A student skilled at card tricks. The curious popularity of a new health drink. An elaborate Egyptian opera, never performed, that lives on the shelves of the Wheaton archives. These are just a few of the stories students explored through film last spring in Assistant Professor of Filmmaking Patrick Johnson’s “Documentary Storytelling” course.
“The goal of the class is to give students exposure to the conventions of the short documentary film and provide them with tools and techniques to successfully produce their own,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, there is no better way of learning than being actively engaged in the making process. You try, succeed or fail, learn and repeat.”
During the semester, students made two solo films as well as three in-class films as part of small groups. Both opportunities provided unique lessons and challenges.
“Working in class is a great experience, because we can work with our peers and collaborate on the filmmaking process, while out-of-class projects let us explore our individual interests,” said Josh Zaleznik ’16, a film and new media studies major.
In class, Zaleznik worked on a video highlighting the Wheaton Autonomous Learning Environment, or WHALE Lab. Outside of class, he produced a piece about a Wheaton student and former Boy Scout who practices his survival skills in the great outdoors.
For some students, adjusting to the style of documentary filmmaking was its own challenge.
“Since documentaries are not scripted like fiction films, the story has to be composed throughout the process of interviewing, researching, shooting and editing. Sometimes it’s hard to find a clear story, and a lot of thinking has to be done,” said Eleanore Levine ’18, a film and new media studies major.
The documentary class offered another way to explore filmmaking, and Levine said she has picked up valuable new skills.
“I’ve learned a lot about a side of filmmaking I wasn’t familiar with, and especially how there really is a story in everything,” she said.
For one of their in-class projects, the students teamed up with Zephorene Stickney Helmreich, who oversees the Marion B. Gebbie Archives and Wheaton’s Special Collections. The students selected items—such as a Florida voting booth from the 2000 presidential election or a 19th century woman’s corset—conducted research and collected clips to develop short films that explored each item’s history.
“They made archival materials ‘come alive’ in a manner that usually only lives inside my head, and I am delighted that they were able to see and capture the potential for these otherwise inanimate objects,” Helmreich said.
The archives project was a favorite of Lauren Hirata ’16, a double major in film and new media studies and religion. Hirata’s film focused on an opera, The Diadem of Stars, which was written by a woman based on conversations she claimed to have had with the Egyptian god Ra.
“It was incredibly interesting to hear about the history of the composer as well as see sketches of set pieces and costumes,” Hirata said. “I was able to take a new creative approach to the film, and it worked really well. Seeing myself take a risk that resulted in a successful product was rewarding.”