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No Film School? No Problem: Many Successful Docmakers Attended the School of Hard Knocks

By Beige Adams

Over the last half-century or so, documentary filmmaking has evolved as a formidable and expansive institution. In the US, filmmakers have built a soaring and sensible architecture by challenging ideology, pushing creative limits and distilling practice, while helping to legitimize the craft on a global stage.

But the new generation of filmmakers faces a shifting landscape, including important changes in how they learn.

Ongoing technological advances have arguably democratized the form, while the proliferation of film studies programs in higher education continues to institutionalize the profession. Whereas previous generations tended to come up through the ranks--often under the tutelage of mentors--now aspiring filmmakers can go straight through to an MFA and, at least in theory, tap alumni networks for a production job after graduating.

Columbia, NYU, UCLA and USC are home to some of the most established and robust film schools, but other colleges (University of Texas at Austin; The New School; Stanford) have developed strong documentary programs in response to a growing demand. Amanda Pope, a documentary filmmaker and associate professor at USC, highlights the marked difference in the culture of education through recent decades. "In the 1970s and 1980s, you could go to a local video store and some had documentaries, but you couldn't have access to the genre," says Pope. She notes a "tremendous proliferation of film schools" that began in the 1990s. "Suddenly, it was kind of sexy. Now there are maybe something like 600 film schools."

But before the explosion of film studies, the best filmmakers improvised their way up. Some tinkered with still cameras as children; some wandered through other professions before they were struck with the inspiration (or imperative) to make film. Many discovered that their undergraduate studies helped prepare them--if inadvertently--for later careers in documentary.

For legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, training as a psychologist was an invaluable foundation for the observational style he would later help parent. "I started filming over 50 years ago, when there weren't any schools or courses in film," he recalls. "When I was a kid, I took still photos, but indirectly I became a trained psychologist--and that, I think, was helpful in some important ways."

In addition to conditioning him to "approach things without a point of view," psychology also helped Maysles to develop his innate interest in people. "Psychology helped me to gain access to them. I went into psychology because of my desire to understand and love people; for me, those are the most essential qualities in getting access to people."

After working in mental hospitals and teaching at his alma mater, Boston University, Maysles traveled to Russia with a movie camera in the summer of 1955. "I thought it'd be interesting to go to Russia, then thought it would be interesting to visit mental hospitals," he says. "And, if I could get in, I [thought I] should bring a movie camera. I had no training whatsoever. That was my first film.

"It's the way I look at them," Maysles continues, explaining the kind of intimate access that marks his films. "[The subjects] pick up in my eyes a trust and confidence that I can tell the truth. That look in psychology is called ‘the gaze.' It's what psychotherapists have to have to get through to their patients."

Like Maysles, Barbara Kopple's foray into filmmaking came as an intervention in the world of clinical psychology, in which she majored at Northeastern University. "As part of the major," Kopple explains, "I ended up working at a hospital for six months with patients who'd had lobotomies performed on them."

The experience had a profound effect on her--one she knew very few others would ever be exposed to. When asked to write a paper about her time at the hospital, she longed for a more dynamic means of expression. "I didn't want my whole experience to be shrunk down into an essay that only my professor and his teaching assistant would read," she says. "So I decided to make a short film. Films seemed like a far more accessible way of communicating with a large group of people, and part of what was so powerful about being in the hospital was visual."

Where Kopple's early training in psychology would lay the groundwork for a canon of social issue documentaries, Rory Kennedy's pursuit of documentary grew directly from her interest in social activism. Before graduating from Brown University in 1991, she discovered film as a powerful communication tool. "My final paper was about women and substance abuse--particularly pregnant women and women with children who were [trying to get help]," explains Kennedy. She found the stories of the women she interviewed strikingly different from their depictions in mainstream media. In fact, she discovered that the majority of those women had attempted to get treatment but were systematically denied access. To get sober, they would often have to give their children up to the state.

"I felt that if I could bring policy-makers to meet them [or vice versa], there could be a more appropriate response than imprisoning them that was both effective for them and their children," remembers Kennedy, who connected with Washington, DC-based Video Action Fund to shoot the film. "I knew it wouldn't be possible to do that, but if I could bring a camera in and show their stories...I could create greater awareness."

As a women's studies major, Kennedy benefited from an interdisciplinary focus on the power of media and representation--not just of women, but of other marginalized groups. As she made more films, she "also began to love the process of storytelling, and trying to find great stories and put them together in a film.  I love storytelling and I love trying to have some impact and increase awareness about some social issues."

Like Kennedy, Ondi Timoner was also driven to create alternative representations of disenfranchised women--but discovered her affinity for film first.

"I basically went to a school with no production facilities," says Timoner of her undergraduate education at Yale. "It's wild to think of this school of great privilege that didn't have hands-on facilities."

So, with her brother, Timoner started making films at a local public access station where they could get free time on shuttle systems in exchange for showing their work.

As an American studies and theater major with a concentration on film and literature, Timoner says she was exposed to plenty of theory. "It was classes about John Ford Westerns...but nothing applied." So she taught herself how to edit and shoot--skills that she's assumed in nearly all of her films. "That allowed me to develop my own style without being critical of myself or having anything to compare it to," Timoner says of the extracurricular setting. "We were just free to create." She only took classes in which the professor would allow a film in lieu of a final paper, and she completed five by her senior year. "The camera was this bridge into a world I never otherwise could enter," she notes.

Timoner made a film for a class called Transgressive Women in American Society, about women in prison. "I saw these late-night TV shows where women in prison were [all depicted as] these butch dikes and thought, ‘That can't be true,'" she recalls. "So I went into a prison, and people talked to me. And lo and behold, they weren't butch dikes. Most of them were mothers, getaway drivers for their boyfriends." And, unlike volunteers working inside the system, Timoner says the camera allowed her "to take these women's lives, have their lives matter and share them outside the prison walls."

Other filmmakers took a little longer to find their calling. Ross Kauffman had no idea what he wanted to do in college. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1989 with a business degree-and a single film class that he describes as "mediocre at best," he picked up a book in a used bookstore: The Elements of Film, by Lee S. Bobker. "I had no idea who he was, but I read the book in one night, and kept reading and reading. It was great."

As Kauffman's interest in film grew, he decided that the best way to learn the craft of storytelling would be to learn how to edit. He worked as a PA for a year before starting with an editing house. "My film school was really the editor I worked with: Sam Pollard," he says. "I sat next to him for many, many hours and just watched him work and tried to learn from him."

In the great but fading tradition of apprenticeship, Pollard had started under Victor Kanefsky at the same editing house. "A lot of documentary people came out of Victor's house," says Kaufman. "That's something that's missing nowadays from the mix."

For Nathaniel Kahn, an interest in storytelling came early. A philosophy major with studies in English literature and art history at Yale, Kahn started a theater company while still in school. After graduation, he continued to write and direct plays in New York City, and began working on documentaries. "I found that the real people I found along the way were so compelling that it made me question how I was writing characters," Kahn notes. "Actors spend their entire careers working on being real, believable, wonderfully unpredictable and deep in the sense that human beings operate at many levels simultaneously."

Kahn, whose interest is shared between documentary and fiction filmmaking, credits documentary with opening him to the "journey" of filmmaking, but attributes his ability to craft compelling narratives largely to the broad-based liberal arts foundation he received as an undergraduate.

For Marshall Curry, it was the structure of an undergraduate education at Swarthmore, which didn't include film (the college didn't have a film department at the time, and Curry was more interested in journalism) that later proved helpful as a filmmaker. "There's not much information from college that really helped me," he says. "But the approach and discipline that I learned there affected me a lot. I'm really curious about people and why they do the things they do and why do they think the things they think. College for me was all about digging deeper... and it can be the same with documentaries."

Curry also credits the discipline he developed in college for helping him through the thickest moments of documentary filmmaking. "I worked really hard in college," he maintains. "I remember feeling overwhelmed at the end of one semester and having a friend tell me, ‘There's no way out of this except through it.' And I remind myself of that during the points when I am tired and frustrated doing documentary work."

For many filmmakers who attended college, the richness and flexibility afforded by a liberal arts education has proven a lasting and powerful foundation for documentary practice--as has the kind of varied real-life experience education is meant to condense and simulate.

Kahn similarly highlights the importance of drawing on the rich, historical spectrum of art and storytelling--in his case, most effectively accessed through a formal education. "I think the most important thing, before you turn on the camera and start making the film, is to have something to say," says Kahn. "And that means, knowledge of life."

This is where Kahn believes a well-rounded liberal arts education is "essential" to understanding how previous generations have turned their experiences into art. "How can you possibly write a film if you haven't read Chekhov, Shakespeare?" he asks.

For Thomas Lennon, the skills required to make documentary films are "so varied that almost any course of study is relevant and none is sufficient." Lennon also graduated from Yale, before they had a film major or production department, where he studied photography under Walker Evans.

"I wished I'd read more history while in college, and studied more narrative structure," he says. "Of course, you need to read and grasp fictional techniques, even if your goal is nonfiction. And sure, I'd have liked to have had more time with motion cameras and editing."

But if students ask him now, Lennon would tell them to study whatever they want, but include a minor in music: "Film is all about beat and rhythm, and that part of your mind where the linear and logical don't really belong."

While technological innovation has nurtured new demands for documentary material and professionals, the effects are mitigated by a shrinking pool of resources. New funding models and experimental platforms are emerging, but the future is unclear. The next generation will likely face these challenges, with or without the security promised by a formal education.

Tom Miller, a filmmaker who teaches documentary at USC (but earned a BS in zoology and an MD degree before his MFA in cinematic arts), advocates film school as an intensive simulation of real-world experience--which may be increasingly harder to come by.

"It's a shortcut in some ways, and it's like a boot camp," Miller admits. "Instead of taking four to five years working your way up--which I think is very good--in two to three years in film school, you learn all the roles and compress everything, so when you're on a film, you understand how it gets put together." The "really great" instruction and exposure to industry experts can't hurt, either, he says.

Alternately, Lennon sees value in the kind of education he benefited from while on the job. "Real apprenticeship is crucial and also rare; I finally found a couple of true mentors, but it took years."

There are also new challenges that academia will have to adjust to. Given the rise of the Internet and its DIY potential, Timoner suggests classes in distribution. Meanwhile, Maysles takes issue with what he sees as an archaic approach: When students are taught to shoot without sound, or even taught with film. "It's obsolete; they should start on digital," he says.

For Pope, there is something missing from the industry itself, which will greatly impact new professionals. "What I miss is that there used to be more of the coming-up professional jobs--assistant editors, researchers. Now you can go out and develop your own film, but what would be great is if you could work for any company and come up as a researcher and assistant editor," she says, adding that today's smaller shops can't afford the junior positions anymore.

So how will the next generation of filmmakers--with or without film school--fit into the future of documentary? "I think they're going to get impatient, they're going to get eager, branch out somehow on the Internet," says Pope. "They'll find a way. It's not an easy path.  It's an open question: Where is the future?"


Beige Luciano-Adams is a journalist based in Los Angeles, where she covers arts, culture, business and politics for a variety of publications. She has degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of Social Studies (The Hague, The Netherlands), but continues to learn the hard way.