February 1, 2013

Global Field Trips for Chapman Film School Students

Jeff Swimmer with Chapman University students

There's an experiment in documentary film education going on in Orange County, California, and I'm lucky to be part of it. I'm an associate professor of documentary at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Like many film schools, Dodge offers a range of courses for undergrads and grads in documentary production, documentary history and the like. But we've added an unusual twist: We've been sending students to some of the most challenging environments in the developing world, and getting them to dig deep inside themselves to create powerful, short films about the planet's most urgent social issues.

After spending a 15-week semester preparing, students in our flagship Destination: Africa program — some of them doc students but many others from law and other disciplines — hit the road. Armed with little more than school cameras, granola bars and sunscreen, these fledgling doc-makers have traveled in the last four years to such far-flung outposts as native villages in the jungles of western Cameroon, barren relocation camps in Botswana's Kalahari Desert and the dubious back alleys of Mozambique's sweltering capital, Maputo.

There, these students have made films about NGOs taking on some of the continent's grittiest and most complex subjects: child sex trafficking, native peoples'  rights, HIV/AIDS, child gold miners, discrimination against the disabled, the restoration of a war-ravaged national park in Mozambique and many more. The students examine the work of these innovative NGOs, but with a careful eye not to make the films feel too much like public service announcements.

After clearing the rights, students donate their work to the NGOs to use as the organizations wish: publicity, fundraising, media campaigns, etc. But the films are meant to stand alone as short docs, so the students work hard to ensure that the films are character-driven, rather than "org"-driven, and that they flow as broadcast- and festival-worthy work.

Dodge College is trying to build a documentary education program around the premise that aspiring documentary makers, especially those used to the tony shopping malls and beach resorts of Orange County, need to be thrown into the bracing realities of the globe's most troubled locales. And the results — PBS affiliate broadcasts and wide domestic and overseas festival recognition—have been remarkable.

Of course, it all costs money, and we were lucky to have received a gift from an anonymous donor in 2008 that provided the seed money for Destination: Africa. Every summer since, we've taken 12 to 20 students in the program. We split into three groups and fan out across whatever country we're in, and each group is led by a Chapman faculty member who is responsible for doling out payments for food, lodging and the like. I travel among the three groups. But the students plan, shoot and edit every frame, and the faculty advisor acts more like a guide and bounce-board for storytelling or technical advice.

Since 2008, more than 100 students have participated in the program, and many recall the experience as one of the highlights of their lives. For countless participants, the experience cements a goal to work professionally as documentary filmmakers. In fact, several have gone on to work with those same NGOs in their films, in the summers or after graduating.

Over the years overseeing Destination:Africa, I've noticed certain teaching challenges that keep coming up. The students are often very adept at shooting and field-sound capture, and many—even freshmen—have already had several years of perfecting their technical chops. To be honest, the best doc students don't need that much help technically. But what they really lack is assertiveness in their directing—that kind of "pushy" style that may rankle some, but can sometimes be the only way to "get the goods." I've found that student filmmakers in general are often overly focused on befriending their subjects, and hence shy away from touchy or controversial narratives.

And this problem, I've noticed, becomes even more acute for them in an alien environment like Africa. The students are often so overwhelmed and amazed at their surroundings, and fascinated by their characters, that they lose sight of the complex emotional acrobatics that documentary makers need to undertake in order to stay inside their characters' stories intimately enough to relate, but outside of their shoot enough to make sure each scene achieves its narrative goals.

Those are among the many hazards of life outside the comfort zone. While teaching students to direct "aggressively" is often harder in a place like Africa, there are key takeaways for them that can't be replicated in the classroom. At the top on the list is resourcefulness. To paraphrase the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, carefully laid plans usually will fall apart in places like Africa. So, lightning decisions have to be made, new realities instantly apprised, characters and scenes dumped or embraced, tears dried, tempers cooled. For me, it's these dense collisions of split-second decision-making that give young doc-makers the adrenaline and skills they need to thrive in the business. This is especially true, I believe, when they make decisions that turn out to be mistakes. The added pressures of face-saving and shame add a layer of intensity to these situations, which, I have to suspect, imprints lifelong lessons that simply can't be achieved inside the classroom.

One of my proudest examples of this phenomenon in action was in July 2010, when our students were at Los Angeles International Airport preparing to make short docs about NGOs in Uganda that they'd spent months researching. We were about to board our plane for Kampala, when an ashen-faced student thrust a cellphone in my face with a bold CNN headline about a series of bombs that had just gone off in Kampala, targeting westerners and killing dozens. Uganda was clearly out as a destination. But we boarded the plane anyway, and, in a passenger lounge at London's Heathrow Airport, the students spent a frantic six or so hours finding an African country that was safe, and could take us with no vaccinations or pre-bought visas. Oh, and we needed to find a great story somewhere there.

Later that day we boarded a plane for the east African island of Zanzibar, with some loose contacts with some NGOs and oodles of apprehension. But the students got out of the plane, plunged into the life of a tiny fishing village and, in barely two days of shooting, produced the stirring We Come from Jambiani. The next year, it premiered at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado, whose program noted its "beautiful cinematography, pace, sensitivity and incision..."

For our students, the benefits of Destination: Africa have been numerous. But the next step is far more challenging for us, and that involves using the "template" we've created with Destination: Africa to help distinguish and expand a long slumbering documentary program. Documentary programs for undergrads are a tough slog in general, and in Southern California we're surrounded by competitor schools with long track records. To stand out, we realized, we had to do things differently, and we wanted to make our international doc programs a big part of that goal. So it was to our surprise and delight that, after a couple of years, local Orange Country philanthropists got wind of Destination: Africa and offered to launch "spin-offs": a one-time, student-produced film about an NGO in São Paulo, Brazil, that uplifts favela kids via drumming workshops; and  student-made docs in Europe and India for Dodge's Sikh Arts and Film Festival.

We've also been funded to replicate the Destination: Africa model at home, via a series of student-made films on inspiring women called Project W, and a multi-year gift called Community Voices, which allows students to train the spotlight on Orange County nonprofits. So, Destination: Africa seems to have snowballed, but of course we're never sure how long it will keep "snowing."

Keeping quality control of the films, and managing the myriad risks of illness and whatever else Africa may bring our students, are constant challenges for us. We're very wary of saying yes to projects that might over-stretch our resources, crimp students' editorial control or are geared toward outsiders' agendas more than to those of our students.  But we think we've tapped into a deep student appetite for making docs around the world. Money is tight for our funded programs, but students can pay for other Dodge-run programs to Korea, Taiwan, Burkina Faso, India and China. A doc made at our sister campus in Singapore—a transgender story called Transit—was nominated for a 2011 IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award. Another new Dodge class called Expedition Documentary has taken students to make docs on Machu Pichu and 3D films on Mount Kilimanjaro, and on a trek through New Zealand's Southern Alps.

Trying to get students to see the outside world as their real classroom is a goal for teachers everywhere. Despite the hazards, we're hoping our international doc programs open our students' eyes to the wonders and challenges far beyond the "Orange Curtain."


Jeff Swimmer is associate professor of documentary at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Chapman University. He also serves as Dodge's director of international programs. For many years he has been a producer and writer of documentaries for PBS, BBC, National Geographic, Discovery, CNN and many others. He is also a former member of the IDA's Board of Directors.