-American woman to her apartment before attending a show, and the landlord calls and tells her to have the woman leave immediately. The girl refuses to remove her friend, and the landlord gives them a 30-day eviction notice. As she talks, several people laugh almost nervously, making her smile as she talks though the man framed in the shot with her listens intently without much facial expression.

A conversation outside a Schwinn bicycle factory shows the most exchange among the speakers. Some start the comments, and others chime in to agree. Still others raise different points to the conversation. Shots show some people talking and other people listening, such as an African-American man talking and a white man listening.

While the sequences are set up as conversations with multiple people present, the editing still focuses on one speaker at a time for the most part. The conversation approach complements the discussions about race and class within the film in that it sets up a flow of honest, direct exchange. No sugarcoating happens here; the problems are clearly stated. One man says, “They say there’s a race problem between blacks and whites. It’s not really as much a race problem so much as it is a class problem.” After talking about the differing treatment of African-American and white factory workers, another man says, “You know who really gets [deleted]? Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

The comment that most stuck with me was this one: “We’re losing like 5-6 dudes a year.” That’s a sobering comparison to the number lost each day in Chicago. It would be interesting to hear what these conversations sound like today.

The Challenges of Getting and Staying ‘In the Game’

Sport documentaries are one of the oldest and most popular genres of the form. Some of the earliest films recorded boxing matches, as the sport’s confined area and bright lighting paired well with camera capabilities at the time. Later documentaries highlighted the spectacles of athletes and their abilities. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) offer stunning footage in this regard. Competition and its narrative arc provide an almost natural structure for an exciting documentary about the game.

Many documentaries about sport chronicle individual athletes and their achievements. Consider the long list of documentaries about Muhammad Ali — When We Were Kings (1996), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), and I Am Ali (2014), among many others. Athletes’ struggles beyond competing recur thematically as well, such as in The Heart of the Game (2005) and, of course, Hoop Dreams (1994). Fewer documentaries address entire teams, and even when they do, they focus on a key player or two at most.

Women’s and girls’ sports remain underrepresented in sport documentaries. Many of these documentaries concentrate on individual athletes, and only a handful are about teams. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team (2005) is one of the most popular. It features player bios with the competition the team faced while trying to win games, fans, and financial support. Kick Like a Girl (2008) is also about a soccer team, but this time a girls’ team that competes in the boys’ division.

With this background in mind, I was excited to check out In the Game, directed by Maria Finitzo. In the Game (2015) follows players and supporters of the girls’ soccer team at Thomas Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Finitzo documented their stories for several years, checking in on players’ lives both during and after high school.

The team faces challenges both on and off the field. One of the biggest? No field for practice or play. The girls drill in the hallway and in the gym — cramped spaces compared to the expansive soccer field. A well shot and edited match against Curie Metropolitan High School shows the team’s abilities. More so, it demonstrates the strong bond among the players and their coach. It is this bond, not the competition or the win, that drives In the Game.

Coach Stan Mietus approaches soccer as a uniting force, not a dividing one. While some coaches develop their strongest players and cut the less skilled ones, Mietus refuses to cut anyone and allows everyone a chance to play. Instead of the girls competing for top roster spots, they support and encourage each other throughout practices and games. “Each girl, she should feel so important. Without her, the team cannot go on,” Mietus said.

The girls at Thomas Kelly High School — where 83 percent of students identify as Hispanic — face challenges off the field as well. The high school endures budget cuts. About 86 percent of the students come from poverty, and the girls try to balance their education and soccer with work and family expectations. They hope to attend college. Not all of them even have familial support for playing soccer.

But the team and their coach help the girls stay focused and motivated. Team captain Elizabeth credits them for changing her work ethic, while another captain, Maria, credits the team for her staying in school. For Alicia, playing soccer puts her in the zone — “Once I start playing, everything just kind of fades away.”

Getting an education is a theme that runs throughout In the Game. Encouraged by her mother, Elizabeth sees college as an opportunity for better employment and a better life. Maria wins a prize for her house design, and dreams of owning her own architectural firm someday. Alicia dreams of a career in sports medicine. But so many obstacles block their way, and not just financial ones. All three find their way to college, but struggle to remain there in the face of pressures from home, money, and even their immigration statuses.

These girls take the team’s ethos with them and use it as a touchstone in life after high school graduation. Now young women, they want to give back to their team and their coach. Members attend the wake when their coach’s child is stillborn. They throw a surprise birthday party for him. Elizabeth even dreams of sponsoring the team in the future.

The editing of In the Game allows these highs and lows to flow without forcing an unnatural climax to the film. It brings together individual stories while leaving room for institutional critique — a delicate balance to find and maintain, and it is done well here.

In the Game does end on one high note, however, with the breaking ground of the new Kelly Park, which will have soccer and football fields and offer amenities for other community activities.

Overall, In the Game is a great contribution to the documentaries about girls’ team sports. It shows the importance a team can have in girls’ lives and it shows the foundation a good team and coach can provide, but at the same it does so with a realistic eye toward how hard it can be for some to get, grow from, and build on this positive experience.

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.