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New Models in Documentary Education: Labs at MIT and Harvard Move the Form Forward

By Laura Almo

A cartoon image of people on a busy street. From Katerina Cizek's 'Highrise: One Million Tower.' (c) 2011 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved

Have you seen J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn's absorbing documentary People's Park, an 89-minute film shot in one continual take that puts the viewer right in the center of Shengdu Park in China? Or Leviathan, by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel? Have you poked around Highrise, Katerina Cizek's interactive Web documentary about the vibrant life inside high-rise apartments around the world? Or Moments of Innovation, a collaborative project of the MIT Open Documentary Lab and IDFA's DocLab that reveals the process of documentation? Perhaps you've seen the human rights/advocacy film by Destra Reff about migrant workers in the citrus industry. If you have seen any of these projects—or others like them—you have stepped into the vast and changing world of documentary film.

We are far enough into the "digital revolution" to know that story is still at the core of documentary films, but the way the stories are told—and the way the documentary form is being used—has seen a broad transformation. It may manifest itself in the implementation of Web-based technology and non-linear, interactive storytelling; or perhaps this change is evident in the way films like Leviathan place the viewer at the center of a rich sonic and visceral experience; or maybe this transformation has emerged out of a conscious effort to incorporate documentary film into a broader academic context. The palate is rich and as the landscape changes, so too are educational/institutional programs preparing the next generation of nonfiction media makers.

What follows is a survey of some of these new models, which, coincidentally, are all based in the Boston area, a region that boasts a vibrant documentary film community.

MIT Open Documentary Lab

The MIT Open Documentary Lab, which launched just over a year ago, is fertile ground for all things new media and interactive storytelling. As it is rooted in MIT's long and venerable history of documentary film and technical innovation, one must look at the past to understand the present. The late Ricky Leacock, renowned for his groundbreaking work in cinema vérité, created the film program with Ed Pincus in 1968, while Glorianna Davenport, a filmmaker and technical innovator, spent three decades at MIT exploring the fundamental issues of digital media. "That was the inspiration to look around and say that things are really changing," says William Uricchio, director and principle investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab. "Online is the space where stuff is happening. Why aren't we making documentaries? Why aren't we taking advantage of the phones and cameras in peoples' pockets?"

Uricchio likens today's new technology to the early days of direct cinema, when 16mm cameras allowed for shaky images, much to the horror of professional filmmakers who were accustomed to the steady, polished look of 35mm film. "What really saved it and made it work was a new distribution environment," says Uricchio. "Television came in and gave cinema vérité and direct cinema a chance to survive." Which is exactly where we are now, according to Uricchio. But in place of shaky images, we've got Zeega, Mozilla Popcorn, YouTube and a whole host of hardware and software that enable filmmakers to produce works that break with linear storytelling and the conventional notion of what a PBS or theatrical documentary looks like.

The key is to play with narrative storytelling, Uricchio maintains. But since this is all new, there are questions about how to move forward, and this is the focus of the Open Documentary Lab. Housed in the Comparative Media Studies Department, the Lab puts a framework around new media: How do you grapple with technological innovation? What are the ethical questions involved in new media? How do people learn how to use it? Both academic and experimental, the Comparative Media Studies Department offers bachelor's and master's degrees, with sights set on a PhD track in the future. There is also the hands-on lab, where students can take what they've learned in classes and experiment with real-world applications.

The Open Documentary Lab is focused on research, rather than actual production. "We see ourselves in the production pipeline, but our goal is not so much to make as to facilitate," Uricchio maintains. "We seek to stimulate, sponsor and draw resources together that allow makers to get on with what they're doing—or to help the traditional filmmakers who have the basic skills and want to try out new media."

In addition to their partnerships at MIT, the Lab also works with such media organizations as Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Representatives from the Lab have made presentations at key stops on the festival circuit, in order to demystify new media and nonlinear storytelling to filmmakers excited to learn more. "It's the early days in this area and there's a ton of interest," says Uricchio. "A lot more is unknown than known, so people are eager to talk to anyone who does it."

Another component is the affiliate/fellowship program, where people apply to spend a year at the Lab. The first batch of fellows begins this fall and among them is filmmaker/media maker Katerina Cizek, whose groundbreaking work with the NFB includes Filmmaker-in-Residence and the aforementioned Highrise, both Web-based interactive documentaries. Cizek's work takes the documentary form to another level by exploring new approaches to form and content.

The nature of Cizek's collaboration with MIT is twofold: She will engage with students working in the Open Documentary Lab and will create a specific work for Digital Citizenship, another project Cizek has been developing that explores the hidden digital lives of high-rise residents around the world. "That's the project I'll be looking to develop with faculty, staff and students at MIT," says Cizek. "I'll be working with a broad range of faculty at MIT to brainstorm and prototype and hopefully come up with new examples of storytelling documentaries, with the user at the center of the experience." Cizek also plans to teach some classes and interface with faculty, staff and students at the Lab.

Uricchio believes that documentary has always been at the forefront of innovation, and at a moment when the genre is going through a transformation, the MIT Open Documentary Lab is a much-welcomed resource.

Harvard University

About two miles north of MIT, at Harvard University, documentary is finding its way into the overall curriculum. This is done by way of three main structures: the Film Study Center, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (Harvard's version of an art department) and the Sensory Ethnography Lab.

Film has been part of the Harvard curriculum since the late 1950s, when anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner founded the Film Study Center. But as times change, so too does the reach of documentary film. One such change is the introduction of the Secondary Field degree in Critical Media Practice, under the auspices of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Jointly run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Peter Galison, the Critical Media Practice degree enables students to complement their written thesis with a digital media-based project.

The Sensory Ethnography Laboratory

The Sensory Ethnography Laboratory (SEL), which is largely based in the Department of Anthropology, is a descendant of the field of Visual Anthropology. The Laboratory was founded in 2006 by Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass, 2009; Leviathan, 2012) as a way for graduate students to be able to do practice-based work: making film, audio and photography projects instead of writing papers. The SEL is now open to undergraduate and graduate students.

A departure from the conventions of contemporary documentary filmmaking as it is traditionally understood, the Laboratory does not require students to see films by such pioneers as Errol Morris, Fred Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, nor are they taught to use conventional film grammar. Instead, students draw from a multitude of disciplines. J.P. Sniadecki, for example, just graduated with a PhD in anthropology and was one of the first anthropology graduate students in the SEL; his films include Foreign Parts and the aforementioned People's Park. "What's exciting and vital about SEL is that we are trying to pull from a range of influences that are not confined to conventional documentary practice, nor even what filmmaking is commonly understood to be," he says. "It's about experimentation, taking risks, and the relationship between aesthetic form and ethnographic experience: spending time in a place and with people, and allowing those encounters to significantly shape the filmmaking process as well as the film itself."       

"It's more about trying to have an observant eye and a careful ear," says Ernst Karel, a musician, anthropologist of sound, and an instructor in the SEL. A commitment to place and an emphasis on both sound and image are the touchstones of films that are made in the Lab. Rather than relying on spoken word to guide you through, the idea is to produce works that can't easily be done in words. "It's nothing new, but it's trying to see what your understanding of what is happening around you tells you about how you should be shooting and editing the material," Karel explains.

The foundation of the SEL is a two-semester gateway course in Sensory Ethnography, cross-referenced with Visual and Environmental Studies, but starting this fall, the course will span three semesters, throughout which students will spend significant time in and out of class working on projects, reading texts and watching films. The summer is spent filming a project to edit in the fall. In traditional anthropologic/ethnographic form, the project is not about going somewhere for a short amount of time to shoot; it's about really getting to know the place. Castaing-Taylor's syllabus specifically states, "Both artistic practice and ethnography place considerable demands on your time, and indeed tend to take over your whole life!"

Sensory Ethnography is a push away from academic discourse and a kind of "delight in being somewhere, but not necessarily knowing the significance of everything that you see," says Stephanie Spray, whose film Manakamana, which she made with Pacho Velez, had its premiere at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival. The film is an outgrowth of Spray's 13 years of work in Nepal, combined with her work in the SEL. Visually and aurally rich with a multi-faceted sound design, the film is comprised of 11 takes, each 10 minutes in duration, with Nepali people riding a super-modern cable car to a pilgrimage. "We jokingly call it ‘Ethnographic Sci-Fi,'" says Spray, explaining the fusion of her many years of anthropological work in Nepal with the use of sound and image to create a sensorial experience. This speaks to the general philosophy of how films in the SEL are made: You don't need to know everything about who the people are, what they do or how they live; you can simply be with them. Films produced under the aegis of the SEL leave the expository out and put the viewer at the center of the experience.

The Harvard Law Documentary Studio

The Harvard Law Documentary Studio (HLDS) began with a handful of law students interested in combining documentary film with law. But with neither a place in the curriculum nor the resources to make documentary films, there was little in the way of academic or institutional support, so the students applied for group status and in spring 2011, the HLDS was born. "Using the documentary tools for social advocacy, we want to empower student filmmakers," says Desta Reff, one of the co-founders of the HLDS. "A lot of law is about telling your narrative, and I think the visual medium is the most powerful way to do that.

The HLDS organized around producing short films; students who had more production experience were paired with less experienced students. The HLDS also began workshops and training sessions for students to learn production and post-production skills, and get feedback on their films. Rebecca Richman Cohen, faculty advisor of HLDS, attends screening sessions, as does filmmaker Robb Moss, a senior lecturer at Harvard's Visual and Environmental Studies Department. Since 2011, about a dozen films have been made with the support of the HLDS. Reff worked on two films—one about vision loss and disability rights, and the other about migrant workers in the citrus industry in Florida, which Reff submitted for credit in lieu of a written paper. This 12-minute film was produced in conjunction with academic research; she also submitted a bibliography with her film.

Initially, projects produced by the HLDS were "extracurricular" and academic credit was not available, but there is now a formal process to get academic credit. There is also a mentorship program, in which selected student projects are connected with industry mentors. This is part of building a documentary community at Harvard.

Although the HLDS began at the law school, it serves students from other disciplines and professional schools desiring to include documentary as part of their studies. In its first year, students from the Kennedy School of Government, the Divinity School, and the School of Education produced short documentaries with the support of the HLDS.

The objective of the HLDS is not necessarily to turn law students into filmmakers, but to make them aware of how the media plays a role in advocacy, according to Cohen. "More lawyers are incorporating visual advocacy into their campaigns to win cases," she says. "As access to the tools to produce documentary films becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes even more important that we teach people in other disciplines the professional norms and ethical standards to employ video in their work." Cohen, whose 2010 film War Don Don takes a fascinating look at a war crime tribunal in Sierra Leone, also teaches a seminar course on film. "The idea is that law students are very good at analyzing text, but many of them don't have the same facility looking at film—to really understand how it's put together at its seams," Cohen explains. "Not only may lawyers be responsible for representing their issues or their clients in the media, but it is vitally important that law students understand how archival footage is used, what sort of devices documentary filmmakers employ to present something as reality, and what are the ways that reality might actually be distorted in the process."

Beyond the law school, documentary is finding its way into different disciplines—as both a mode of expression and as serious scholarship. Robb Moss co-teaches the class "Filming Science" with Peter Galison, with whom Moss collaborated on the 2008 film Secrecy. Running the gamut from observational to experimental films, this undergraduate course explores how science can be represented in different contexts: What happens when you film science?; what happens to film when science is your topic?; and what happens to science when you film it?

"Film is a way to interrogate the world," Moss asserts. "Working in nonfiction is a way to make an inroad into making sense of the world, and that often means taking an idea from one domain and thinking about it in another."

The trend to incorporate documentary/nonfiction into the curriculum and make it part of serious scholarship goes beyond Harvard, says Galison, a professor of the history of science and co-director of the Film Study Center, but Harvard has a particular interest in being at the forefront. Galison believes that film allows students to concentrate on different things than written text, and he would like to see filmmaking share the same space. "You can write, and that allows you to get focused on certain things," he explains. "You can film and that reveals other things about the world around us. My hope is that documentary filmmaking will become seen as a part of scholarship, not just as a way of disseminating or popularizing scholarship. It will become scholarship in its own right."

Laura Almo is a Los Angeles based journalist and documentary filmmaker. Currently she is an instructor at El Camino College teaching classes in film analysis and editing. She can be reached at