Real to Reel
Documentary Center faculty, students train lenses on issues of war, labor and marginalized people
March 10, 2008
In the 1977 film “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, repeatedly drags Diane Keeton’s character, Annie, to see the “The Sorrow and the Pity,” the four-hour documentary about France under the Nazi Occupation. The joke is that Singer uses the film to wallow in his misery.
Contrary to the suggestion that documentary films are a form of self-flagellation, the genre can be as captivating, provocative, poignant and uplifting as its narrative counterpart. In fact, some might argue that the documentary form is in its Golden Age thanks to cheaper technology and the diversity of filmmakers picking up the camera to tell a story from their unique point of view.
Last fall, IDA, the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting nonfiction filmmakers, polled its members on the best 25 documentary films of all time. Eleven of those films—including “Super Size Me,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Spellbound” and “Grizzly Man”—were made in the past 10 years.
Advances in technology over the past decade have made quality equipment more affordable and portable. With their small size, today’s consumer cameras, which lend themselves to documentary filmmaking, outperform the professional cameras of 15 years ago. Desktop editing software, such as Final Cut Pro, enables filmmakers to handle post-production on their own. And thanks to streaming video on Web sites such as YouTube and Google Video, anyone can be the auteur of their own nonfiction film.
There is a down-side to the so-called “democratization” of filmmaking technology, of course, as the world is subjected to short films like “Star Wars According to a 3-Year-Old” and “Pirates vs. Ninjas” on the Internet.
But according to faculty at The University of Texas at Austin Documentary Center in the College of Communication, a decidedly bright side underscores this trend. The craft of producing nonfiction film and photography is no longer restricted to an elite group of professional filmmakers and photographers who cross social, cultural and geographic boundaries to make films about “other” people.
“Thanks to the democratization of technology, documentary filmmaking is opening up to entire populations,” said Nancy Schiesari, a professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film and co-director of the Documentary Center. “Until recently, minorities and women have been marginalized from production because it was prohibitive in different ways.”
Nonfiction media, such as documentary film and photography, are powerful tools to highlight social and contemporary issues by providing a window into situations that people otherwise would not experience.
The genre seems to be receiving more attention these days because of films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “March of the Penguins” and “Sicko,” and distribution channels including cable television, DVDs and the Internet. But documentary film and photography have been exposing audiences to social ills since the early 20th century, giving voice to the marginalized among us and influencing public opinion.
Bridging Different Worlds
From Vertov’s work during the Russian Civil War, to Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” to Ophüls’s “The Sorrow and the Pity,” to Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” about the Vietnam War, the documentary genre is rooted in a strong social mission with the desire to improve matters by showing real people—often struggling—in real situations.
Some of the most powerful documentary work—in the form of photojournalism—was delivered during the Vietnam War. For example, the Nick Ut photograph of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl running naked down the highway with plumes of black napalm smoke behind her, is one of the most unforgettable images of the Vietnam War and is credited with prompting support for the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
According to Andrew Garrison, associate professor of radio-TV-film and a Documentary Center faculty member, how we see the world is shaped by stories, other people’s stories and our own. Stories shape the possibilities that we see for ourselves.
“The power of documentary is in the fact that it’s about real people,” said Garrison. “Watching people struggling with something or finding pleasure or beauty in something, is compelling because it is another human being figuring out how to live a life.”
“Documentaries take you into worlds that you’re not part of; the filmmaker or photographer serves as a bridge between different worlds,” said Donna DeCesare, associate professor of photography in the School of Journalism and a Documentary Center faculty member. “Documentarians provide their subjects a way to be seen and heard beyond their local community.”
But if it’s not entertaining, no one will watch it.
“While documentary film has the potential to expose social issues to a large audience, it can only do so through effective storytelling, which draws on editing, writing, music and sound to entice an audience to actually watch the film,” said Paul Stekler, professor of radio-TV-film and a member of the Documentary Center faculty. “The best subject in the world is not good enough. The material needs to be dealt with in a way that’s interesting to a larger audience.
“The film ‘Trouble the Water,’ for which P.J. Raval (MFA ’04) served as the cinematographer, is totally riveting. You’re drawn into the story of a New Orleans woman and her husband in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. Her house is flooding and she’s capturing it on her video camera. They start on the first floor, move up to the second floor, the attic and then finally they break through to the roof to get rescued, and we watch what happens to the couple over the next year.”
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.
Unparalleled Learning Opportunities
Faculty at the Documentary Center are training the next generation of filmmakers and photographers who want to make nonfiction media about critical social, contemporary and historical issues from their unique point of view.
While there are plenty of narrative film programs around the country, there are only a handful of documentary programs, and the majority of those are on either coast. The program at The University of Texas at Austin sets itself apart because it is committed to being one of the most affordable, it is located in a diverse area of the country, and it attracts faculty who are active documentary filmmakers and photographers.
“The affordability of our program—in comparison to others—makes for a more diverse student body,” said Stekler. “Someone born to a working class family in Harlingen is going to have a different world view and want to tell different stories from someone growing up in an upper-middle class family in New Jersey. The beauty of documentary film is being able to see a wide range of stories.”
Stekler also believes that Texas is a portrait of the social and contemporary issues the country will face in the future.
“We have an advantage here in Texas,” he said, “because we live in the heartland of the U.S. where a lot of compelling stories are taking place and they’re the kind of stories people are not used to seeing. We are witnessing the most important upward migration through social status of a single ethnic [Hispanic] group, and we are facing water, energy and immigration issues. These are issues the rest of the country will soon face and it’s all here in Texas now.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the education available through the program is the fact that it brings together a cast of unparalleled faculty—each of whom are renowned filmmakers, photographers and writers in their own right—who are deeply involved in the mentoring process and who nurture students as they hone their craft and experiment with different styles.
“College, with its supportive and intellectually stimulating environment, is the best time for future documentary filmmakers and photographers to try on different voices, to take risks and to get feedback as they develop their skills both technically and critically,” said Jean Lauer, associate director of the Documentary Center.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, faculty members consult graduate and undergraduate students on their portfolio projects and oftentimes, faculty involve students in their outside, professional projects.
Some of these professional filmmakers and photographer, each with a distinctive style, include:
Throughout the world, DeCesare is known for her groundbreaking coverage of the spread of Los Angeles gangs in Central America. When she’s not teaching, she documents youth violence and violence prevention programs in the Americas. Her photographs and testimonies from children in Guatemala and Colombia who are former child soldiers, survivors of sexual abuse or who live with the stigma of HIV—launched a collaboration with UNICEF that resulted in the set of protocols for photographing children at-risk, which UNICEF now promotes globally. Her latest exhibition, “Sharing Secrets: Children’s Portraits Exposing Stigma,” has been traveling the globe since 2006.
Currently she is working on a collaborative project documenting narratives of loss and survival among those who have suffered paramilitary violence in Colombia. A portion of the photos have been published on the Web site “Crimes of War.” Learn more about documentary photography in the feature story “A Lens on the World.”
Garrison is an independent filmmaker with experience in both documentary and dramatic film production. His films have been broadcast on PBS and have screened at many international festivals, including Sundance. He is the founder of the “East Austin Stories” documentary project, an ongoing collaboration between University of Texas at Austin student filmmakers and the residents and businesses in communities in East Austin. His most recent project is “Third Ward TX,” a film about the economic and creative redemption of a traditionally African American neighborhood in decline, through the efforts of a group of local artists, residents and volunteers, which aired on PBS. Currently, he is working on an experimental documentary, based in Prague, and collaborating with screenwriter and Radio-TV-Film Assistant Professor Stuart Kelban on a narrative fiction film. Learn more about “East Austin Stories&rdqu!
o; in the feature story “Streets Full of Stories.”
Lecturer Karen Kocher is a producer who works in film, video and multimedia. Her most recent work, “Austin Past and Present,” is a multimedia documentary, which is stretching the traditional boundaries of the genre by producing multimedia pieces that allow viewers to explore the documentary in a self-directed, non-linear fashion. She’s in the development phase of her next project, “Walkabout Texas,” about the natural world of Texas and the people who interact with it. Learn more about “Austin Past and Present” in the feature story “Time Travelers.”
Senior Lecturer Anne Lewis is an independent documentary maker associated with Appalshop, an arts and education center in the Appalachian coalfields. She was the associate director/assistant camerawoman for “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” which was number five on the IDA’s list of the top 25 documentary films, and she’s distributing her recently finished film “Morristown” about the global economy told from workers’ perspectives in the U.S. and Mexico. She’s also in production on two films with a Texas accent: “High Stakes,” which examines the impact of high stakes testing on a predominantly Latino class of 5th graders and their teacher in the wake of No Child Left Behind, and an historical film, tentatively titled “Enough,” about successful union drives in Texas led by women of color.
Schiesari has been the director of photography on more than 30 documentaries and feature films. Her latest full-length documentary, “Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer,” premiered nationwide on PBS, the Australian Broadcast Corporation, and is airing on TVOntario. For the past two and one-half years, she has been working on a documentary film, tentatively titled “Fort Hood Diaries” (sponsored by KLRU Austin PBS), which takes place in a tattoo parlor outside the gates of the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas.
“The proliferation of tattoos, or ‘meat tags,’ as they refer to them, is phenomenal,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of the military is tattooed and beneath the uniform are a canvas and stories of hope, courage and fear.”
For nearly two decades, Associate Professor and Documentary Center Co-Director Ellen Spiro has been creating provocative documentary films, including “Troop 1500,” which tells the story of a girl scout troop whose mothers are in prison. Her latest, and most high profile film, “Body of War,” is a collaboration with former TV talk show host Phil Donahue that examines the face of war through 25-year-old Tomas Young who was paralyzed from a bullet to his spine after serving in Iraq for less than a week. The film was named “Best Documentary” by the National Board of Review in December. “Body of War” will screen at the SXSW film festival this week and opens nationwide this spring. Learn more about “Troop 1500” in the feature story “Beyond Bars.”
Stekler is a nationally recognized documentary filmmaker whose work includes “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” “Last Man Standing: Politics—Texas Style” and “Vote for Me: Politics in America,” among many other films about American politics. He is co-producing “The Choice 2008,” which will air on PBS’s “Frontline” this fall.
The above-profiled faculty represent only part of the current core group associated with the Documentary Center faculty. View a complete list of faculty and their bios.
“Thanks to various opportunities to work with some of the country’s best nonfiction media makers, our students are graduating with the critical thinking skills they need to illuminate important social and cultural issues in a compelling way,” Lauer continued.
The camera gives filmmakers and photographers a lot of power and responsibility. We live in a culture of reality TV, much of which is exploitative and manipulative. Aside from learning the essentials of production, students in the Documentary Center learn to respect the power of the medium, how to listen and how to empathize with their subjects.
“So much of documentary is character-based, human stories that illuminate an issue through an individual’s personal story,” said Spiro. “We have a responsibility to represent our subjects in an honest way that is not going to bring harm to them. Trust is key. There are times when you don’t turn on the camera and you just spend time with and listen to the people you’re documenting.”
DeCesare, who serves on the executive committee at the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma and who has worked with children who have witnessed crimes and whose identities need to be protected, says it’s important for documentarians to understand their unique role in a situation.
“Your role is to be a bridge,” she said. “You need humility. You never want to go into a sensitive situation with an aggressive attitude that will further traumatize someone by being insensitive to their feelings at that moment. Unfortunately, this isn’t common sense. It has to be taught.”
“There are so many complicated situations that documentarians and photojournalists confront—crime, natural disasters, war and human suffering. Images from such scenes can have a tremendous impact but they can also be ethically confusing. What distinguishes documentation that is of urgent public interest to the larger community from a voyeuristic account of someone’s private pain? The only certainty is that there are no easy formulas.”
Most important, the Documentary Center strives to serve as a bridge between students, alumni, faculty and working filmmakers and photographers in the local, national and international documentary communities.
A strategy for building that bridge is to bring outside influences into the program through artists in residence and support for internships through which students are sent to cities with an active documentary community.
“Body of War” Regional Premiere at SXSW and Q&A with Ellen Spiro
“Body of War” Screening
“Doping for Gold” screening and Q&A with Documentary Center Artist-in-Residence Alison Rooper
“Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” screening and Q&A with Jennifer Fox
“Adentro Hacia Fuera”/”El Salvador Inside Out”
Austin Film Society Texas Doc Tour with UT Documentaries
Department of Radio-TV-Film End-of-Semester Screening
Artists in residence at the Documentary Center this semester include: Jeanne Finley, experimental documentary filmmaker from San Francisco, and Alison Rooper, a producer with 25 years experience working for BBC in London, who produced “Doping for Gold,” a film about East German women athletes who won gold in the Olympics but were unknowingly receiving testosterone.
The comparatively low tuition to attend film school at The University of Texas at Austin has opened the program to a much more diverse student population with fresh points of view and important stories to tell. However, despite creating prestigious work honored throughout the nation, many of these talented filmmakers can’t accept internships abroad or on the coasts because they can’t cover living expenses in these cities.
As part of its goal of supporting student work and fostering opportunities for students to develop professional experience and contacts within the field, the Documentary Center offered five scholarships this year. Two were funded by the general operating budget of the Documentary Center, while the other three were funded through a private donation. As a result, one student was able to accept a prestigious internship in New York City, another was able to fund his photojournalism project in economically depressed West Virginia and three were able to accept internships at world-renowned documentary production companies in London.
In addition to exposing students to outside influences through artists in residence and internship support, the Documentary Center strives to secure audiences for its student work, through community screenings, such as for East Austin Stories, end-of-semester screenings, to which professional filmmakers are invited, and 10Under10, a screening of 10 student films, less than 10 minutes long and produced for under $10.
While projects like East Austin Stories and 10Under10 bring student films into the community, channeling that work into the larger public sphere—beyond the university walls and the local community—remains a challenge.
“It’s all very well and good that we can generate all this production, but if we don’t have distribution in place or anywhere to go with all this material, it still remains ghettoized, it remains marginalized,” said Schiesari.
Thanks to a relationship with the Documentary Channel, some of the best student work will play to a national audience and possibly have an impact on an issue highlighted in a film.
Last year, faculty scouted the end-of-semester screenings and culled the best student material from their graduate and undergraduate production classes to submit to the Documentary Channel.
“We screened some of our best student work for Tom Neff, CEO of the Documentary Channel,” said Schiesari. “As a result, six graduate and undergraduate films will be broadcast on the channel. The only other school with a formal relationship with the Documentary Channel is the University of Southern California.
“The prospect of their work being aired on a national cable channel serves as an incentive for students to produce broadcast-quality work from the outset. It teaches them professionalism, such as getting proper release forms from subjects, obtaining location permits and securing copyrights for music and archival film and photographs.”
“It puts students on a level where they’re more aware that their work may actually communicate something to the world—it’s not just for them or for a grade.”
Making Their Mark
One of the best ways to measure the success of an academic program such as this is to look at the work being done by alumni. Many documentary film alumni are active filmmakers earning industry accolades and awards and a national audience. Among them:
- Heather Courtney’s (MFA ’00) “Los Trabajadores/The Workers” was broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series. She recently won funding for a new documentary from ITVS, one of the most prestigious and competitive grants, for a film on a unit of the Michigan National Guard being sent to Iraq.
- Laura Dunn’s (MFA ’02) MFA documentary “Green” was nominated for a student Academy Award. Her first feature documentary, “The Unforeseen” (executive produced by Robert Redford and Terrence Malick), about the clash between developers and environmentalists over Barton Creek, premiered at Sundance last year.
- John Fiege’s (MFA ’06) MFA thesis film, “Mississippi Chicken,” about Latin American immigrants working in poultry plants in the South, was an official selection at the 2007 New York International Film Festival presented by HBO.
- Diane Zander Mason’s (MFA ’02) thesis documentary film, “Girl Wrestler,” was broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series.
- P.J. Raval (MFA ’04) was the cinematographer on the documentary film “Trouble the Water,” about Hurricane Katrina. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year.
- Karen Skloss (BS ’01) was an editor on Margaret Brown’s Townes Van Zandt documentary, “Be Here To Love Me,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
On May 14, the Austin Film Society will screen four MFA thesis documentaries as part of the best of recent University of Texas at Austin student documentary films:
- Kendra Dorty’s (BS ’03, MFA ’07) “Girls of Don Bosco,” which documents life in a girls’ orphanage in Mexico.
- Shara Lange’s (MFA ’07) “La Voie du Nord—The Way North,” about the lives of Moroccan women in Marseilles.
- Berndt Mader’s (MFA ’07) “Road to Tlacotepec,” about a trip tracing his father’s past in Mexico.
- Ben Steinbauer’s (MFA ’07 ) “The Angriest Man in the World: Finding the Winnebago Guy,” about his search for the subject on of the most popular viral videos on the Internet.
“This is a big deal,” said Stekler. “You train folks here and you hope that they make their mark in the documentary world.”
By all accounts, they are.
By Erin Geisler