Documentary Production & Documentary Problems
By Shara K. Lange

Documentary Lesson Plan
By Shara K. Lange

"Ball Licky-Lickly!" Pedagogical Strategies for Interrogating Pop Culture Images
By Özlem Sensoy

Teaching Afghan Women: A History of Struggle
By Shoba Rajgopal

Creating Spaces for Community Engagement through Documentary Film: My Social Action Project
By Anna Zailik

Community Engagement Lesson Plan
By Anna Zailik



  issue 4.1 |  

Journal Issue 4.1
Spring-Summer 2012
Edited by Agatha Beins, Jillian Hernandez, and Deanna Utroske
Editorial Assistant: A.J. Barks
Editorial Intern: Vera Hinsey


Documentary Production & Documentary Problems

By Shara K. Lange

Perhaps what I do is throw the party: I send out invitations, I blow up balloons, I rent the karaoke machine. I bake the cake.
   As Parker Palmer writes in, The Courage to Teach, "Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest" (2007, 51).
   How much credit the class I teach, my teaching, or the exercise I write about here deserves for the best student work, I can't say, but when the work is excellent I am profoundly impressed by students' bravery, sincerity, and intelligence. This was true of Cory Pratt's team who made the documentary, This is Kevin, a compassionate, insightful portrait of a transgender man in East Tennessee. Students in Monterrey, Mexico, made forthright documentaries that confronted social issues in their communities: a scintillating thesis documentary, Porque Podemos (Because We Can) offered much-needed role models of proactive individuals in their communities and a film about a murdered student caught in the cross fire of Mexican drug cartels provided solace to a distressed community. During a study abroad program in Prague, a young woman talked about her deceased mother in a personal documentary and filmed the day she began spreading her mother's ashes in the Vltava River at dawn.
   The documentary filmmaking process lends itself to these kinds of connections for a broad range of students. And when instruction seems to resonate, as all teachers know, it is a satisfying and humbling experience.


   Making documentary films forces students to engage in the complexities of the genre. They must work simultaneously to master the technical issues of the craft while struggling to cultivate their own voices in the stories they tell. I find that documentary filmmaking engages students deeply, fosters a kind of profound, personal media literacy, and successfully captures the elusive attention of digital natives. Along with the standard timeless preoccupations of college students (love, sex, identity, the future), these days they are further distracted from their class work by social media, text messages and the omnipresent promise of some kind of virtual stimulus just within their reach. But students recognize that documentary is contemporary and relevant. They are media savvy (though not necessarily literate), multitask, and respond positively to the genre's nimble ability to integrate a broad continuum of high and low, serious and trivial.
   In the graduate/undergraduate level class I teach, Documentary Research and Production, students watch documentaries to inform their filmmaking in terms of content (subject, theme) and in terms of craft (writing, editing, directing, etc.). The exercise accompanying this essay, "Issues & Formal Analysis in Documentary Film Production," is designed to expose students to a wide range of documentary films and to encourage them to engage with various "problems" in the form. These problems represent challenges for a viewer or a filmmaker planning an approach to a film, but they also represent what is most fascinating about the genre: the complex ideas of representation at play, the form's situation at the intersection of art and philosophy, documentary's struggle to respond to its history and society, and the irresolvable, perpetually shifting idea of "the real" make it a rich area for study.


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