As you read this, there are about a dozen students, mostly undergrads and few older types, who are being subjected to what might be the most dynamic and inspiring documentary tutelage ever mustered in a summer month outside of Sundance, Utah. It’s happening on the leafy hills of the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts under the auspices of The Creative Media Institute at Hampshire College, which has created a four-week summer program being taught by an all-star team of talent.
This is just a selection of the guest speakers and teachers (I’m keeping the number to nine, in case they ever want to field a baseball team): Ken Burns, Frederick Wiseman, Rachel Boynton, Brett Morgen, Rob Epstein, Ross Kauffman, Margaret Brown, A.J. Schnack and Robert Greene.
Most of these filmmakers are dropping in for a day or so — Wiseman was Skyped in — but the point still stands: there’s something extraordinary happening up there. It started with a week curated by Greene (Actress), a filmmaker with an intense drive to push the boundaries of documentary, who kicked things off with a screening of Only the Young. He brought in guests like Brown, and oversaw a look at “cinematic nonfiction” with talks and screenings. I hear there was a lively “party” vibe to the week. Things took a more studious turn the next week when Ivy Meeropol (Heir to an Execution) came to work with the students [under the guidance of Hampshire alum Meghan O'Hara (In Country)] and when they got their hands on the cameras and were given local subjects about which they began creating 5-minute documentaries.
I swung by for the start of the third week, which began with Ken Burns, who first had a talk with Beau Willimon (House of Cards), and then a master class with the CMI students. He also showed them some early clips of his Vietnam documentary series, which won’t be airing for a couple of years. The conversation and the footage shown were fantastic. The next morning, Charlotte Cook, the director of programming at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, began her curated week with a day of Boynton — Boynton’s two films (Our Brand Is Crisis, Big Men) which book-ended a documentary that inspired her (Darwin’s Nightmare).
What I saw and experienced in just an 18-hour period was very impressive. Burns’ Vietnam footage gave me goose bumps. It was a very early work-in-progress look, so I can’t go into detail, but I feel confident that it will be a monumental event. Think Civil War was a milestone? This could top that. After screening the footage, Burns sat in a circle of chairs with the students and engaged in an intimate conversation about his process. He spoke of working with his team and his own aesthetic style.
The next day, after watching Our Brand Is Crisis, the students had another conversation, led by Cook. The students were thoughtful, perceptive and curious.
I personally was blown away by Darwin’s Nightmare, an Oscar nominee in 2006 that I had not seen before. Boynton has a rabid appreciation of the film. She waxed on about how director Hubert Sauper uses an intricately edited series of interviews as scenes, and marveled at how “he made a film about an idea and made it cinematic. It’s almost impossible.”
Her excitement reflected the passion that Greene and Cook both share for the documentary form. I get the sense that they want to push it, knead it, break it down and build it up. They’re like sculptors who want to slam the material to smithereens so that it can take on a more beautiful, and truthful, shape.
It was heartening. That these doc practitioners can have the giddiness of students and yet bring all of their experience to a younger generation is invaluable. I wonder if the real students in the class can appreciate how special it all is.
Sure, there are other programs out there. There’s one at USC, another at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and there’s the Maine Media Workshops. The New York Film Academy has a program for documentary, and the Flaherty Seminar has been happening for years. But if the Creative Media Institute continues to host stellar talent and thrive as a place for undergrads to travel to during the summer, this could become a significant venue for the documentary filmmakers of tomorrow and the documentary pros and fans of today.
This is the first summer of the program, but there was an earlier incarnation. In 1971, Hampshire began hosting a Summer Institute on Media Arts to give people interested in media to get together for an exchange of ideas. Doc pioneers Ricky Leacock and Stan Brakhage were there, as well as photographer Diane Arbus and many others, including a young Burns, who attended Hampshire.
I’m told that Burns has wanted there to be a resurrection of the summer program for years. Now, with a sympathetic school president, the Creative Media Institute was born.
The person who is bringing it all together is program director Andrew Hart, who has worked at Hampshire’s media services department for more than five years. When Hart speaks about the original Summer Institute, you can see a glimmer of El Dorado in his eyes. He has put together a hell of a program, but, ultimately, he says, what makes it work “is the doing,” alluding to the fact that the students are making films in addition to all the complementary watching and talking. I’d agree.
Hart has the same moxie that others at CMI have. He’s the kind of guy you want running a program like this, pushing limits, going for the best, but also with an outside-the-box approach, the kind of guy who whips out his smart phone to show you amazing, uproarious naked photos of Leacock back in the day. Hey, it’s a summer retreat for creatives — anything can happen.
For more information about the program, check out the Creative Media Institute at Hampshire College at hampshire.edu.