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Film School Confidential: Teachers from the Top Doc Programs Reveal the Secrets of Their Courses

By Mitchell Block

Jon Else, Mark Harris, Jan Krawitz and Kristine Samuelson

Given the dominance of USC School of Cinema-Television, University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University Graduate Program in Documentary Film and Video in the respective awards competitions sponsored by the television and motion picture academies, International Documentary contacted via e-mail representatives from those schools about their programs. Mark Harris is a three-time Academy Award-winning documentary maker who has taught at USC for 21 years; Jon Else, a former MacArthur Fellow and an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, is the director of the Documentary Program at Berkeley; Kristine Samuelson and Jan Krawitz, both award-winning filmmakers, are, respectively, the director of and a professor in Stanford's program.


Tell me about your program to train students to become professional nonfiction/documentary filmmakers.

Mark Harris/USC: We don't have a program as much as an emphasis in documentary. Although graduate students can concentrate on documentary filmmaking, most take courses in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. We see them as complementary. Fiction courses help documentarians to tell better stories by giving them structural and narrative tools; documentaries help fiction filmmakers create more realistic and nuanced characters and more believable stories.

In the core documentary course, student crews make three 20 to 25-minute video documentaries each semester. The course is team-taught and meets twice a week. On Wednesday mornings we screen rushes and cuts. In the afternoons students meet with instructors in the roles they are performing. Each crew consists of a minimum of a director/writer, producer, cinematographer, sound person and two editors. Sometimes there is more than one producer or cinematographer or sound person. On Mondays, working documentary filmmakers show their films to the class and discuss how they were made and how to survive as a documentary filmmaker.

Jon Else/UC Berkeley: All classes and training are taught by working documentary makers. No theory. All course work—writing, production management, camera, sound, editing, distribution, ethics—is specifically designed around the concrete practical problems of making real documentaries for a real mass audience.

Jan Krawitz/Stanford: The graduate MA program in Film and Video in Stanford's Department of Communication provides a demanding aesthetic framework within which we teach students the conceptual and practical skills for producing nonfiction film and video. The program emphasizes the development of ideas and the means for effectively communicating them through visual media. The philosophy of the Documentary Film and Video program is based on creating an environment in which students learn the methods of documentary through their own productions, through collaboration on the projects of their classmates and through study of the history and theory of the nonfiction film form. Students also participate in rigorous critiques of works-in-progress.

Kristine Samuelson/Stanford: The program is intensive and requires a full-time commitment for two consecutive years. We encourage applications from highly motivated individuals with diverse backgrounds, regardless of their undergraduate course of study. Our experience indicates that mature applicants with some work experience following their undergraduate studies tend to flourish and excel in the program. The conceptual and technical skills required for documentary work are sufficiently different from fictional narrative to make the Stanford program inappropriate for students interested in feature filmmaking. 

JK:  The strength of our program is the small class size, and the mentoring that occurs between student and faculty. All students are required to share their work at all stages of pre-production through post-production. The result is a cooperative, collaborative "atelier" environment in which students learn enormous amounts from each other and the faculty is very involved on a weekly basis. A testament to the collegiality is the number of working relationships between students that endure beyond their years at Stanford. We have had a number of students go on to receive funding from ITVS, HBO and CINEMAX, and they continue to hire each other and collaborate on these post-graduate projects.


What courses do you offer that deal with the business of documentary filmmaking, in terms of raising funds for productions?

MH:  We have a pre-production course, in which students research and write proposals for documentaries, which they then pitch to the school. It's from this group that the faculty chooses three films each semester to produce. This course also deals with budgets and the business of filmmaking. Students who work as producers on the documentaries in the class also learn a lot of this stuff in their Wednesday afternoon sessions. There is another graduate course in producing, in which students prepare projects and pitch them to professionals. Some of these projects are often documentaries, but the course isn't exclusively dedicated to them.

JE:  All graduate work is folded into one large year, one long production seminar—no class specifically about business. Some attention is given in the seminar to these topics, but we do not concentrate on fundraising, grants, business.

JK:  We do not offer any courses specifically in "the business of..." because our courses are more holistically structured. However, in several of the writing and producing courses, we discuss distribution, the market, grant-writing and funding.  This is done in courses in both the first and second years. We make the students aware of ITVS, cable funding sources, as well as foundations, working with a nonprofit, etc. We also have an ongoing colloquium series required of all students, in which we bring speakers to talk about distribution, funding and other aspects of the business of film.


What in your opinion is the strongest aspect of your program?

MH:  The strongest aspect of the program is the intense, immersive experience in making a short documentary. Students make their videos in 15 weeks, beginning to end, with strong guidance from the faculty, all experienced filmmakers. Kate Amend teaches editing; Lisa Leeman, producing; Judy Irola, Steven Lighthill and Sandra Chandler have all taught cinematography at various times; and I trade off with Doe Mayer and Amanda Pope in teaching directing and running the course. Next year Jed Dannenbaum will be running the course for the first time. Although this is the first major project for most of the students, we hold them to professional standards, which is the reason so many of their films have been picked up and distributed on television. There is a strong emphasis on process in the class. Students have lots of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them.

JE: Diverse, talented and extremely hard-working students, and the intense atmosphere of journalism school. An emphasis on good concept development; production craft, especially camera and editing; production discipline; documentary ethics.  Post-production sound is not our strong point. 

KS: In two years of course work, students complete several film and video projects of increasing complexity. The first-year curriculum is organized around sequential, core courses that focus on producing, directing and production techniques. Topics covered include narrative strategies, writing, and conceptual and aesthetic issues relevant to documentary production. Each course builds on the concepts and skills mastered in the previous term. The second year of study includes the production of  the MA project, with each student producing, directing and editing a 20- to 25-minute documentary film or video.

Students work in digital video and 16mm film. In addition, students take a required two-course sequence in documentary history and criticism, three electives and an ongoing graduate colloquium in which visiting filmmakers present and discuss their work. Recent colloquium guests have included Walter Murch, Lourdes Portillo, Debbie Hoffman, Debra Chasnoff, Rob Epstein, Gail Dolgin, Spencer Nakasako, Frances Reid and Errol Morris.


What graduates of your program would you point to as success stories?

MH:  Jeff Blitz, director, and Yana Gorskaya, editor, of Spellbound; Marc Smerling, producer of Capturing the Friedmans; Richard Kassenbaum, who has a doc coming up on POV this summer [Bill's Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas]; David Mrazek, [who has produced] many films on PBS; David Hamlin, Emmy-winning producer/director at National Geographic; Grover Babcock, director of A Certain Kind of Death; Elaine Holliman, director of the Academy Award-nominated Chicks in White Satin, which was made at USC; cinematographer Sarah Levy, editors Howard Leder and Simeon Huttner. Also, Kirk Marcolina, Kerry Jensen, Tiller Russell and Loren Mandell, all making documentaries for Discovery, VH1, A&E, Animal Planet and other cable networks. Robert Winn and Lindsey Jang, who made an ITVS-funded film, Saigon, USA, that just aired on selected PBS stations. And, of course, Dr. Lance Gentile, who made an autobiographical doc at USC on being an emergency room doctor and went on to become a writer for ER and win an Emmy for one of his scripts. Tom Miller, editor of Home of the Brave, which was at Sundance this year, and Laura Bialis, who made Tak for Alt while at USC and is continuing to make documentaries now that she is graduated.

JE: Too early to tell, really, since the program was small when Marlon [Riggs] ran it, was moribund after his death [in 1994], and I've only been here five years. We've won lots of national student Emmys in the past four years; premiered films at Sundance, San Francisco, Amsterdam; won at Sundance, had thesis documentaries broadcast nationally on PBS; and, perhaps most important, took one of the three Student Academy Awards last year, and two of the three this year. Grads working at PBS, MTV, ABC, lots of freelance; vast majority are earning a living in documentary within a year.

JK: At the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Ferne Pearlstein was awarded the Cinematography Award in Documentary for the work she did on Imelda, directed by Ramona Diaz, a fellow student from the mid-1990s. Imelda screened at IDFA, NAATA, Philadelphia and Thessaloniki Film Festivals so far—it's not been out long. Jon Shenk, a recent graduate, co-directed Lost Boys of Sudan, which won the 2004 IFC $20,000 "Truer than Fiction" Independent Spirit Award and was short-listed for an Academy Award-nomination this year. Kim Roberts and Mark Becker, two recent grads and classmates of Jon's, edited Lost Boys. Roberts also edited [Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's] Daughter from Danang and has a feature premiering at the LA Film Festival [Wilderness Survival for Girls].

KS: Mark Becker's new project just got selected for the Sundance Lab. Goro Toshima won the 2004 SXSW Documemtary Award with his ITVS-funded film, A Hard Straight. Johnny Symon's film Daddy And Papa was broadcast on Independent Lens and won a number of awards. Aaron Lubarsky was the co-producer and editor of [Alexandra Pelosi's] Journeys with George. Charlotte LaGarde's film, Heart of the Sea, won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2003, has screened at a ton of festivals and was broadcast on Independent Lens. Melba Williams' first-year film, A Thousand Words, screened at Sundance and won Best Short at Full Frame this year. She just got back from Cannes, sent there by Kodak as part of their Emerging Makers program. Andy Schocken's first- year film, Old Glory, has screened widely, including Slamdance and San Francisco.


What final work does a student filmmaker in your program come out with?

MH: As mentioned before, we make 20- to 25-minute video docs, shot generally in Beta, although some students also do advanced projects in DV in another class. Many students take the course several times, in different roles. Before you can direct a doc in the class, you have to crew on one.

JE: A half-hour thesis film, predominantly live action, with all music and archive material fully licensed, ready for festivals/distribution/broadcast. Over the past six years, no thesis project has missed a screening date, and every thesis film every year has been completed on schedule. Our thesis projects tend to be about things that matter.

JK: In the second year, each student produces, directs and edits a thesis film that is 15 to 25 minutes long.


Other thoughts?

MH:  We're clearly proud of the doc work we do at USC. The only comparable training is at Stanford. The difference between the two programs is that at USC students also get experience in doing fiction. One reason our program has been so successful is that students get to make films they're passionate about. We make a lot of autobiographical films in the documentary course, films that would be difficult to finance outside the school. Students have discovered that the documentary form is a good way to explore personal issues. They've made a number of films about family members and family issues, also films about identity—sexual, ethnic and gender—in which the filmmaker is also the principal subject of the film, or the filmmaker's relationship to the subject is a central question of the film. These are the kind of films you won't see on Discovery or A&E but might turn up on POV or Independent Lens. For example, while at USC, Richard Kassenbaum made a film about his grandfather, Alf Landon. Now he's made a film about his younger brother Bill running for Congress in Kansas. 


Jon, what do you see as the difference between your program and Stanford?

JE:  Stanford remains very strong. The main difference, I believe, is that Stanford students study documentary exclusively for two years, starting the day they arrive. Our students receive a broad nonfiction training in all media—print, radio, TV, Web, photography—during their first year, and concentrate on documentary only during the second. 


Mitchell W. Block ( is president of Direct Cinema Limited ( and works in Los Angeles producing and consulting on documentary productions for broadcasters as well as numerous independent productions worldwide. He has been teaching independent film producing at USC's School of Cinema-Television on an adjunct basis since 1979. He has been doing workshops on producing and finance globally for over 30 years. He executive-produced the 2001 Oscar- winning film Big Mama for HBO. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Academy of  Television Arts & Sciences and the University Film and Video Association.

ã 2004 Mitchell W. Block All Rights Reserved