The Future of Documentary Education: Inside Three New College Programs

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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.

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Open Doc Lab Research Affiliate Alexander Reben’s robot filmmakers BlabDroids appeared in the Tribeca Film Institute’s 2013 Storyscapes exhibition as “Robots in Residence.”

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/Writing 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 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 to 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/Writing 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 Globe, The 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.

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Stills from “The Deep Blue Sea”: Artists in Residence Exhibition by MFA students Kristin Bedford, Caitlin M. Kelly, and Jennifer Stratton, who collaborated with the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. A goal of the program is to find out how artists can help scientists in research, and in turn the larger public.

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 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 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 nowadays 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 Oath, My 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 assistantships out of the four semesters 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.

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, started in 1988, is housed under the Center for Documentary Studies and provides networking and outreach opportunities for students.

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

Thomas Rankin: My hope is 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’s 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. Somehow we need to begin to talk to each other more and see ways of growing things. The key is constant evolution, but you never really get there.

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Filmmaker Ken Burns with Loyola Marymount’s Stephen Ujlaki. The film school has placed undergrads with Burns for internships.

Loyola Marymount University: MFA Documentary Film

Loyola Marymount’s MFA program in Documentary Film is currently being created in its School of Film and Television. It’s slated to start receiving its first students in two years, in the fall of 2015. Stephen Ujlaki, dean of the school, answered our questions.

How are you approaching building Loyola Marymount’s documentary MFA program?

Stephen Ujlaki: Currently, we’re working with an advisory of successful documentary filmmakers and asking them, “What do you think should be in the program?”

For the most part, our program will be eclectic in the sense that we will use active documentary filmmakers as instructors working under and with some of our full-time faculty. And members of our full-time faculty have to be documentary filmmakers. I can’t give any names now, but we will have very respected names on our advisory board. We’re using these filmmakers to construct what a program should look like.

The timeline is we’ll have the program approved by next fall at this time, and we’ll start marketing and taking applications for the fall of 2015.

I believe that we are going to be looking for students who have a project that they want to do. We are looking to turn people who have some documentary experience into professional documentary filmmakers. We will be looking for potential students who have a project that they are passionate about and the potential to make it happen, and we hope that the two-year program will give them the time to make their project, or they will when they graduate.

That is a way of self-selecting. One of the issues with grad school is that you have people who don’t really know what they want to do with their lives and they’re trying different things. We want people who have decided that this is very much what they want to do. We want to help those students get from one level to the next.

The university is completely behind us — it matches with the university’s mission to go outside of oneself and get involved in social justice and social progress. The Jesuits are the progressive branch in the catholic church, known for being intellectuals.

There’s already a strong documentary emphasis in the undergrad program. We anticipate the grad program being very interdisciplinary with other departments and schools within the university. When I was working as chair of the Cinema Department at San Francisco State for eight years, we had a number of programs in which we matched up anthropology, public health, social sciences with documentary filmmakers. We want you to be a good in two areas, not just one. Some people can obsessively focused on just their narrow area of expertise, and our job is to get them outside of that and aware of that the more tools they have, the more successful they’re likely to be. Documentary filmmakers don’t work in isolation. The challenge is figuring what is the exact cocktail that is going to be a combination of business, law, writing and working with other people and as a team.

Another important part of the grad program is the notion of internships, working directly with companies who are in the business of making documentaries. We already have undergrad programs and strong working relationships with those in the industry — Ken Burns, Film Independent, The Center for Investigative Journalism and Participant Media.

We have everything in terms of camera equipment, a soundstage and recording facilities. We also try to teach the importance of entrepreneurial skills.

Why would you start a new program about documentary film?

Stephen Ujlaki: I actually became interested in this from the time I became dean three years ago. In academia, it’s the faculty who drive the curriculum. So I encouraged the committees to look into it, and now they’ve been working for the last nine months. It’s very much a focus that’s important to me.

I had started by making documentaries. In the 70s when I came to L.A., no one cared about documentaries. I had even stopped telling people that I had done documentaries because people would look at me like I’m crazy. I had very much enjoyed returning to documentaries after a stint at HBO, that when I had an opportunity to come here to LMU, I thought it was really important to make this an emphasis.

Los Angeles is such a feature-film world, and so much a commercial culture. In that way, I feel an emphasis on documentary is showing a viable alternative to the prevalent culture here. It’s something that Hollywood has never been interested in, because they haven’t figured out how to make money off of it. You don’t need actors, agents. You can use a lawyer, but it’s something that the whole industry doesn’t make money from, so it’s not considered viable, although that’s changing very much.

LMU has never promoted themselves as having a film school, and one of my jobs has been to change that. Part of the issue that we’ve been dealing with is, yes we’re catholic, yes we’re Jesuit, but this is what it means to us to be that: social justice and social progress.

It’s important because it’s a progressive order, and that’s great for me because that’s what my interests are. That’s what makes me feel excited about what we’re doing. Personally, I’m into documentaries that are investigative journalism. I would feel we were really successful if we had graduates of the program go on to dealing with some of the major issues that we’re dealing with in the world today. That would be the absolute nickel of success.

More than ever, we need documentaries. More than ever, the world is complex, and people have a problem differentiating with the Internet between what’s real and what’s not. Wherever we can help to bring light where there’s darkness where there isn’t any that would be, to me, a sign of our success.

Why should documentary filmmakers get a graduate degree?

Stephen Ujlaki: We try to ensure that the two years spent with us will appreciably increase that person’s ability to be successful when they get out.

More than ever, documentary and independent voices are necessary, as mass entertainment becomes more and more homogenized and less intelligent every year.

All of us are aware of the fact that there’s an enormous issue in higher education of the cost. My goal is that at least half the students who are admitted are here on full scholarship. What we can do is to make it as affordable as possible, because the most awful thing is the amount of debt that students accrue… It’s a huge problem. These are small classes, there will be at least 12-15 students per cohort, or at least half will be on full scholarship. That’s my goal. Otherwise, we are disadvantaging students and not working to level the playing field.

You can always make the point that since a graduate degree isn’t needed for documentary filmmaking per se, it doesn’t matter. We know that. You could say, “Why don’t you just get a job and start working your way up?” And that’s perfectly valid.

That’s exactly why we’re using current, working documentary filmmakers to help us craft this program. Saying, “What would it have helped you to know when you were starting out? What do you wish you would have known?”

If you have a project, we are going to get to the point where you can get your project made, or at the point of getting it made, and that’s the promise we’ll make to students coming in. This is exactly how we’re going to help you achieve your goals.

As we know, there are many people who have been highly successful not even going to college, forget grad school. Depending on the prospective student, we encourage them to get jobs. Again, I would say that’s a perfectly legitimate path that most people have taken. Some people just are entrepreneurial by their nature, and others are not. Very often it will be the ones who are the major self-starters who don’t need to go to school. Because they have great street smarts and ability to propel themselves along. In fact, these grad programs in documentary are relatively new, and what did people do before then? They did it on their own, they didn’t go to grad school. Our challenge is to discourage people from becoming filmmakers, and make them aware of the realities involved by not giving the notion that they will be the next celebrity filmmaker. There’s a huge gamut of jobs that are available out there for people with creative backgrounds.

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Shannon Carroll
Shannon Carroll
Shannon was Digital Community Associate in POV's Digital department.