Students produce and edit documentaries for film class
By Hank Nelson, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, August 24, 2010
From unwilling interviewees at a local charity to horses spooked by camera equipment, students enrolled in Film 30 had to overcome several challenging and unexpected obstacles as they produced films for their class throughout the Summer term. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but always honest, the four documentaries created by the 12 students enrolled in “Documentary Videomaking” provide intimate portrayals of the lives of Dartmouth students and Upper Valley residents in eight to 10-minute segments.
All four documentaries were filmed and edited by groups of three students and were presented Monday night in Loew Auditorium to an audience of approximately 30 students and guests.
Many of the students enrolled in the class had no previous experience producing or editing films, according to Film 30 professor Jeffrey Ruoff.
“Most of them have very little experience at all [making films] and certainly no experience making documentaries,” Ruoff said.
One of the main objectives of the course was for students to learn how to work together toward a common goal, Ruoff said.
The class is structured “a bit like an engineering class,” he said, because students collaborated with each other over the entire 10-week term to make their documentaries.
The documentaries provided a lens into the diverse experiences of Upper Valley residents, as each segment provided an alternative perspective on the region.
The first film, “The Food Shelf,” portrayed the daily workings of a White River Junction, Vt., charity — the Upper Valley Haven — that provides one week of free food every month to Upper Valley residents in need. The Upper Valley Haven currently serves 640 households each month, according to the charity’s website.
The documentary profiled the wide variety of people for whom the organization provides food — including an obstetrician who was forced to quit her job after an illness and a man who had to cut his work hours to care for his fiancé’s disabled son.
Persuading the Upper Valley Haven patrons to be interviewed in front of the camera was not an easy task, group member Xiaolu Li ’12 said in the question and answer session following the movie presentation. Many of the shoppers refused to be filmed until they realized that sharing their stories could coax the film’s viewers to assist the organization that has provided them with such valuable resources, she said.
“Little by little, they realized that what they told us was helping the food shelf,” Li said.
From the emotional anecdotes to the powerful closing shot of volunteers setting out bread after hours for the very hungry Upper Valley residents, the documentary provided a powerful portrayal of loss and renewal during difficult economic times.
Providing a humorous and honest look at student relationships at the College, the second film — “Greetings at Dartmouth” — could not have been more different from the first. The documentary followed several students as they walked around campus and spoke about how greeting others at the College differs from doing the same in any other environment.
From the international student who said he felt uncomfortable when greeted with hugs by other students to the student who reported feeling awkward when a female acquaintance called him a “creeper,” the film portrayed students’ attitudes about the often bizarre relationships that Dartmouth creates. The film’s “tour guide” motif kept the documentary dynamic, even though it relied primarily on one-on-one interviews.
The third documentary, “House Mother,” connected Dartmouth with the Upper Valley community as it profiled a married couple who work as custodians at the College. The couple, Sam and Ida, discussed their financial woes, their hopes for their children and their relationships with the students they meet at the College. What made this documentary powerful was the obvious close relationship that the filmmakers developed with the couple while creating the documentary.
Returning to a representation of life in White River Junction, the fourth documentary, “High Horses,” profiled an organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding for autistic and disabled children and teenagers, as well as for the elderly. The filmmakers interviewed several people whose lives were affected by the program, including the mother of a young autistic boy and a disabled young woman who, after twelve years of riding, was able to leave her wheelchair and walk with the assistance of another.
Ruoff said he was “very pleased” with the films, and he acknowledged that students were able to hone their skills throughout the term.
“They got their mistakes out of the way in the beginning,” he said.
For many of the students, technical issues proved to be a major challenge, as most did not have experience with sound or video cameras.
The group that filmed “High Horses” initially used boom mics instead of clip-on mics while filming the interactions between the horses and their riders, group member Brittney Frankel ’12 said in an interview with The Dartmouth. They found they were unable to hear the volunteers speaking with the riders when they used this method, so they switched to clip-on mics halfway through filming.
“The challenge was making the horses feel comfortable,” Jenna Pfeffer ’12, another member of the group, said in the question and answer session. “Making sure we didn’t have our sound equipment in their faces was a skill we learned.”
Ruoff said teaching a course on documentary filmmaking can bring students out of their comfort zone and encourage them to explore environments that were previously foreign to them.
“One of the principal things is that documentary filmmaking is a passport to the world,” he said. “You can meet people who are very different from you and get a different view of the world.”