Teaching Documentary Filmmaking

February 23, 2012

By Matt Palmer

For the last five years I have been teaching documentary filmmaking to grade five and six students at an elementary school in Calgary. Teaching allows me to reconnect with my craft because I have to explain what I do, rather than just do it, and that allows me to examine my process. I like challenging the kids with lots of questions and see how they connect to what they watch. What I end up teaching is as much about media literacy as it is about filmmaking. I strongly believe being a critical viewer in our world of 24/7 media, and understanding how messages and stories are crafted, will help kids succeed in any field.

Examining the nature of story forms the basis of the first sessions. Yesterday I found a great TED talk about the dangers of a single story http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. We all have our own story and perspective and we experience things differently from others as a result of that. People who witness car accidents can have vastly different witness statements, and I prod the kids to think about how they experience events in their lives and how that may differ from others.

Our perceptions and experiences of events colour the stories we tell. How I tell the story of something that happened to me can vary greatly from someone else who was with me. We connect to certain stories because they speak to something inside us, sometimes to emotions or past experiences that are hidden from our consciousness. Story illuminates the events and emotions of life, and exploring why we connect to some stories and not to others can be valuable. How and why we connect to stories formed the basis of my class yesterday.

This year the students are making films on human resilience. There are stories about addiction, cancer, paraplegics etc. For many of the kids these stories, on the surface, will be foreign to their own lives. Bringing awareness to why the story may be important to them by delving into their own experiences, examining their own fears, hopes, and dreams will hopefully result in powerful connections. Some kids may have difficulty depending on their emotional awareness, or ability to think more deeply about these subjects, but the there is no end goal, other than to inspire to explore the nature of their existence and what it means. That is the foundation of a great storyteller.

I like to show lots of clips from different documentaries when I teach. It allows me to expose them to all sorts of stories and styles of filmmaking, and I get them to contrast and compare. Yesterday I wanted to show how two similar stories can have different stylistic approaches.

The first clip was from the opening five minutes of “An Inconvenient Truth“. It is a powerful opening sequence, beginning with a beautiful idyllic river scene over which Al Gore narrates on the beauty of nature. The film then launches into an introduction of Al Gore and his mission to educate the world about climate change. The imagery used is powerful and iconic, presenting Gore as a larger than life almost mythic figure, adored by a global legion of fans. Images of hurricane Katrina, and extreme weather serve to alert and scare us of an impending doom.

Interestingly enough, three years ago when I began using this clip most of the kids knew who Al Gore is, yesterday very few knew.

The second clip I showed was the opening of the documentary “Cool It” about Bjorn Lomborg, someone also working to educate people about climate change, but with a different approach and ideas of what to do about it.

“Cool It” begins with a sequence of kid influenced animation about the destruction of the earth by climate change, ending with kids talking about how frightened they are. Bjorn Lomborg then appears saying that the fear tactics being used to rally people to the climate change issue have gotten out of hand. There is then a montage sequence introducing the audience to Lomborg as someone who, on the one hand, is considered one of the most admired influential people in the world on the issue of climate change, to someone who is hated and vilified by those on the other side of the climate change issue from him. The sequence I show finishes with Bjorn Lomborg sitting on a rock in front of the camera, discussing his childhood and how his environmental awareness evolved.

After showing the first sequence the kids identified Gore as someone working to save the planet, and after some questioning agreed they would consider him a heroic figure. After showing “Cool It” they identified with Lomborg, not because they thought he was better or more right compared to Gore, but because they could self-identify with his story. They saw him as a child in home movies, and talking about himself in real terms.

I use the clips not to make a point about which film is better or which argument to accept, rather to demonstrate different ways of presenting characters and story.

It is an exciting and challenging time to be a documentary filmmaker. The documentary genre has opened up artistically in profound ways. Documentaries no longer have to adhere to a set standard of reportage or representation of reality. This presents new opportunities as well as moral and ethical dilemmas in how filmmakers present stories in ways that are honest and transparent. This is something I will explore more in further blog posts. Feel free to pose questions or ideas.

Here is a great article from Slate Magazine about “The Golden Age of Documentary”. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/02/tabloid_senna_the_interrupters_and_other_documentaries_overlooked_by_the_academy.html


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
This entry was posted in Movies that Matter to Me, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching Documentary Filmmaking

  1. Pingback: 3) Is “What’s the iMovie Curriculum?” the Wrong Question? | Mike's Drafting

  2. Pingback: Is “What’s the iMovie Curriculum?” the Wrong Question? | Multiple Pathways

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