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

You can watch the trailer for his film here:

Highlight Q&A reel: "Traces of the Trade" Filmmaker visits Columbia

A few weeks ago, Juanita Brown, one of the filmmakers behind “Traces of the Trade” (reviewed for Viva Doc by Natalie McCroy here), came into Columbia’s Documentary III class to talk about her film. With her, she brought Tom DeWolf, one of the subjects featured in the documentary, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was broadcast on PBS in summer 2008.

Above is an 8 minute highlight reel edited by Viva Doc’s own Karl Geweniger. The video was originally shot by Wes Browning. Video of the full Q&A session will be available from the Doc Center’s library in the fourth floor documentary suite (room 407) of the 1104 S Wabash film building.

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