The Future of Documentary Education: Inside Three New College Programs

by Shannon Carroll | Sept 5, 2013 | The original link can be found here.
If you could create a documentary degree program in 2013, what would it look like? What skills would you have to teach the filmmakers of tomorrow while the media landscape is changing rapidly and before our eyes. Which classes, tools or techniques would you fight to exclude? How would you make your new program unique but also attractive to prospective students? We talked with the directors of three new documentary programs to find out — The Open Documentary Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University and the MFA program at Loyola Marymount University, which is set to start in 2015.Through our conversations, each director revealed a unique approach to what Duke’s Tom Rankin calls “the thing we’ve been calling documentary” for the past 100 years, and a not-so-unique struggle in building a new program at an established academic institution. We also got some hints about why documentaries are important today — and where they might be heading.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Open Documentary Lab

MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, now in its second year, launched as a research lab (as opposed to an academic program) with students in the program receiving a Master of Science through the Comparative Media Studies department. William Uricchio is the head of the Open Documentary Lab.

What is the Open Documentary Lab’s approach to documentary production?

William Uricchio: What our program does is to think about documentary as a mission. What that implies is that the form is up in the air, because you can be free to invent new kinds of forms. Rather than holding to a particular medium or form of a media, our program focuses on the dynamics. How can we broker the space between media forms and think about the transformation of media?

That opens the door to thinking about it in radically different ways — through interactivity, crowd-sourcing and location-based. You can think of the documentary as something you can encounter walking down a street and having your phone go off, and as you walk around you construct the narrative. It’s something we’re working on.

This is very much a research driven program. Whereas most MFA programs are terrific in that they are about hands-on and making, we certainly make, but a lot of work is experimentation. That requires making, remaking, and learning from what didn’t work, and making it again. Our focus is not so much on the craft but thinking innovatively of where we how can we pursue this mission of documentary in new spaces using new tools, players and partners.

We’re interested in working with these outlying technologies and seeing how we can help the storytelling process. How can this help us discover new things about people’s experiences? How can we use this to the mission of understanding the world around us?

If someone’s heart is set on traditional documentary form and they have a clear path and they want to work on linear or TV documentary, where you need to sharpen skills as a filmmaker, we’re not the place for that person. But if you want a challenge…

Why would you start a new program about documentary film?

William Uricchio: Documentary has never lost its profound relevance. We need people to work seriously around this. It’s not just infotainment versions of reality that TV has become obsessed with, but rather people that can tackle, see things for themselves and tell their own stories.

We’re interested the space where we can stimulate a creative dialogue between documentary makers and the public, who have visions, interest and stories to tell and would be empowered to work with documentary makers in a collaborative endeavor. For me, that’s the spot we want to hit.

A confluence of factors has influenced why we’re starting the Open Doc Lab now. I don’t want to prioritize, but one is the profound changes that the distribution system is going through. We’re seeing that old venues for documentary like the cinema or television — TV was a good outlet for years, now is mostly docutainment. At the same time there’s been a quick transformation of the internet space, as is with interfaces with TV, like the dongle that Google made that allows you to throw something from your computer to the TV. All these things are making the internet an interesting space that was once domain of TV and film. That’s a huge shift in potential.

We have a culture that is far more engaged in producing. The 100 hours uploaded per hour to YouTube speaks a culture of productivity. With new venues for distribution and the fact that people have production equipment and increasingly the skills, it’s a great moment to think about the future of documentary.

How will the degree prepare students for documentary production in today’s world? What are your goals for students who are entering the program?

William Uricchio: We’re trying to triangulate three sets of skills for students: story, technology, critical thinking/scholarship.

Most media programs tend to be object-bound (film studies, radio, photography). Ours is not. Comparative Media Studies is trying to look at the dynamic of media across media borders. We triangulate understanding of co-design, working with communities and grassroots operations where you’re both empowering people and enabling them to tell their own stories.

We pay for everyone in the program. Research labs are funded, and we use the funding as a way to pay for students. Right now, we’re able to support up to three students to work specifically on the Doc Lab. So they’ll have 15 hours of course time and 15 hours of research time. Students who are paid to work for other labs in Civic Media or throughout MIT, they can take courses in the Doc Lab.

The lab enables us to build resources for not just our students study, but anyone in the world. Secondly, it enables us to draw in fellows and visiting artists — for example, this coming year Kat Cizek (High Rise) is going to be with us as an artist-in-residence. We have a Fellows program with professional filmmakers, photojournalists and technologists in-residence. That helps the teaching process, because suddenly you have a community of eight fellows. For an academic program that has 10 students per year for two years, so 20 at any given moment, this is a huge resource to have in the same location. That’s different from the old way we taught documentary, which was bringing in the occasional guest through courses, now it’s as if the guests are always there.

One of the professional benefits for the students in the lab is our collaborations with the Sundance Institute, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), National Film Board of Canada, Tribeca Film Institute and beyond. Because we’re partnering in different ways, students are the interface and they get to know all these folks on a day-to-day, first name basis. That’s terrific for them because they get an incredible professional network built up.

This year we’re going to be doing a lot more with The Boston GlobeThe New York Times, The Association of Independents in Radio, etc. For those who work in the lab, it’s their job to interact with these people, so it’s like paradise.

Duke University: MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts

The MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University is a two-year degree program that is run by three Duke entities: the Center for Documentary Studies, the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, and the Program in the Arts of the Moving Image. The MFA program started three years ago and it graduated its first class in Spring 2013. Thomas Rankin is the director of the MFA program.

What is the Duke MFA program’s approach to documentary production?

Thomas Rankin: We’re a program at a major research university that has a deep tradition in the humanities. Our students can take any course they want for electives across the campus.

The MFA gives the opportunity to test boundaries of the documentary form using analog or new technologies. It’s a direct outgrowth of Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) and building an undergrad program across the documentary arts. Most MFA programs that are divided by medium, but ours is not medium specific. That comes out of the experience at the center, where the idea of documentary is of telling stories, regardless of medium.

A center for documentary studies should be a place that embraces contested ideas, that questions here is where we are today but where are we going and is a catalyst for pushing the boundaries. My hope is that this MFA does that on a daily basis and encourages students to experiment and create on their own terms.

Why would you start a new program about documentary film?

Thomas Rankin: I came here in 1988, and creating the MFA is something I wanted to do from the first day. Duke has never had an MFA program in any discipline before this. It took time and creating a political coalition within the university to launch it. It’s the kind of MFA that I wish had existed when I was getting an MFA. I have two graduate degrees, an MA in Folklore, MFA in Photography. This program is just as much a product of personal interest as a grander academic philosophy.

I wanted to change how people at Duke practice place-based arts. I wanted to see the work of a documentary artist as similar to a social science researcher.

In 15 years, we’ve seen an enormous shift in technology, but that’s just a piece. The larger story is this idea that we want to tell stories from the local, particular and familial worlds right around us, and then use those skills and ideas to tell stories about anywhere. There’s been an enormous growth for interest in documentary, in CDS’s life since 1988, for reasons that may be impossible to explain. It’s in the zeitgeist — there’s never been more interest in this form that for the past hundred years we have been calling the documentary. There’s a natural impetus for seeing as a way of knowing, of going out into the world and looking at what it is and telling stories from it.

How will the degree prepare students for documentary production in today’s world? What are your goals for students who are entering the program?

Thomas Rankin: This is a great program if you want to work in many different platforms.

We think strategically about career opportunities. The days of someone getting one job and staying there is now days an illusion that we need to rethink. Our goal is to prepare students to be active artists, engaged educators and people to who are responsible to wherever they live and can use this way of seeing and knowing and telling stories to make a difference. Laura Poitras (The OathMy Country, My Country) was a Visiting Artist beginning in 2011.

We’re likely to see students who graduate from this program teaching in art departments or journalism schools. Many of our students want to teach in higher education, others artists in gallery world, and then others in communications or at activist organizations.

I’ve taught in different art departments throughout the years. I hope an influence of this program is that documentary arts will begin to inform the way we think of studio art in America and infuse the idea of documentary and local/social issues into the artistic practice. Art departments could enormously benefit from long form, place-based storytelling in different mediums.

All students have teaching assistanships out of the four semester they are here. We’re building infrastructure for larger merit-based scholarships, like paying in full for two-to-three students. We’re not there yet, and I think that’s connected to the fact Duke has not had an MFA. Just about every PhD student at Duke has major fellowship — that’s a longer march through the institution, but one that will happen.

What can we expect to see out of your program in the near future?

Thomas Rankin: My hope that we don’t create a “Duke Doctrine” of documentary. I want to promote a range of ways of working that reflects that those of us teaching. Through the program, I hope that we’re able to expose and challenge students to think differently than before they got here, and for them to make work that appropriate to their own agenda, goals, place in the world and aesthetics.

We just graduated our first class. You can expect to see an expansion of the imprint of the program and more coming out of it at film festivals, book catalogs and galleries. You can see a maturation of the program itself, like more financial aid and the growth of facilities. You’re going to see an increasing number of collaborations of our students outside the disciplines of art, for example marine labs.

We very much want this program to be in conversation with other programs that are interested in this thing we call documentary. As we collectively see more programs start, we need a mechanism to share perspectives, successes and ideas. There’s a positive, contagious environment of ideas around documentary. Yet the busyness we have of running particular programs and breed fragmentation, and the polygenesis going but we’re not able to discuss it so much. Somehow we need to begin to talk to each other more and see ways of grow things. The key is constant evolution, but you never really get there. That’s both the shifts in technology, but how the documentary arts can influence the world. It’s made our in the local and actual and telling stories more poignant and necessary for it and for society as a whole.

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