Teaching Citizen Journalism and Storytelling through Documentaries

June 8, 2016
by Carl Sigmond, Documentary Projects Teacher and Operations Manager

In an age where almost every smartphone can be a video camera and citizen journalism is becoming more relevant to the public discourse, it is even more necessary to teach the theory and technique of effective documentary making so that our students can bring their stories into the greater world in an effective and engaging way. 

The documentary project has been a central and consistent part of the Woolman Semester curriculum for close to a decade. Each semester, students form groups around topics that spark their curiosity and passion, and over the course of their time here, they team produce a short video documentary on their topic of choice. Students work in groups of 2-5 and collaborate on every aspect of the film-making process, from envisioning a narrative arc to shooting and editing footage into a cohesive story. 

In class, we discuss how to share and divide up tasks to ensure that every group member’s voice is heard and valued and work through group conflicts as they arise. We also confront key questions of the documentary genre, including: How does one person represent another? How do filmmakers represent themselves? How are power relations expressed and challenged through these representations? 

This semester, Documentary Class was the Global Thinking Project Class, and so the Global Thinking class theme of multiple perspectives ran throughout the Doc Class as students tried to answer these questions for themselves and in the documentaries they created. Students struggled with group dynamics, how to reconcile seemingly conflicting visions for where the documentary should go, but in the end, they successfully produced films on love and relationships, community life here at Woolman, the symbiotic relationship between animals and farming, and the stigmas surrounding mental illness. We had a public screening on May 12.

When I was a student in the Spring 2009 Woolman Semester, I was part of a team that created a documentary on the local food movement here in Nevada County. After Woolman, I studied documentary filmmaking and documentary as a tool for social change at Haverford College. Now, back at Woolman, I love teaching a tool that I’m so passionate about. It is my hope that I am offering our students the skills so that they will leave Woolman empowered with the knowledge to use this tool in their own social change work. 

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