The Rise of Documentaries at Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University is a liberal arts college located in Middletown, Connecticut. Founded in 1831, Wesleyan is a school “where critical thinking and practical idealism” are encouraged to intermingle. With a student body of approximately 3,000 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, it boasts alumni as varied as composer/writer/director/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, filmmaker Michael Bay and writer/director Joss Whedon. However, we would be remiss if we did not mention that other Wesleyan alums include Fulbright Scholars, MacArthur “Genius” Grant Fellows, Academy Award winners, and Nobel Prize laureates.
According to the school’s mission statement, “Wesleyan…seeks to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively, and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.” This collaborative spirit “refuse[s] to squeeze open minds into a closed curriculum” and offers 45 majors, 31 minors, and three certificate programs to help empower students to “take chances, question the status quo, and flourish in an academic culture that prizes collaboration over competition.”
Documentary recently spoke with co-directors of the Wesleyan Documentary Project—Tracy Heather Strain, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Associate Director, College of Film and the Moving Image; and Randall MacLowry, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Film Studies—about how these values and approaches to education manifest within Wesleyan’s Film Studies Program.
DOCUMENTARY: What’s changed at Wesleyan since the retirement in 2020 of Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Founder & Curator of The Cinema Archives?
TRACY HEATHER STRAIN: There are many parts to that question. Jeanine and Scott Higgins, chair of the department, and Michael Roth, the president of the university, invited us to come, so Randy and I relocated to Middletown, Connecticut, in 2019 to bring documentary back to Wesleyan, although Sadia Quareshi Shepard was already here teaching Introduction to Collaborative Documentary Filmmaking. We were brought in to develop a curriculum, provide programming, and bring our company [The Film Posse] to provide internships during the academic year; a lot of our students also do internships in different places during the summer, and we offer summer internships as well. We came here pre-pandemic, and I’m still getting the lay of the land, but Randy’s an alum, class of ’86, so he can speak about the days when there wasn’t even a film major.
RANDALL MACLOWRY: Sure. There wasn’t a film department when I graduated in ’86, but we could do a film concentration in the art department. The College of Film and Moving Images was not an entity at that time, but Jeanine had started the film program back in the ’70s, so I was there near the start when the program was being developed. I stayed in touch with Jeanine the years after graduating, so I always felt connected to Wesleyan and the film program as it grew. When I moved to Boston, I was able to visit, and I saw the different developments and the buildings that were being built as part of the College of Film. In 2014 they brought me down to do a semester as a visiting artist to work with the senior [undergraduate] filmmakers. I was their mentor during the post-production part of their theses so that I could oversee film and digital projects. Wesleyan still works with film as part of the learning process; the main production course for all film majors is Sight and Sound [currently taught by Alex Salinas-Albrecht], where they’re learning how to shoot on film and do some cutting on film, and the senior theses students that are brave enough to want to do their final project on film have an opportunity to do that as well.
D: They’re taught both digital and film, and then they can choose which to shoot on for their theses.
RM: It’s typically the fiction filmmakers who are doing that. Last year there was one documentary filmmaker who chose to shoot on film, but typically those doing documentary are not going to shoot on film. However, all the film majors will have had experience with film. And so, it’s been a good experience to come back to Wesleyan and feel like I’m giving back to the university, bringing the professional knowledge that I have and, of course, the wealth of talent and knowledge Tracy brings with her. It was a really wonderful opportunity for us to take what we know and utilize that to develop and build a documentary program that would be unique as an undergraduate program while also giving students a solid grounding in documentary. And with the rise of documentaries, it’s proving to be a very popular thing at Wesleyan.
D: What is the Wesleyan Documentary Project?
THS: It’s the name Jeanine gave for the documentary center she’d like us to create, focusing on creating a curriculum or going through the existing curriculum to see if it’s the most relevant and if it’s hitting all the notes for where the field currently is, and also what students should understand and know about documentaries; it’s about curriculum, programming, and this idea of connection to community. We have the alumni community, but there’s also a collective of working filmmakers, and one of the things that we’re really excited about is, through an alumnus, the Camden International Film Festival reached out, and it looks like we might work to create programming with them. We want to reach out to the [documentary] community, and we’re agnostic in terms of styles. We want [our students] to be aware of an array of modes and styles and ways of making films, so it’s important for us to make sure that we connect them with [filmmakers] who use a variety of styles.
We’re really excited about the work that the Documentary Accountability Working Group has done in terms of thinking about ethics and accountability, and values. Some of the things they talk about are already in our method of making documentaries, but the framework and a set of questions are great to have because our students are very interested in ethics and objectivity and issues of that nature. Many people, not just students, think you just grab a camera and run out there and start filming, and they’re not thinking about why they’re making a film or whether they have any connection to the community. There’s a range of questions that are being foregrounded in our field that we want to incorporate into our curriculum. For the students that aren’t aware of those kinds of issues, it’s always interesting to see how eye-opening it is for them.
One of the changes we’re making [within the documentary program] is we want to start with reflection instead of research and development: Should this be done? Whose right is it to tell a story?
RM: As they’re thinking through their ideas, we try to get them to focus on things that are important to them to find a story that is something they’re personally connected to. What are the stories that you’re attracted to? Identify the themes you gravitate towards as you think about the story you want to tell. They’re not restricted to doing a certain style of film.
THS: But we also want them to think about the impact that their film may have… It’s not just what they [the filmmaker] want to do but also, How will it affect somebody else? How will this person feel about their image being out there in
D: Do you have exercises to help them get more comfortable in their own skin as they learn their craft and the technology that goes along with it?
THS: We were fortunate to be able to get some new equipment, and everybody in class has their own camera and kit; I feel that confidence comes with mastery, so it’s what we’re trying to foster. Do not be embarrassed to ask questions. It is okay to be a beginner, and it is better to ask questions. I have a student who keeps saying, “This is probably a dumb question,” and I’m trying to work that out of her vocabulary.
D: Can you tell us about your recent “big” meeting?
THS: We met with the university president to talk about the future of the Wesleyan Documentary Project. Because of the nature of universities, we can’t go into details, but there are changes afoot, very positive things that we’re excited about—to support documentary students, to connect documentary to the rest of the campus, and to formalize the documentary center more. Currently, I’m also the associate director of the College of Film and the Moving Image, so I play a role in some of the larger issues related to CFMI, and it’s been an interesting change. We really feel connected and integrated.
RM: We were really welcomed on campus, and it’s been a wonderful experience to feel like you’re connected to the other departments and the bigger issues that are happening. And also the fact that we were brought here to really develop the documentary as part of the film program and the agency that we have.
THS: And there may be more things in the works. We’re just getting started.
Tom Gianakopoulos is a contributing editor at Documentary magazine. When he isn’t writing or editing, he can usually be found teaching English, creative writing, or screenwriting, either virtually or on the ground.