Tip o’ The Month: Differences Between Documentary and Narrative Filmmaking

When I first started Columbia, the foundations courses in the Film & Video department didn't include a documentary component. I waited until I could take a pilot of what is currently the foundation courses my sophomore year. Luckily, in the second semester, we got to make a documentary (see a snippet of my first doc below).

Even if you're a student interested in primarily cinematography or directing or screenwriting (not necessarily doc), there are definitely a few things that can be gained from the insight of a documentary filmmaker's mindset. Here's why:

1. No form of filmmaking isn't easy. It requires the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. And documentary filmmakers (especially those of the verite variety) have to deal with this all the time.  Documentary filmmakers have to make fast decisions when filming events, on-location, interviewing, etc.  Being able to make quick calls that will save you time and money is something that can be very helpful (especially to producers) in a narrative atmosphere.

2. Documentary filmmaking requires trust.  On large narrative sets, where you might not even know 1/3 of the crew's first name, it's good to remember the personable nature of documentary set.  When preparing for interviews, it's very common for documentary filmmakers to conduct “pre-interviews” without cameras present so that they can get to know the interviewees and make them feel more comfortable.  This is a good tip for emerging narrative directors, especially when working with student actors.  When you're working  with an actor, maybe get to know the person first…their actual personality might yield clues as to how to elicit more from their character's persona.

3. Documentary film sets are often minimalist.  Narrative sets are typically the opposite, but it never hurts to know how to do more with less.  Especially when approaching upper undergrad years and graduation, a lot of students from various concentrations get the opportunity to make a little extra money freelancing for things like wedding videos, event videography, etc., and you will likely be by yourself (if you're very lucky, you might have another person).  It's good to know how to do one-man-band so that you can acquire skills in directing, producing, cinematography, sound, etc., so that in case one of your crew calls in sick, you can pick up the extra slack with little effort.

Likewise, doc filmmakers — even if you have no desire to, say, work on practicum (ahem), it's also good to have experience on a narrative set. Here's why:

1. The idea that great documentaries can be made completely “on the fly” is a myth.  Learning the role of a narrative director, line producer, and creative producer is helpful in knowing how to preconceive what a story might be, and how to plan ahead and deal with some of the logistics of shooting (where to park, when to eat, how much to spend, etc.).  Even though a documentary filmmaker may not always know what to expect going into an interview or situation, it's the fact that you knew this element could be essential to your story that's important.

2. It's very atypical for narrative directors to edit their own films.  In many cases, big-name narrative directors will just take a break from the footage for a few months before entering in on the process to give feedback to the editor.  Many documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, insist on editing their own films.  There are times, though, when it's good to take a step back and maybe get a second piece of advice, especially if the content is very sensitive or runs a little too close to home.  What may be seemingly less important to you an interview may  be more important to somebody viewing the film is more detached from the situation and people.

3. Narrative sets are full of tedious paperwork.

Please Join Us on Tuesday, Sept. 13th for a Networking Party!

Viva Doc will be kicking off the Fall 2011 semester by hosting a networking event!  This event is for anybody, no matter your year, major, concentration.  If you love documentaries — making them or watching them or talking about them — Viva Doc is for you!  We have a variety of opportunities for folks from all backgrounds.

Here are the deets:

When: Tuesday, September 13th @ 5:30pm
Where: The Doc Center (1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 407)
Why: Because it’ll be a great way to make friends and connect with folks who are interested in stuff you are!  …Oh, and did we mention there is free food??

We like to party! #rockthedoc

Please e-mail us at vivadocumentary@gmail.com if you have any questions, or if you would like us to add you to our mailing list.  We send out periodic updates regarding internship opportunities, fun workshops, documentary screenings, and other awesome stuff.  And don’t forget to add us on Twitter (@vivadoc) and Facebook (Viva Documentary).

See you soon!

-Viva Doc

Documentary Faculty & Alumni Inspire Social Change

Documentaries are primarily made to educate and entertain.  But in some special cases, the impact of their content goes much further.  As faculty member Jeff Spitz would say, “The outreach and impacts from a documentary film can ripple across a decade or more, inspire congress and move mountains.”

After the earthquake in Japan, Navajo protesters remind Americans that nuclear poisoning is happening in their own backyard.

Jeff's feature documentary “Return of the Navajo Boy” has been out for a few years now.  It was featured at Sundance in 2000.  But even with the actual film complete, Jeff and his staff at Educational Films (including Viva Doc alumns Arlen and Mitch) continued documenting the challenges in Navajo country (mainly, the pollution and sickness caused by local uranium mining).  They spread the word through screening the film at community centers and periodically uploading new video content to the website and Facebook page to keep audiences engaged.

Finally, just over 10 years after the film was initially released, the EPA has announced that they are going to clean up Monument Valley (where the film primarily takes place) and compensate the featured Cly family for the costs incurred because of the pollution.  An article from Navajo Times with more information can be found here.

Certainly the story of the film and the events inspired by it are remarkable.  They remind us that when an issue, and the story around that issue, are strong enough, it is our duty as documentarians to continue harnessing our filmmaking powers to promote social change.  It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, but the results are priceless.

Jeff Spitz currently teaches two documentary classes at Columbia: Documentary Research & Writing, and a documentary topics class called Chicago: My Kind of Town.  For more information on how to enroll in Jeff's classes, or get involved in Groundswell projects, email him at jspitz@colum.edu.

You can watch the trailer for his film here:

Viva Doc Alumn Wins Student Academy Award

There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Wonjung Bae is one of the rising young stars in the documentary production field.  She has a considerable knack for capturing emotions and tones, while always having a realistic mindset about what logistics productions will entail.

Wonjung accepting her Student Academy Award

We were so happy for Wonjung when, over the summer, we got on update that she had received a Student Academy Award (probably the highest award a student filmmaker can receive) for her documentary “Vera Klement: Blunt Edge.”  The short film covers the artistic process and inspiration of Vera, a painter living in Skokie, surrounding the events of her 80th birthday party.  It includes Vera’s quirky, yet serious mannerisms, while the gorgeous cinematography mimics Vera’s art itself.  You can watch a previous cut of the film here, and another artist portrait film of hers here.

We would like to congratulate Wonjung on her success, and wish her the best in the future.  She completed her masters degree and graduated last May.

Watch her acceptance speech here:

The New Americans and Me

Jose from The New Americans
Looking back, I can find all types of moments that may have foreshadowed my love for documentary but if there was a time that truly made me commit to non-fiction, it was my last year at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The design of the film program at that time was that you make a choice at the thesis level; make a narrative film in 16mm snyc-sound or a documentary in digital video with the Canon XL1. The year that followed stretched me and challenged me in so many ways that I realized that documentary filmmaking makes you eat, sleep and breathe film in the way that my Production 1 teacher, Mike Covell, talked about in my first real film class. At that age all I wanted to do was change the world and documentary gave me to tools to do so.

My thesis film followed a bus full of immigration rights activists for 8 days as they lobbied and rallied in Washington D.C. with thousands of others from around the country. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement that combined the issues of all immigrants instead of just one population. I knew little about all this when I stepped on the bus and I probably never would have if I hadn’t taken a leap into something completely foreign to me but I was college so I took the chance.

In a tiny way, getting on that bus was like the immigrant experience. I left home with a few bags and a camera and I lived among a group of people that I knew very little about. Feelings of displacement, helplessness, pride and acceptance were some that I was able to sample during those 8 days and 9 nights. I was different when I returned but I still didn’t have the language to articulate my new outlook on life. I was a kid with 30 hours of footage and about 10 hours of experience in non-linear, digital editing. Lily Buroskowski helped me manage the footage and look for the story but it was a grueling 4 months of bad edits and do overs.

It was in this venerable state that I first encountered The New Americans. Steve James, a Southern Illinois alum and Academy Award nominated director of Hoop Dreams, was screening his series, The New Americans during The Big Muddy Film Festival. The film was spread out over 3 days which meant that we were able to watch it the way that Kartemquin preferred. The series still hadn’t aired on television and we had the privilege of listening to Steve James, who was there for a Q & A after part 1. I spoke to him briefly about my thesis project and he was very encouraging. The details of the conversation are blurred by my star-struck memory but I’m sure I sounded like a nervous little fanboy so I still appreciate how kind he was.

I couldn’t agree more with Kartemquin’s claim that The New Americans intimately connects viewers to its subjects. This was the first series that I’d seen that was able to follow immigrant families from their home countries to the United States and one of the largest payoffs to this approach comes in the story of Jose and Riccardo, two baseball players that the L.A. Dodgers recruit from the Dominican Republic.The juxtaposition between Riccardo, an unmistakable talent, and Jose, a poor boy who can play, gives us a wide range of information about why families pin in their hopes to something as fickle as a professional baseball career. There are echoes of this relationship when Jose and Riccardo negotiate contracts with management and are happy to have check for $5,000 for a season while their U.S. born counterparts won’t consider playing for under a million dollars.

The Nigerian story of Ogoni Refugees, Israel and Ngozi shows a completely different approach to the story because we are introduced to Israel and Ngozi Nwidor after they’ve lived for a refugee camp for 2 years and are about to make the transition of starting a new life in America. This storyline requires a backstory to explain the circumstances that brought the Nwidor family, and many other Ogonis, to this point.

Isreal’s optimism serves as a reminder of what makes people risk their futures to come to the U.S. A scene where Ngozi and Isreal send a portion of their earnings shows some of the pressure that most immigrant families are under to maintain the image of the American Dream in the eyes of family back at home. Even though they are suffering through hardships, they still have to send money back home and tell everyone that they are doing well.

Watching the Nwidor family experience America for the first time is an amazing thing. When the refugees are first given McDonald’s hamburgers it’s as if they’ve finally arrived in the land of opportunity. It’s a food that I do everything in my power to avoid but watching Isreal eat one makes me appreciate what it would mean to appreciate it without even knowing what’s inside. His excitement to learn what goes on the outside and what is in the middle shows that, like anyone on the brink of change, he doesn’t know what he’s in for.

The last story that’s introduced in the first part of the series is of Naima Saadeh, a Palestinian bride that is determined to leave her small town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she has lived her whole life. We get to know Naima as she goes through a typical commute to school. She needs to take three taxi-vans and cross an Israeli checkpoint to get to school. We get some of the back story of the situation in the West Back through letters that her brother, Jihad, wrote to her while imprisoned for his role in the youth movement during the Intifada. I love the scene for it’s emotional power, the amount of information communicated and because they allow Naima to break the fourth wall by telling Jihad that “They” asked to see the letters.

The relationship between of Naima and her fiance, first-generation Palestinian American Hatem Abudayyeh, is fascinating because of the differences between the way they view Naima’s life. Hatem is offended to see Naima and all of his people have to travel through checkpoints. There’s also a scene where Hatem sheds a tear for the story of one of his father’s tenants. Naima, on the other hand, doesn’t find her story as tragic and seems uncomfortable that her husband is so moved and she isn’t.

The tapestry that’s woven with these 3 stories creates a depth that couldn’t be achieved by focusing on an individual family. However, Kartemquin’s approach doesn’t cheat any of the characters out of their own complexity. That’s why I’ve found it so easy to find parallels between The New Americans and my own life last time I watch it as well as this time. The issues that are bought out of the lives of these families translate to the lives of anyone that is in transition.

The feelings of displacement that I felt when I was on a bus full of strangers is the same as those that Jose and Ricardo felt when they were brought up by the Dodgers. The helplessness that Isreal and Ngozi felt in trying to advance at their jobs is similar to my having a mountain of footage and no knowledge of how to edit it and the feeling that I had as I neared graduation echoed Naima’s experience as she passed her exam and prepared for her new life in America. As the series is rebroadcast, I find myself in a similar transition as I assimilate into the culture of documentary filmmakers and begin a new chapter in my own life. I can’t wait to see what this series holds for me this time around.

The filmmakers behind The New Americans will be visiting the Viva Doc online forum soon. To read more about that, click here.

“Life Or Obama?” Documentary Shoot a Success

Flickr photo by asiangermanirish
Flickr photo by asiangermanirish
Associated Press photo from the Houston Chronicle
About two weeks ago, I organized the production of Life or Obama?, a film which focused on Notre Dame University’s invitation to have Obama speak at the school’s commencement.
From Friday to Sunday, I was on campus filming anti-abortion protesters, trucks with anti-Obama slogans next to graphic photos of aborted baby fetuses, and what came to be known as “the dead baby plane.” I interviewed individuals for and against the invitation, but my main goal was to get the story of the students, which I thought was not being told. Mitch Wenkus and Marcin Szocinski each were DPs and I directed.
I developed and finessed this idea for the film—that I would be illuminating how the campus had been transformed by a group of outsiders and the media. It was easy to get the outsiders because they were out in the open being led by their leader Randall Terry who was receiving extra help with publicity from Alan Keyes.
It was not surprising that the media did not really begin to interview or feature students who were not against the speech until days before. Students from the ND Response coalition that formed to oppose the invitation appeared on shows, but there were few reporters who ventured on to campus to ask students not involved in any responses what they thought.
I began to track the media a month and a half before the commencement speech was given. The number of stories being conducted dramatically increased a week before the speech. There were many segments on cable news networks that dealt with Obama’s upcoming Notre Dame Commencement speech and the protesters and bishops and priests who were against Obama speaking.
I followed the campaigns for and against the invitation to determine when and where to film, to create a schedule for production. The StopObamaNotreDame.org site and NDResponse.com both had schedules listing demonstrations that the public and the media could attend.
I was very impressed by the students grateful for those who agreed to let me arrange and plan in-depth interviews and thankful that students did not express disdain for my presence on campus.
All the ND students I interviewed who were outside the gates standing among the protesters with signs in support of the class of ’09 and Notre Dame or Obama were very cooperative and could not have been more receptive to the production I was attempting to complete.
I used a blog (Life Or Obama? on WordPress) and postings on Open Salon to promote the film and recount what happened on the day of Obama’s Commencement Speech at Notre Dame. My intent was to become a trusted authority for the Notre Dame story and if you look at how many of my Notre Dame posts were marked as “Editor’s Pick,” you can see how successful I was.
My film blog has an article on the protesters and my shooting experiences on Sunday, the day Obama spoke at Notre Dame's Commencement. For the most part, the crew strategy was to act like we were from a media organization because the campus was swarming with media.
I have not been able to view my footage. I do not have the equipment to watch the DV tapes which I recorded on. Because I have a computer that is not a Mac and that does not have a firewire, this project must be stalled.
From this point, I find out if I got a grant from Critical Encounters (this documentary was developed with the intention of being part of the “Fact & Faith” program next year). Also, I will consider the cost and value of getting anymore interviews to add to my documentary and conduct further research to finesse my story.

Thank you to all who have supported this project and thanks to those interested as well. I will keep you updated on the status of the project as developments occur.

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