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Back to School: Pros Gain New Perspective as Guest Teachers

By Wayne Schuth

It is 40 degrees, raining and windy, and my wife and I are on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, sitting on a horsedrawn cart and heading to the Man of Aran cottage to explore the locations that Robert Flaherty used in his 1934 film. I am excited thinking about how I could show Man of Aran to my graduate documentary seminar. I am also thinking of how the discussion could go in class, how I can show my own images of the island today, and then, with regret, how I can't bring Flaherty himself in to talk with the students about his work. That would be the best: Flaherty and his films, live in class. Would he use cinema verite today or shoot in color? Would he still choose the same locations? We shall never know.

I realized again how important it is for documentary image makers to share their work with students when they can. As I have seen in the past when such pros as Richard Leacock (who worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story) came to our university and showed some of their productions, when an image maker screens his or her work for a class, not only do the students learn, but the feedback from the students is often valuable to the image maker.

In a paper I delivered at a recent University Film and Video Association Conference, I discussed many goals for documentary film and video courses.  Several issues touched upon there are relevant to ID readers, who may be invited to show their works in classes. If you are a documentary image maker and wish to make you and your work available in this way, you should find the following considerations useful.

First, you need to determine whom your audience will be, just as you do before making a film or video.  Documentary courses can be found in film and television departments that specialize in theory or production or both. They can be found in departments that include film in their offer­ings, such as fine arts or English. They can be found in a standard college curricula or in after-hours courses aimed mainly at adults or in intensive special sessions. The course may be a required one and therefore filled with majors, or it may be an elective in which students from many disciplines enroll. Students who have had several production courses before taking the documentary course will have knowledge of terms and techniques that stu­dents who have had only a beginning film-as-art course do not. When you have made contact with the professor whose class you will visit, you should ask about the students. What are their professional goals and interests? What experience (if any) do they have in film and television?

Reality-image courses can have numerous structures, and you should know ahead of time how the one you will visit is organized. Chronological courses, for example, focus on the major figures of the documentary field and their films. This approach works well with students in a general-interest class, some of whom have little knowledge of film before enrolling, since the material is readily comprehensible. A typical such course would include the work of Robert Flaherty and his contemporaries in the 1920s, the 1930s films of John Grierson, Pare Lorentz, and Leni Riefenstahl, and so forth. If you are going to be in one of these classes, you should find out where the students are in the chronology and what information they bring to the screening.

A second approach is a categorical one, in which films and videos are classified by type and then compared and contrasted. This works extremely well with production students, who often are writing scripts and looking for structures themselves. Films and videos might be categorized by purpose, from those that are intended to produce insights to those that are intended as social weapons. Another way to categorize is by theory and technique; such a class might cover direct cinema and cinema verite, semi­ documentaries, and even docudramas.  You and the professor should determine the point during the course that best relates to your work. (Better yet, it may relate to many of the categories covered or may not be able to be categorized at all!)

A third approach commonly used is the auteur one, in which documentary film- and videomakers are presented as individual artists whose works can be analyzed for recurring themes and styles; for example, several of Frederick Wiseman's documentaries could be examined in depth. This structure works well for contemporary film- and videomakers. Several of your productions could be screened, and you could learn a great deal not only about your work but about yourself from this type of approach.

There are, of course, many other approaches. For a good overview and helpful information about documentary courses and on courses in general, see "Resources for Teaching Film and Video Courses," by the SCS Committee on Teaching, published in volume 34, number 4, of Cinema Journal earlier this year.

You can find out who is teaching what and where by many means. The IDA Membership Directory is a good start. College catalogs also give descriptions of courses and names of professors to contact. (Some schools may find a documentary course too specialized but might offer other classes for which your work would be appropriate, such as film history, film theory, mass communications, or film/video production.) A visit to a campus bookstore can be useful, as course titles and professors are listed and required textbooks are available. Most professors are eager to have professionals visit classes. In all cases, once you've been invited, be sure to find out what type of screening equipment is available to you; 16mm film, videotape, and laserdisc are all possible formats.

Image makers who bring their work to campus often find that there are benefits beyond the class session. Interns may be available (and eager) to work with your company. You may meet future employees. You may find possibilities for distribution. And just being on campus provides a new perspective.

A greeting used on the Aran Islands can apply to universities as well: Céad Mile Fáilte—"A hundred thousand welcomes."


Dr. H. Wayne Schuth is a professor in the Department of Drama and Communication at the University of New OrLeans, where he teaches a graduate Seminar on the documentary.