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Profile: The Documentary Center at George Washington University

By Katie Murphy

Nina Gilden Seavey, founder/director of The Documentary Center at George Washington University

Editor's Note: Documentary magazine has devoted many issues over many years to education, whether at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, or the wide-open world of lifelong learning. Education is a core pillar of IDA's mission to serve the documentary community; as we've solidified our Doc U program over the years-both in our home turf in Los Angeles, and through Doc U Online, which is available to IDA members around the world, we also brought on Ken Jacobson to be our first full-time Director of Education and Strategic Partnerships. With that, it was appropriate in these pages to launch a regular column that would spotlight a specific program devoted to documentary training—a significant growth area in academia over the past decade, and a vital incubator for exciting new directions in the documentary form. 

The Documentary Center at George Washington University offers an immersive education in documentary theory and practice through its six-month Institute for Documentary Filmmaking. Six months is considerably shorter than the two or three years often required by graduate film programs, but Center founder Nina Gilden Seavey describes the Institute as a "very intensive, ‘we're going to make your eyeballs spin' experience," and one that comes with the promise of continued mentorship long after you graduate. According to Seavey, "You don't need a two-year film school. You need me for 20 years."

Documentary spoke with Seavey about her ideal student, what makes Washington, DC a special place for documentary film and her advice for film school graduates.


How has the Center evolved?

Nina Gilden Seavey: When I first started the program, it was in the history department. I got my master's in history and, at that time, historical documentary was king. There wasn't really much surety as to whether or not people would be interested in learning this, so we started as a five-week program in the summer and we offered that for a number of years. Around 1995, it was clear that documentary was taking hold and my own work was growing away from exclusively history, so I was moved out of the history department and we expanded the program from five weeks to a six-month, very intensive boot camp for documentary filmmakers, which is what it has been for the last 20 years or so.


Did you study film?

No, I actually never studied film. I had a career in the 1980s in politics. After the Reagan revolution, I found myself without a job and I went into media—first into radio, then television news and then, a little later on, filmmaking. I made films for 10 years with Paul Wagner, and he actually taught with me in the first few years of my Institute for Documentary Filmmaking. The first year, I said to him, "What text should we assign?" and he said, "I don't know, I thought you went to film school," and I said, "I thought you went to film school!" In those days, most people didn't go to film school. Film school is kind of a newer professionalization of the industry that didn't really exist in the 1980s; it existed for narrative filmmakers, but not so much in documentary.


Has coming to media after having had another career, and having your education in a different field, impacted the kinds of students you look for?

There's no question about it. I am more interested in a person who has traveled extensively, or who knows another language, or who has studied something entirely different than film. I can teach a monkey to push a button, but I can't teach a monkey to have an idea. I look for people with a certain kind of robustness about the world, because I think film is about ideas and not about the technology. The people that I accept into the institute are, by and large, people who I think have an interesting perspective on life. That's not a criterion that a lot of film schools necessarily share, which is fine with me.


What about Washington, DC makes it a special place for documentary film students?

I think it's the perfect place; we have Discovery, National Geographic, WETA, and an enormous industry that has developed to service those giants. It doesn't tend to be the more independent filmmaking that you might find more in New York City, but it means that there are actual jobs in the industry. I bartended for three years before I was able to quit my job and become a filmmaker full-time. So I think there's a real opportunity for film students in DC that doesn't really exist anywhere else in the country.


What kind of production/post-production resources does the Center have to offer?

The Documentary Center is part of the School of Media and Public Affairs. We have 50 HD cameras, every student has his or her own state-of-the-art editing bay and we don't have a huge number of majors in the School of Media and Public Affairs. We've very much remained state-of-the-art, and a brand new building, the Trachtenberg School, was built for Media and Public Affairs about seven years ago. The facilities are beautiful, but it really is about the storytelling. We've had other universities come and visit our facilities, and they're always awe-struck by them, which is wonderful, as long as our students have great ideas.

There was a commitment made by the administration about 10 years ago to build a monument to media in the media capital, and they kind of coalesced these resources into the School of Media and Public Affairs. It's intentionally kept fairly small, but we service every student in a very thorough way, so it's a different kind of an approach. We were never intended to be a big film school. We're actually not even a journalism school. The School of Media and Public Affairs is in the School of Arts and Sciences, so it's part of an Arts and Sciences curriculum that I don't think we're ever going to want to change. We are not a professional school. We're a school of media and film and documentary film in the context of a School of Arts and Sciences. In that sense, it's a very interesting place to be because they've built this monument to media but also said, "You're not going to be a professional school. You're going to be part of the academic life of a university."


What advice would you give to recent film school graduates?

I think you can come out of a six-month program and become a production assistant, or you can come out of a two-year program and become a production assistant. In some ways, you're always going to start at the bottom, work your way up and have to prove that you're better than everyone else around you—so what you need to do is force your institution to be involved in your journey. The relationships that you build while you're in school, the internships you need to constantly call on those people to be an active participant in your progress. Those people have contacts, they have insight into your first film, into your third film, into your tenth film. I have people who come to me for decades, and as well they should, because this isn't a road that ends. It certainly isn't a road that has ended for me; every time I make a film, I'm learning something new.

I think that film schools have done an abysmal job of making a promise to their graduates that they are a partner in this endeavor, and I think the tie-in to that is going to come in the end when the students say, "My investment wasn't $100,000 in the couple of years I spent with you, but in the fact that I am a graduate of this program and in that sense, we are partners in my journey as a filmmaker."


Katie Bieze received her MA in Film & Video from American University, and her BA in Literature with Certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She currently works for Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger in the United States. 

The Documentary Center at George Washington University: Institute for Documentary Filmmaking

Duration of Program: Six Months—January through June

Degree Offered: Graduate Certificate in Documentary Filmmaking

Components of Program: Theory, Technical Training, Production

Number of Students: 15-18

Internship Placement Opportunities: National Geographic Television, Discovery Communications, WETA, as well as with many highly experienced independent filmmakers and production companies.