What is the Best Documentary Film School?

Interested in taking classes workshops or courses on documentary film? Or maybe you’re interested in a degree program for documentary filmmakers. There are dozens (hundreds?) of schools in the US that offer documentary film classes, but only a handful that offer majors or a substantial number of documentary filmmaking courses. Do you want to go to a film school that has a documentary concentration? Or a regular liberal arts college where you can take courses in all sorts of subjects? An MFA in documentary film? Or a shorter workshop that teaches documentary film and nothing else?

Check out this new article about the best documentary film schools.

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.

Tip o’ the Month – Fundraising

There is a common myth that documentaries are, by nature, “low-budget” films.  While certain costs may be lower, such as compensating actors, or covering large amounts of crew to feed/transport, there are considerations that must be made, such as…

– Film festival submission fees
– Transportation fees (since a lot of docs are shot on-location)
– Marketing and promotional materials
– Covering crew expenses (editors have to often deal with 100+ hours of footage… that’s a lot of work!)
– Materials expenses (DVDs, packaging, etc.)
– And so on…

Don’t be worried, though.  There are a lot of tools that can help you achieve you goals.  Here’s a super-condensed run-down of ways to free you of your financial frets…

1. Online Fundraising Tools, like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo
Advantage: if you already have a good following of the film or its topic online, this is a great way to engage folks and spread the word virally.  People can pay online, which is super convenient for them.
Disadvantage:  In order to be profitable, these sites do take a small percentage of your money.  Also, Kickstarter won’t let you keep your funds if you don’t meet your goals in the time you allotted.

2. Grants (examples include ITVS and CAAP)
Advantage: this is how most professional documentary filmmakers try to get funding, so filling out killer grant applications is a very useful tool to learn, and could potentially help you when applying for jobs in the field
Disadvantage: grants are often super-competitive and may sometimes require 501(c)3 charitable status…the best way to work with these issues are to partner with a non-profit organization or cause that has a reputable background

3. Old-Fashioned Event Fundraising

Advantage: if your project has the potential to attract a lot of local people to a single location, then it might be worth renting out a venue and maybe showing a rough cut, providing informational materials, entertainment, and/or raffle prizes to help raise money.  It’s a great way to truly engage your audience.
Disadvantage: you have to really be choosey about where you’re going to host the event.  Many places charge a fee, and, for example, if the event is at a bar, there are various policies regarding the proceeds of drinks purchased, etc. These events also take a lot of planning and marketing, so if your project can’t spare a little energy for event fundraising, it might be best to go a different route.

4. Educational/Community Screenings
Advantage: if you’ve already completed a project, consider contacting local organizations and schools to screen your film…this can be mutually beneficial, as you can charge them a flat fee, and they can charge an entry fee so they can make a little money also
Disadvantage: the place screening your film may have their own agenda.  Make sure you have a clear mode of communication with the person running the event there, so that you know what everybody’s responsibilities are, and that you’ll get your fair share of recognition.

Example of Kickstarter, an online fundraising tool

Doc Week: Full of Screenings, Panels

Viva Doc, a student organization on Columbia’s campus, is dedicated to exposing students to the often underlooked gems of documentary filmmaking. “Doc Week” will include a variety of panels with industry professionals, as well as screenings. Each of these events presents great opportunities to network and learn more about documentaries as a form of entertainment and a potential career path.

Tuesday, October 26th @ 3:30pm
Renowned production company Kartemquin Films will demonstrate how to properly critique projects. Students are highly encouraged to bring their films/TV documentaries! 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 801

Wednesday, October 27th @ 3:30pm
Mike West, an Executive Producer from Kurtis Productions, will lead a seminar on the making of the CNBC television show, “American Greed.” 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 407D

Wednesday, October 27th @ 6:30pm
Associate Producers from Towers Productions will discuss the making of TV documentaries and their relationship with the TV networks. 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 709

Thursday, October 28th @ 3:30pm
Columbia College faculty member Michael Caplan will discuss how he balances his job as a full-time teacher with his passion as a documentarian. 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 709

Thursday, October 28th @ 6:30pm
A screening of honorable mentions from the 2010 International Student Documentary Competition.. includes amazing student works from around the world! 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 709

Friday, October 29th @ 6pm
The five winners of the 2010 International Student Documentary Competition will be screened… refreshments will be served, and an introduction will be made by renowned filmmaker and founder of Columbia’s documentary center, Michael Rabiger. 1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 407


Viva Doc Contributes to Studs Terkel Memorial Video

Naomi Kothbauer, the 2010-2011 Viva Doc president, recently contributed to a beautiful memorial video for the 2011 Studs Terkel Community Media Awards benefit.  The video also features cinematography from Wonjung Bae, Dan Webster, Demetrio Maguigad, and Marissa Wasseluk. Studs Terkel was an award-winning Chicago journalist, and serves as an inspiration to many involved in documentary and journalistic works.

PBS Filmmaker to Screen Film, Do Q+A

Scottish filmmaker Amy Hardie has built a career making science documentaries that reflect her rational temperament. When she dreamed one night that her horse was dying, only to wake the next morning and find the horse dead, she dismissed the incident as a coincidence. Then she dreamed she would die at age 48 — only one year away. When Hardie does get ill, just as the dream predicted, she visits neuroscience experts and eventually a shaman. The Edge of Dreaming is an evocative, intimate chronicle of that year and a fascinating investigation into the human subconscious.  The film has had tremendous success in several festivals, and was featured on PBS last year.

Viva Doc will be co-hosting a screening of the film, followed by a Q A with Amy.  This event will take place this Thursday, March 3rd at 7pm in Rm. 502 at the 1104 S. Wabash building.  It wil be a great opportunity to meet an acclaimed filmmaker and enjoy a very introspective piece of work.

We hope to see you there!

The fb event page: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=193263014029906

Viva Doc Members with Amy Hardie

Free Documentary Films This Week!


  • Return of the Navajo Boy – Screening and Discussion 
  • “Doxita: Life is a Progress” Screening
  • “American Arab” Screening


“Return of the Navajo Boy” Screening and Panel Discussion
Wednesday, November 10th @ 12:30, 1104 – 8th Floor

-Official selection of the Sundance Film Festival and PBS, The Return of Navajo Boy, directed by Jeff Spitz, introduces audiences to Navajo ways, Hollywood stereotypes, and one Navajo grandmother’s incredible struggle for justice. Spitz and the Navajo grandmother, Elsie Begay, are both featured in a remarkable new book by former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, Judy Pasternak. Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed reveals a stunning chain reaction that began with the dawning of the atomic age and results six decades later in the form of increasing environmental health problems for Navajo families living amidst abandoned cold war uranium mines and radioactive waste.


“Doxita: Life is a Progress” Screening
Thursday, November 11th @ 6:30pm, 1104
 -Films being screened include:
1. Steel Homes (UK, Eva Weber, 10 min.) – Storage lockers provide a holding ground for memories of long-gone loved ones and dreams that still live.  Striking cinematography and sound evoke the minds and personal space of average people.
2. Slaves (UK, Hannah Heilborn, 15 min.) – Colorful animation brings alive the tale of two Sudanese youth captured for slavery.  The animation and documentary interview technique mask the children's identity while also creating an engrossing story of survival.
3. The First Kid to Learn English From Mexico (USA, Peter Jordan, 20 min.) – 9-year-old Pedro Lopez wishes he never left Mexico.  Lush camera and music create this almost surreal, yet honest and charming portrait of this struggling boy.
4. 12 Notes Down (Denmark, Andreas Koefed, 28 min.) – Jorgis is the star of his boys choir, until the onset of puberty affects what he loves most: his ability to sing.


“American Arab” Screening
Friday, November @ 7pm, 600 S. Michigan Ave – Ferguson Theater
-Kartemquin Films and the Human Relations Advisory Council on Arab Affairs present clips from the documentary 'American Arab' and a panel discussion of issues in the film and current events affecting the Arab-American experience and identity.

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

ESPN’s 30 for 30

For years, ESPN had been relatively absent from the sports-doc scene, but after the 2008 release of Dan Klores’s Black Magic, ESPN saw an opportunity to make a statement. Black Magic examined the struggle for civil rights told through the eyes of basketball players at Historical Black Colleges and Universities.

This four-hour documentary resembled something closer to Eyes on the Prize than any previous documentary shown on ESPN. Yes, basketball plays an extremely important role in the film, but the sports angle is merely a vehicle to talk about a social movement that changed the United States.

After the film’s broadcast, ESPN.COM columnist, Bill Simmons, thought the network had to continue to push outside their normal comfort zone and make sports documentaries that explored more than just box scores and highlights. Instead of ESPN hiring a director to create a film that was cooked up by some network executive, they would seek out some of the most renowned filmmakers and television personalities to make the films of their choosing. The gamble was: if ESPN gave full artistic freedom to these documentarians, then the end product would be personal and transcend the world of sports. The 30 for 30 series would be thirty stories “detailing the issues, trends, athletes, teams, rivalries, games and events” over the last thirty years, since ESPN’s birth in 1979.

Nearly a year later, the series has aired nineteen of a now scheduled thirty-two docs and the series has covered everything from rotisserie baseball, to NFL marching bands, to the dangers of BMX biking. Like with any documentary, it helps to have an interest in the subject in order to maximize your viewing experience. In other words, if you are a fan of documentary films, but have absolutely no interest in the world of sports, 30 for 30 is certainly not appointment television. On the other hand, some of the films in the series have been so incredible that whether or not you know what a cross-over dribble means or whether you are as clueless as I am when watching rugby, the films still manage to transcend the world of sports and touch a nerve in nearly any viewer. As I have watched each film in the 30 for 30 series, I try to approach my viewing from both the sports fan’s perspective, as well as from a documentarian’s stance. I’ve tried to breakdown the series for those that aren’t sports nuts, but are looking for a good doc to watch. Otherwise, a new film in the 30 for 30 series premieres every Tuesday through November 9th with all films available on iTunes for $5.

THE BEST – By Order of Air Date

Muhammad and Larry – dir. Albert Maysles

Captured on film by Albert Maysles – the Babe Ruth of documentarians – was the first signs of Muhammad Ali battling Parkinson’s Disease. In 1980, Albert and his late brother, David, shot and edited the training sessions of the former champ, Ali, as he came out of retirement for one last shot against the young champion, Larry Holmes. The fight is a blood bath as Holmes destroys Ali from the opening bell until his corner throws in the towel in the 10th round. Because of the fight’s depressing outcome, showing a hero being destroyed, no distributors were interested in the Maysles’ film back in the early ‘80s. Now three decades later and re-edited, the footage is priceless, as we bare witness to the beginning of a heroes end.

Without Bias – dir. Kirk Fraser

Fraser’s film chronicles the 1986 death of college basketball star and newly drafted Boston Celtic, Len Bias. While basketball plays a very important part in this film, Len Bias’s death transcended sports in a way that no other athletes death had ever before. For most people growing up in the mid-80s, the name Len Bias meant one thing: Cocaine Kills. Bias’s cocaine overdose led to federal mandatory sentencing for drug possession cases that effect the courts to this very day. While Muhammad and Larry is a tragedy of a hero breaking down, Without Bias is a tragedy of a young man who became an example of the perils of youth.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – dir. Steve James

Filmmaker Steve James tells a story more about his hometown of Hampton, Virginia than he does about former NBA All-Star, Allen Iverson. In 1993, Iverson, then the top high school basketball player in the country, was convicted for his part in a racially charged fight at a Hampton bowling alley. What unfolds is a story of race and how it has separated a town that was founded as a port-of-call for 17th Century slave ships.

The 16th Man – dir. Clifford Bestall, Lori McCreary, and Morgan Freeman

Essentially, the true story of the film Invictus. In 1995, South Africa was host to the Rugby World Cup, the first major international event on South African soil since the end of apartheid. With racial harmony in the country being far from reality, President Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby team formed a bond that would bring the entire country together. This film shows the true spirit of sports, how a silly game can bring an entire country together.

June 17th, 1994 – dir. Brett Morgan

The day O.J. Simpson made a run for it. Told with no narration and only with archival footage, Morgan cross-cuts O.J.’s white Bronco chase with the day’s other sports headlines: a pivotal NBA finals game between the Knicks and Rockets, Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade and the start of the first FIFA World Cup on U.S. soil. This would be the day that Simpson would cease being a sports icon and become a notorious celebrity of a different kind.

The Two Escobars – dir. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar was a leader for his highly touted Columbian World Cup Soccer team. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was a hero to many of Columbia’s poor, but a murderous tyrant to many others. The Two Escobars details the dangerous world that both men lived and died in and how Colombian soccer and drugs intersect. The uplifting power of sports captured by The 16th Man is far removed in this film, as we see how stupid human beings can be when it comes to a silly game.

GOOD SPORTS DOCS – worth a view if you area bit more into sports

The Band That Wouldn’t Die – dir. Barry Levinson – The story of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band continuing to play despite having lost their football team in 1984.

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?dir. Mike Tolin – The birth, life and death of the United States Football League. Also, Donald Trump as the bad guy.

The U – dir. Billy Corben – Two hours of the showboating and dirty play of the University of Miami football team. If you have no interest in college football, stay far away from this one.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks – dir. Dan Klores – Reggie was a thorn in the side of Knicks fans and he loved to play the villain. Operatic at times, Winning Time is a fun doc for NBA fans.

Guru of Go – dir. Bill Couturie – This one almost made my BEST list, but I think you either have to be a college basketball fan or at least remember the death of Hank Gathers to really enjoy this film as much as I did. Gathers was a phenom and led the country in scoring and rebounding as a junior at little Loyola Maramount. In his senior year, he tried to play through a heart condition, but ended up collapsing and dying during a game.

The Birth of Big Air – dir.автобазар Jeff Tremaine, Johny Knoxville and Spike Jonze – I had low expectations for this one going in, but when Mat Hoffman ramps his bike 30 feet in the air and ruptures his spleen as he crashes to the ground, you have to be mesmerized.

OKAY SPORTS DOCS – for die-hard sports fans only

Jordan Rides the Busdir. Ron Shelton – A puff-piece that looks back on Michael Jordan’s one season playing minor league baseball.

Kings Ransomdir. Peter Berg – The 1988 trade that sent Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings.

Straight Outta L.A. – dir. Ice Cube – How gangsta rap and L.A. Raiders gear became synonymous with one another.

Silly Little Game dir. Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen – The birth of the first rotisserie baseball league by some of New York’s most successful book editors.

Run Ricky Run – dir. Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni – An examination of how Ricky Williams turned his back on the NFL. Was it depression, anxiety, or his love of smoking weed?

The Legend of Jimmy the Greekdir Fritz Mitchell – A look at controversial football oddsmaker, Jimmy the Greek.

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:

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