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Students for the future of documentary

Tina Kaufman: Teaching Documentary Filmmaking

Making documentaries in Australia has never been easy, but the recent cuts to Screen Australia’s allocation for documentary funding must make it even more difficult. Earlier this year Screen Australia also changed the guidelines for its new suite of documentary programs, further disappointing the documentary community. The overall allocation for documentary has dropped by $1.1 million, but changes to programs mean that there is more competition for the reduced funding, with innovative documentaries with a strong creative vision having to compete with more mainstream feature documentaries and projects that have international finance. There is however more access for low-budget projects from early career filmmakers and works with low pre-sales from broadcasters.

Documentary makers are tough, enterprising and productive; the number of Australian documentaries screened at this year’s Sydney and Melbourne film festivals was impressive, as was the range of subjects and the way in which those subjects were approached. So it’s not really surprising that documentary is still a thriving part of film education, although just how documentary is defined seems to be constantly changing; as Dr Karen Pearlman, Lecturer in Screen Production, Department of Media, Music, Communications and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University says, “If you look at the history of what we know as documentary, you see that changes are constant; it both responds and creates in an ongoing process.”

At AFTRS, as part of the new, three-year Bachelor of Arts (Screen), now in its first year, the documentary strand has been re-named Factual, although Rachel Landers, Section Leader of Factual, has already discussed a further re-name, to Non-Fiction. As she says, “The term Factual is a bit problematic; it seems to define particular types of industry practice (including things like quiz shows) and it excludes as much as it includes. Non-Fiction is wider, more inclusive.” But, as Dr Peter Hegedus, Course Convenor of Master of Screen Production and Documentary Production, Griffith Film School, Queensland College of Art, points out, as many of the employment opportunities for students will be in the area of Factual TV, “it’s important for students to understand that to find a job, it’s better to look in that direction.”

While undergraduates tend not to come with pre-conceived notions about documentary, Karen Pearlman says that “a significant number not only discover documentary, but choose to embrace it.” And Dr Andrew Taylor, Discipline Co-coordinator & Senior Lecturer, Media Arts & Production, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at University of Technology Sydney, says that “one of the main things is to combine theory and practice—let them learn something about documentary by both seeing films and making things. We open their eyes to documentary; let them see what makes a documentary, that it’s not just television reportage.” Peter Hegedus says that many of his students initially see documentary as the poor cousin, “It’s our responsibility to outline the qualities and attributes of documentary, how it’s all about story, the creative treatment of actuality and to explore the possibilities of that.”

At AFTRS, Landers says that the BA is “about big ideas, big notions about storytelling modes—all kinds of storytelling.” And for documentary, which will be one element in the course that all students will take in their first year, “they will look at the big picture, about telling the non-fiction story, and why it’s important.” Where students who choose documentary (or Factual or Non-Fiction) as an elective in their second year, then go is still being discussed. “We’re developing courses as we go, but it will be much more practically oriented,” says Landers. She explains that all the different disciplines of the school are engaged in a debate—“we’re still thinking deeply about where our graduates will be going, where these still quite young students will fit in the industry. Are they going to be platform agnostic? Will they have multiple skills? The BA is about people wanting a rich, fulfilling degree. What’s exciting is that this is an opportunity to take stock and think about the future, about where the industry will be in 10 or 20 years.”

Andrew Taylor explains that this year UTS “has let in more students, so you have 120 students; how do you teach them? Open them up to new ideas, to the skills, the thinking, the theory. The knowledge that they learn through documentary will be useful in other areas. There aren’t going to be 120 jobs making documentaries, but those skills are going to be useful in all sorts of other areas, such as TV commercials, corporate work, animation, gaming, online and interactive material, music videos. There are all sorts of possibilities.”

He tells me how students—young, just finished school and entering university—start “by making a series of very low-tech, three-minute biographical documentaries, which could be very personal and poetic, and which are only shown in the safety of the classroom. They are about ideas, there’s no shooting, they just use archival material, but it gives them confidence, and we build towards group work, where they do more short docs, which could be online, or sound only, or even a photo essay—it’s about teaching ideas about working together, about collaboration.”

At Griffith, in documentary production, which has a research component but is very much practice-based, students also start making very short docs of 180 seconds, on the way to making six to ten minute docs which are an exploration of an individual’s life, working with very clear criteria. “They always work in groups that may differ in size but are usually of four or five, and the work is very much about interpretation,” Peter Hegedus explains.

Pearlman says that at Macquarie, “we teach core skills like observation, research, juxtaposition, articulating a perspective, finding a theme, and of course, storytelling.” Students can engage in internships outside the university; one recent project saw a group of students work with a local council having problems with racism, to produce a number of short documentaries on the subject that could be used by the council in a variety of ways. “The students got to deal with the logistics of articulating ideas, of working with stakeholders and of appealing to an audience, or audiences, as well as making contacts in the outside world. In such a project, they might find themselves working with archival material, and interviewing people with stories to tell.”

At Griffith, students are also encouraged to go out and make connections, to interact with the filmmaking community. Hegedus tells of a recent two-week intensive workshop given by Philippe Decaux, a French-Canadian filmmaker based in Queensland who makes newsreel-style news reports for French and German TV from the Asia-Pacific region, in which he encouraged the students to find stories that would work as short, punchy newsreels. “This interaction and connection with the industry is really important, and it’s our responsibility to make sure students understand this.”

At Macquarie, at the Masters level, as Pearlman explains, “we infuse the place with a lot of openness about the possibilities. Students don’t feel limited by ideas of what documentary ought to be. We’re quite focused on hybrids, cross platforms, creating and finding audiences in different ways than broadcast. Hybrids might approach telling a true story with a variety of approaches. Designed documentaries, reconstructions, setting up scenarios and observing the way they play out and montage films are just some of the possibilities. But ethics are also important; students are taught that it’s vital not to say something is real when it isn’t.”

Andrew Taylor sees “the area of postgraduate, research-based projects as somewhere where documentary is really thriving and changing,” explaining that “postgraduate documentary makers are developing ways to make films that are quite different from the increasingly strait-jacketed industrial model, and free from the requirements of broadcasters. It also provides the ability to research with much more depth and a chance to be more formally expressive and innovative.”

While Karen Pearlman refers to the current discussions about robots taking over jobs, and to the argument that the job that is safe is that of the artist, or the creative, she concedes that what we think of as a job is going to shift. “Our students could do lots of things; the skills they learn in documentary production could be important in education, in government, in all sorts of ways,” she says. Peter Hegedus is blunter: “making documentaries is not for the faint-hearted,” he says, “the rewards are usually small, but they can be great!”

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 26

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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