Written by Julie Casper Roth
“So if I call someone to try to set up an interview, should I tell them I’m a filmmaker?” Participants in my formal workshops for beginning documentary production have asked this question several times. Each time I stare at the questioner a bit incredulously and respond, “Why, yes, of course!” Sometimes the response is, “Really?” to which I ask, “You’re looking to interview someone on camera for your documentary; what else would you call yourself?” And in that moment I see the light go on – the eureka moment – a moment of “I have a camera and a story, so therefore I am!” My students might not be the next Errol Morris, may have had long careers in other fields like public health or union organizing, and may have no film credentials of any sort, but, I assure them, they are crossing a threshold. They are documentary filmmakers.
I’m going to share the experience I had over the course of this summer as a documentary filmmaking instructor. Teaching in an environment with few technical resources, I had always taught making documentary film in the theoretical sense. Students sketched out ideas, and I imparted to them a sense of the steps and commitment documentary filmmaking required. When a group of students asked me to go rogue and teach them documentary filmmaking from a hands-on approach, I learned the enormous benefits of putting budding documentary filmmakers to task in the actual development and production of a project. This article will describe the benefits to this teaching approach.
I began teaching documentary workshops a little over a year ago at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, New York. The workshops are open to anyone with an interest in documentary filmmaking regardless of prior experience. So far, the workshop has attracted state workers, attorneys, environmentalists, and world travelers who’ve fostered a desire to share their point of view with the rest of the world. One woman, a union organizer, took the class to document the plight of underpaid, poorly treated hotel workers. For another, several decades in the medical field inspired her to create a documentary about medical mistakes. At first, the workshop was largely a theoretical group. We’d work on developing documentary ideas, and I would walk participants through the steps of producing a documentary. Most of this was done on paper per the technical limitations of the Arts Center (i.e. no video cameras and no editing equipment). Since those first classes, the workshop has now evolved into a time-crunched crash course in actually making a documentary. I’ve learned that the best way of teaching participants about making documentary films is to actually take the steps and, well, make a documentary film!
What is a documentary filmmaker? What does this species of person look like and how does one differentiate herself from the rest of the population? There’s no secret in the answer. The documentary filmmaker is anyone with a camera and a desire to document the world around her, and what I tell my workshop participants is that some of the best ideas and projects come from people with passion about a topic rather than a degree from a film program. Documentary filmmaking is about having the passion to communicate a message, and this passion is precisely what is brimming over the cerebral rim of my workshop participants when they enter the classroom. The mental stymie comes when participants are told to not only think of themselves as filmmakers but to allow themselves the title of documentarians. This is where they momentarily pause and monumentally choose whether or not to become a documentary filmmaker. Most students never fully put on this hat. It takes making a project – from start to finish – for many people to feel comfortable calling themselves documentary filmmakers.
Over and over again, I tell workshop participants who seek to move from hobbyists (at-home filmmakers seeking a small audience of friends or relatives) to producers, that they must believe in themselves as much as they believe in their projects. From the moment participants identify their topics, I congratulate them on entering the pre-production stage of their first documentary. This means that the documentary is officially underway; it exists in some form. Pre-production is the place where the conceptual ball is steadily rolling and where groundwork is being laid for the realization of a dream. At this stage, workshop participants are asked to hammer out their ideas, decide on the scope of their projects, and create budgets – even if those budgets top out at a three-digit number. Some participants are buoyed by this, thrilled to know that they are now actively taking steps toward completing a film. Others quietly slink back to hobbyist or spectator status, seeking refuge in their dream, eyeing the reality of documentary filmmaking from a safe vantage point. These folks make exquisite home video montages to pass out to the family around holiday season. This type of work is valuable and often impressive, but is made for a different sort of audience. The hobbyists are folks who started out in a similar place where my own experience began; many are perfectionists testing the waters of a new vocation – sliding in one toe at a time to make sure the investment is worth their efforts. If it is, they make films for the world to see. If it is not, they make entertaining movies for close friends and family to see.
While film school and film theory and a technical background in video or film production might aid the realization of a project, I tell the burgeoning documentary filmmaker that these notches on a resume aren’t exactly requisite. People with technical and theoretical skills exist to be hired in the areas where the director falls short. I’m present to give students some structure, to point them towards resources, to make suggestions about project development, and to support their entrance into the world of making a documentary. I give them basic technical direction but the workshop is more geared to teaching the business of directing and producing a documentary, not in becoming expert at camera usage or editing, a practice that is true for both the formal and rogue documentary workshops.
The standard, formal workshops met once per week over the course of several weeks. They also focus on the conceptual end of documentary filmmaking and guide students through the best route for seeing a project through from conception to end. In the first formal class that I taught at the Arts Center in Troy, New York, we develop participants’ individual ideas. Students have come in hoping to make documentaries about contaminated commercial sites, medical errors, off-the-radar travel in Belize, and communication to Antarctica via ham radio. After doing some rudimentary project development, we work on budgets, discuss research, and work – albeit theoretically – through the stages of production. Finally, we land at post-production – the stage of making a film where the loose ends are tied and a project is encouraged life outside of the filmmaker’s living room television. Here we discuss options for distribution and exhibition, followed by a collective slump back of workshop participants who are weighted by the glut of information presented to them over four very short weeks of time.
After one successful workshop in particular, the slump didn’t happen. Rather, an eager participant sat, bolt-upright, and eagerly suggested I meet with the group outside of the formal workshop. The idea was that I would walk the participants through the making of an actual, real-deal documentary – a group project – while simultaneously providing feedback on individual documentary projects. I looked around the room expecting to see weary eyes but, rather, met enthusiastic, nodding gazes. Thus our summer workshop was born, resulting in the step-by-step creation of a group documentary. While I led members of the group in making a first documentary together, we also all became a support network for the individual projects the members were dreaming of making. I watched, over the course of months, enthusiasts move from being film spectators to real film producers.
Our meetings commenced with a brainstorming session. The students picked the topic, and I posed the questions to guide them into pre-production. The short-form documentary would focus on the first openly gay mayor of a decaying Hudson River valley town. I asked: What are major themes to this documentary? What is the potential story arc? Who should we talk to in the community? After talk and research, the group decided that the major theme to their project would be “change for preservation.” A small town had stepped outside of its regular mayoral rotation of born-and-breds in favor of electing a move-in, bent on fixing up the community one building renovation project at a time.
Next, we moved into production. This included a few tutorials on camera use, lighting, and advice for capturing the best sound and footage with minimal equipment. Participants in our rogue workshop were eager to gather footage and interviews like never before; they were being spurred on by the needs of a group. Most impressive of all is that as we pushed forward on the group project, the reality of individual projects came to fruition. I was sure to dedicate at least half of our workshop time to individual projects so that we could provide feedback to one another. These projects blossomed. One in particular – about members of an Antarctican Society – became more ambitious by the week. As the workshop group became increasingly excited about the collective project, their support of the Antarctican project grew, which gave way to a re-energized look at individual documentary projects.
By the end of the summer, the rogue group of documentarians had footage and goals in-the-bag and were ready to separate from me, their guide, as they prepared to assemble the footage and send it out into the world. Our meetings had resulted in the creation of a short documentary, but it also bolstered the esteem of participants enough to move forward on their own documentaries that risked remaining ideas-on-paper without the nudge of a greater group. Additionally, as the summer wore on, participants heeded my advice to seek out other filmmaking opportunities and networks. One participant joined an activist filmmaking collective. Two other participants jumped at the opportunity to work as production assistants on two separate feature-length film productions. Not one of these participants had prior film experience.
My experience teaching various documentary workshops taught me several things:
- It’s not enough to simply walk workshop participants through the theoretical steps of documentary film production. Participants will take what you say to heart, jot down a few ideas, and will then abandon the project in a pile of “activities I once attempted.”
- Actually creating a documentary from pre-production through post-production with a small group of 5 to 10 people makes the experience real. They see how accessible the process is, and it tears down any idea that the filmmaker is someone specially trained or knighted. Additionally, it highlights the collective nature of filmmaking in general.
- Creating a group documentary allows a great breakdown of duties that helps to illustrate the amount of work that goes into a project. It also helps participants understand where corners can and cannot be cut.
The experience of teaching a group of rogue documentary filmmaking-wannabes resulted in a small group of people, with no prior film experience, realizing a dream that could have existed solely in the mental ether. By the end of my experience with the group, I was happy to hear participants making phone calls and owning the phrase filmmaker, as in, “I’m calling to set up an interview with the mayor; I’m a filmmaker working on a documentary.” In large part, the process of moving from hobbyist to director/production involves gaining the fortitude and self-esteem to know that making a film is an accomplishable goal. It means understanding that films can be made with low budgets and big budgets, with skeleton crews and ghost crews. From this point on, the workshops that I teach will be hands-on, giving participants a taste of what they can surely accomplish.
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