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Docu-demic Opportunities Abound in DC

By Adrena Ifill

Widely known as the Nation's Capital, an international political power seat and "Chocolate City," the Washington, DC metropolitan area is also home to leading nonfiction media institutions such as National Geographic Television, Discovery Networks and PBS. As one of the largest production centers for video in the country, DC produces a plethora of documentary work to support government, cultural, educational and nonprofit organizations worldwide.

To nurture this documentary genre and to develop top-quality professionals, some of the nation's leading academic institutions located in DC have designed programs to train emerging documentarians and those interested in advancing their careers in nonfiction programming. Among these institutions are the American University (AU) School of Communication; the Radio, TV and Film department at Howard University (HU); and The Documentary Center at George Washington University (GWU).

American University

AU's School of Communication ( combines journalism, public communications and filmmaking under one roof. Its focus is on framing complex issues in a social context, ideal for social documentarians. Within the Department of Film and Media Arts, AU looks specifically at how documentaries fit into social movements.

Professor Pat Aufderheide, head of the AU-based Center for Social Media, has developed pioneering research that documentarians use as key resources in their filmmaking. These reports include the Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. "We're proud to play a multi-faceted role in introducing students to 'media matters'," she says. "This spring semester, we hosted Adrian Cowell, a famous British documentarian who is in his fifth decade of significant environmental work. Earlier visitors included Judith Helfand and Bill Greaves."

The interaction between students and faculty is visible at AU. Associate Professor Charlene Gilbert teaches a course, "Communication and Social Change," which brings students from various communication majors together on a single issue. Students and faculty work closely together, using film for social advocacy. A recent campaign that the class tackled was gentrification.

Previously, Gilbert used students and former students in key crew positions, some of whom received professional credits, in her documentary Children Will Listen, which aired nationally on PBS in November 2005.

Assistant Professor Bill Gentile, a photojournalist and filmmaker who leads the Foreign Correspondence Network, has mentored several students in the pursuit of investigative reporting and documentaries. Last summer, his work took him to Afghanistan, where he looked at the war from a foreign correspondent's perspective. One of his students accompanied him. Gentile will also use the documentary as a teaching tool for an upcoming course.

Three professors at AU have done extensive documentary work on the environment. Working with the Humane Society, National Park Service and other environmental groups, AU's faculty and students have begun pioneering work in addition to hosting the annual Environmental Film Festival.

Undergraduates and graduate students are formally paired with mentors at AU. This helps with job search and placement as well as with managing "real world" expectations. The mentoring benefits are mutual. "I have many film projects with blue-chip organizations such as the Smithsonian and National Park Service, and I involve students in all of them," notes Chris Palmer, Distinguished Film Producer in Residence and director of AU's Center for Environmental Filmmaking. "I am constantly amazed and delighted by how creative and enthusiastic they are."

Informally, professors and alumni work with students on projects and career development. AU encourages reaching out to its long list of alumni, many of whom have landed in top positions at Discovery Networks, 48 Hours and 20/20. The alums often come back as visiting professors or artists-in-residence.

AU students also have access to all film and video formats. There are several professional DV cameras for use. Editing is done on Avid Express Pro or Final Cut Pro. Students are allowed to choose which format works best for their projects, and AU encourages students to learn both formats to be competitive and conversant in the workplace.

Dean Larry Kirkman describes AU as a "lab for documentary production. With links from the outside the university to the academic setting, the program has a strong professional focus."

AU offers the following degrees in this field: an MA in Film and Video, an MFA in Film and Electronic Media, and an MA in Producing Film and Video, the latter of which is a weekend program for working professionals. The full-time program has a thesis or non-thesis option, and class size is small to facilitate mentoring opportunities.

In addition to production courses, AU offers courses such as "Marketing and Financing of Independent Productions," as well as workshops to round out the filmmaker's knowledge of the industry. International exchange opportunities exist with the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Prague's Film Academy.

According to Gentile, "DC is the ideal place for aspiring documentarians because of the international community that surrounds it. Using my Foreign Correspondence class as an example, there is no better place in the country to teach it to because of the diplomatic missions based here. In addition, Washington is the base of many non-governmental organizations that operate around the world."

Howard University

The Radio, Television, and Film Department (RTVF) of Howard University School of Communications ( has several courses that look at documentary filmmaking from different aspects. The school's approach is to provide the educational opportunity to analyze the media and its images and to look at how to use these images in the service of the larger community. Located at a historically black university, the RTVF department also provides an emphasis on African and African-American film within its course offerings.

Being located in the heart of DC is a big plus for Howard students. Department Chair Sandra Williams describes DC as a "small big city." She notes that DC is the seat of the US political power and the headquarters of major national and international forums, all within close proximity to campus and with excellent mass transportation options. Notably, the University is home to one of the largest archives of African-American history, the Moorland-Spingarn Center.

Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to work on independent projects. This year, several students interviewed their fellow classmates who relocated from New Orleans-based colleges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as part of a student documentary on the aftermath of that disaster. Students also participate in internships with leading media institutions that often lead to job placements after graduation.

The graduate program offers an MFA in Film--a two-year program with intensive study that employs a holistic approach to writing, directing, film theory and history. Each graduate student is required to produce a final thesis that is either a short film or a feature-length screenplay.

Students select a thesis chair and committee and are mentored throughout the process. There is a close relationship between faculty and students on the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professor Haile Gerima, an internationally known filmmaker, recently took some of his students to several international locations to work on his latest production. Associate Professor Alonzo Crawford, a filmmaker, does a community film workshop over the summer that brings together high school and university students on a film project. There is a rich collaborative environment within the RTVF department. Alumni working in the field communicate frequently with the department, recruiting for job opportunities and summer internships.

Students are encouraged to shoot on Super-16mm film and edit on Final Cut Pro and Avid Express Pro. The RTVF is keeping current with technology shifts and allows some students to use digital video for their projects. In preparation for a career in film, students are exposed to workshops and courses in business areas such as distribution, exhibition and legal contracts.

George Washington University

Located near the White House is The Documentary Center, housed at George Washington University (GWU; The center, formerly known as the Center for History in the Media, was founded in 1990. By 2000, the center had expanded its focus to include all forms of documentary filmmaking--history, natural history, cultural, public affairs, social issue and experimental work.

The center operates a six-month intensive program called the Institute for Documentary Filmmaking, which receives hundreds of applications a year for 16 slots. Participants in the Institute come from around the world with diverse backgrounds such as broadcasting, law, psychology, literature, science, anthropology, museum studies and education.

The Institute's curriculum is hands-on, providing each student with interactive experiences that build upon their own experiences. The students work collaboratively throughout the program, culminating in a final project.

Center director Nina Gilden Seavey's philosophy is that the program will allow students to understand the language of documentary film and be able to determine if they can effectively communicate in that language. She wants to make sure students are not committing a lifetime to discover that a documentary career is not for them. The intense program covers theory and technical aspects of documentary film. Graduate level academic credit is available, and all students receive a certificate in documentary filmmaking upon successful completion of the program.

A group final project is completed over the last eight weeks of the program. Each student is assigned a production role, and the group determines the subject of the project. In 2005, the group produced a short film on the boom and bust of the dot-com industry. In 2004, the project was a film on the Go-Go music scene. Students are in charge of all aspects of the production, including writing and editing. They shoot on DV-Cam and edit on Avid Express Pro.

In addition to Seavey, the Institute's professors are leading experts in their fields. The Institute offers several workshops where guest lecturers from top media and documentary organizations are featured.

Internships are strongly recommended and are permitted during the term. Students have been placed with such companies as National Geographic Television, PBS, Guggenheim Productions and Hedrick Smith Productions. Seavey is a big advocate of mentoring; she herself was "intensely mentored. Film schools have become the apprentice arena now," she notes. She often workshops her own work with her students and admits that "helping students work out their issues makes me a better filmmaker."

Major events happen every day in Washington, DC, so it is only natural for the city to be training and nurturing some of the best filmmakers who will be responsible for documenting our lives and times. "DC is great for story, ideas and topics," Howard University assistant professor James Rada notes. "Walk around the corner, keep a journal and you will never run out of ideas. Depending on your own philosophy and career track, this one city has many academic options for the documentarian."


Adrena Ifill manages cultural preservation projects that include documentary films and new media technologies. She just completed a historical documentary on Congressman Robert Smalls, a former slave and five-term US Congressman from South Carolina who served during the late 1800s. She can be reached at