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To Anytown, USA and Beyond: Duke's Center for Documentary Studies Expands the Map

By Katie Murphy

All photos courtesy of Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. Photo by James Balfour.

Thirteen years after Wesley Hogan received her doctorate degree in history from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 2000, she returned to campus as the third director of the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) since it was founded at Duke in 1989. An oral historian with an academic focus on the civil rights movement, Hogan was especially drawn to the Center's mission. "I think what really captured it for me was that they wanted to foster respect, break down barriers and illuminate social injustice," she maintains. "I just thought that was a really unusual academic mission."

Documentary spoke with Hogan about community partnerships, why students come to the Center, and the future of CDS.

Tell me about the Center's relationship with the greater Durham community.

Wesley Hogan: I would say the two strongest ways we connect to the wider community are through our continuing education program, where we have partnered with several neighborhood and community groups in different parts of Durham. We wanted to make sure people were able to tell their stories on their own terms and to tell the kinds of stories they wanted to tell, so rather than us saying, "We'd love to come in and tell the stories of this neighborhood," our continuing education director, April Walton, went to two different communities in Durham and said, "What we'd really like to do is partner with you. Let us know what stories are the most important to you, and we'd like to see if there are people in the neighborhood who want to come in to our summer workshops and train either as a filmmaker or as a podcaster." So we do these Summer Institutes, and for the last three summers CDS has had a very strong partnership with an East Durham community neighborhood association that has generated the stories they want told and has sent up to five people to each video and audio institute in the summer.

We also have a program called Anytown, USA coming out of Continuing Education. Each spring, the instructor, Randy Benson, decides on a town of 5,000 people or less in Central North Carolina, and the students in the class go to that town and do a similar kind of program: They find out the stories that residents want to be told, work with residents to tell those stories through film, and there's a community screening at the end of the semester. Oftentimes these small towns are wary of outsiders, but once they build strong relationships with the students and the instructor, there's an exciting alchemy that happens. That class has run for nine successive spring semesters, and we've heard repeatedly from mayors and rural economic development coordinators how important this is for people to have opportunities to tell their own stories on their own terms. Oftentimes these screenings are the most diverse gathering that's happened in the town in a long time in terms of old and young, different races and ethnicities, people who are newcomers and people who have been there for generations, all coming together.

Continuing Education is an important part of how we connect to the Durham community and the surrounding areas of rural Central North Carolina, but we also have other ways we're engaging. We have an exciting and innovative exhibitions program that has focused specifically on underrepresented voices in photography and visual media for the last two years. We have the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes over the downtown of Durham for four days. There are 80 to 100 films that screen, both shorts and feature films. Full Frame is not a commercial hub for distributors, so that creates a really unusual environment, both for the 12,000 local people who attend annually and for the filmmaker community nationwide who come because they value that non-commercial aspect. The kinds of discussions you hear, both formally in the Speakeasys and informally as you walk by different tables or people talking in hallways, is of this powerful community of documentarians coming together to discuss the state of the field, create projects and brainstorm about a difficult issue.

So there are a lot of different ways we interact with Durham, and then we connect with larger documentary communities both nationally and internationally, mostly through conferences, a series of awards that we give out, and a book series we do through UNC Press.

What makes CDS unique?

The Center is unique both for students and for documentarians who are further along in their careers, and we've had quite a few retiring artists who have come through. Because we are the only major center nationwide that has so many documentary forms under one roof—we have five primary [courses], but we also do theater, poetry and mixed media—we have a lot of different approaches to documentary and people who come together in unexpected ways. I think that makes us an important crossroads and hub nationally, and because it's at Duke, we're fortunate enough that we're able to bring in a lot of international documentarians as well. One of the most exciting recent acquisitions at the Duke Library has been from the father of Chinese documentary, Wu Wenguang, who has a project called The Memory Project. This project gathered 30 years' worth of video oral histories of two generations of Chinese migrants who moved from rural areas to urban areas. It's an extraordinary body of work that's now at the Duke Library; having it there has meant that we've had a lot of opportunity to interact with not only Wu but with his students as well. Being a hub in that way for visiting artists and people who are coming to us to learn and to teach makes it a unique multi-media environment.

How would you describe the students at CDS?

I would say students who come to the Center have a question that they want to answer and they need new tools. The tools that they have tried to use haven't necessarily given them a clear picture. The majors that people are coming from vary enormously; for example, engineering students seem to be particularly interested in analog photography. The curriculum for engineers is so intense and they have very little room for electives, so their creative energy might be kind of pent-up, and when it comes out, we've had some extraordinary work come from our engineering students. We've had quite a few public policy and economics majors who are looking for a way to explore their research questions in a different mode that will give them a more interdisciplinary focus and to acknowledge the non-linear components of a research question. And we have quite a few medical residents and medical students as well as undergraduates who are pursuing a pre-health major who are very committed to medical humanities and want to be able to tell stories and not just be in a clinical lab. Their work has been really exciting to see come along.

The MFA students are exploring more of the intersections between experimental and documentary—especially visual documentary work—and many of them are rooted in telling stories that are about the South but that challenge both the storytelling conventions of the South and the content knowledge that we have about it. It's a really dynamic program. There are teachers in that program as well as filmmakers, and writers—the umbrella is held wide open for different formats and mediums.

The Continuing Education students come from something like 17 different countries for digital online classes, and we have a fair number of international students who come for our summer institutes, but the largest group of people are from the Triangle [Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill]. We have 80 classes a year, so the variety among them is pretty exciting and extraordinary.

What's coming up for CDS?

The Center has two major new strategic initiatives. The first is the Documentary Exchange, or DocX, which is a documentary lab. What we're trying to do there is look closely at the way new technology has enabled us to create fundamentally new forms of documentary work and disseminate this work online and through digital publications. We're really excited about some of the early experiments within that lab; we've created mini-modules that allow us to share documentary work, both written and multimedia, in a very provocative and oddly calming format. It's a format that has no distractions, so as you're moving through it on your device, it's the only thing you see. It's user-dependent, so you scroll through it at your own pace, and as you scroll there are features that allow you to slow down and dig deep or to do a more surface skipping over of things. It's remarkable. I'm so proud of the people who work in the lab and how they've been able to fundamentally reimagine digital publication of documentary form.

The second initiative is the diversification of the documentary pipeline. We want to bring a much wider variety of talent into the Center; we get people who know about us, or who we go out and recruit, but that doesn't necessarily reflect the nation that we live in, and we're missing a lot of talent. We've been working really hard to create a pilot plan that we just got funded, which will start in September, to bring non-traditional voices and underrepresented voices into the documentary pipeline—both 18-to-24 year olds and a post-MFA fellowship for underrepresented documentary artists. We're excited both to learn as an institution and to support the work of these very talented young people.


Katie Bieze Murphy earned her bachelor's degree in Literature with certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She earned her master's degree in Film and Video from American University. She currently resides in Los Angeles.