Life, the Universe and Documentary Film-Making: Russell Porter in Chicago Reflects on His Film-Making Journey. (My Side of the Picture)

By Porter, Russell | Metro Magazine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Life, the Universe and Documentary Film-Making: Russell Porter in Chicago Reflects on His Film-Making Journey. (My Side of the Picture)


Porter, Russell, Metro Magazine


Documentary film-making and the experience of life itself seem to dance together, co-existing in a strange parallel universe, each one stimulating and influencing the other.

They also share a common unpredictability--no matter how carefully you plan, once you embark on either a life or a film, you never know exactly where it will take you. Like many people who work in documentary, I find it hard to think of it as a career--more a state of mind--so I've decided to take this opportunity to reflect on the interweaving of both aspects of my personal journey.

I find myself sitting in my cozy old loft in downtown Chicago while the last flurries of a six month winter howl against the windows, and the realities of the war in Iraq (US version) howl out of what passes for television.

So what am I doing here? It is a question I'm often asked these days, and indeed ask myself. But somehow it's a redundant question. I'm here because of all those random and catalytic events and encounters that shape any life's trajectory, and in my case, the links to documentary go back at least three decades.

A few weeks ago I walked with a vast anti-war crowd that swelled and yelled its way onto Lake Shore Drive, the ten-lane freeway that sweeps around between Lake Michigan and the forest of downtown skyscrapers in this quintessential city of the United States. The mood was excited and defiant, and it felt like the spirit that propelled us in protest through the streets of Australian cities in 1968--except this time I was surrounded by film students with DV cameras.

Back in that equally bellicose year I was faced with the prospect of conscription, so I decided to leave for South America where I was to live and travel and work and grow up over the next two years. It was a spontaneous decision that could just as easily have taken me to the opposite ends of the world, but it was one that has generated a trail of wonderful chance human encounters and extraordinary experiences which have been inextricably linked with my life in documentary films and film-making.

Now I find myself running the Documentary Programme at Columbia College Chicago, effectively the biggest film school in the world, with almost 2000 students in the Film and Video Department to learn the art and craft of cinema. So first, here's a bit about the job and the place.

The Documentary Programme at Columbia (see www.colum.edu and www.filmatcolumbia.com) is relatively small within Film and Video, with about 100 students taking classes at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

The programme is run out of a vibrant and purpose-built centre within the recently re-modeled Ludington Building (http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/L/ Ludington2.html).

It was built in 1891 as an eight storey prototypical steel-framed 'skyscraper', covered in exquisite terra cotta figures, part of the great reconstruction and architectural innovation for which the city became famous after the Great Fire of 1871.

The building is now home to the film school, although Columbia College itself covers some fourteen blocks in the historic South Loop area of the city. It's a city college in every sense, with a policy, at least at the undergrad level, of open admissions--which means anyone with basic qualifications can enrol.

The result is a very eclectic student population that reflects the city's ethnic diversity. About fourteen per cent of the student population are Latinos, with a slightly smaller percentage of African Americans and a large international contingent. I have taught students from Korea, Japan, Turkey, France, China, Poland, Brazil, Mexico, Serbia, Greece, Ireland and Taiwan. Culturally and physically, Chicago feels like Melbourne on steroids.

Columbia is a liberal arts college in the best sense, with a humanist and progressive mission. It's also an apparent anomaly--a privately funded not-for-profit institution. …

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