Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Documentary and Collaboration: Placing the Camera in the Community

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Documentary and Collaboration: Placing the Camera in the Community

Article excerpt

IN THE LAST DECADE, DOCUMENTARY FILMS have experienced a surge in mainstream popularity, as demonstrated by the financial and critical successes of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and March of the Penguins (2005). The public's appetite for documentaries has increased, and the costs for production have decreased. In both developed and developing nations, much of the world has gained access to lower-cost video equipment, to the Internet, and to uploading content on sites such as YouTube or MySpace. Soldiers in the Middle East carry video cameras, and teenagers are attaching them in creative ways to their bodies. Cameras of many kinds are worn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and material is streamed live on the Internet.1

Contrary to fears that the age of cinema is ending, this new age of digital media offers more, not fewer, opportunities for individuals or groups interested in producing documentary work.2 Documentary opportunities exist beyond the feature film industry and its traditional, author-centered documentary genres- the devastating, direct cinema films of Fred Wiseman or the performative, political comedies of Michael Moore. Many organizations also recognize that "getting their story told" on film or video is important, both for promotional reasons (gaining authences, donors, grants) and for journalistic ones (gaining political exposure in their communities). Rather than waiting for an individual filmmaker to identify them as storytelling "material," though, groups are beginning to seek filmmaking assistance on their own. Getting one's story told- well-told- is more affordable now too, which means that new opportunities exist nationally and internationally for trained filmmakers to work with nonprofit groups or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These communities are actively seeking documentary filmmakers, just as many filmmakers continue to solicit these communities for storytelling access and support.

What this means for documentary students is that they face an increasing array of choices for producing stories and collaborating with diverse subjects. In addition to being exposed to the "basics" of feature film and television production, media students should also be ready for new authences and coproducers for their projects. Documentary students, like journalism students, should be confident with discerning the differences (and the overlaps) between journalistic storytelling, public relations work, and advocacy work- boundaries that often get blurred in collaborative projects. At the same time, students should be introduced to the different "layers" of documentary media workfrom the more traditional, larger-budget studio practices to the less traditional, lower-budget, independent efforts that involve self-funding, grant writing, working with community media centers, or accessing university equipment to help cover the costs of materials.

This article addresses some of the questions surrounding collaborative documentary work by examining the case studies and challenges of four filmmakers- two professionals and two academics. The professionals and their production companies collaborate with communities in less "traditional" ways that affect content, interaction, and distribution, and the academics bring these collaborative techniques into the classroom, while also producing their own independent work. These case studies help to answer the following educational questions:

* How do instructors teach documentary students collaborative media skills that go beyond the classical production techniques for film and television?

* How do filmmakers assist community groups with telling their own stories in ways that benefit both parties?

* To what extent should filmmakers collaborate on content ideas or review material with community members?

* Should filmmakers assist community members with basic technology training or with putting media tools into the hands of their subjects? …

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