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2004 Preservation and Scholarship Award: Michael Rabiger—Grist for the Mill: A Filmmaker's Education

By David Heuring

Author, educator and filmmaker Michael Rabiger sees a bright future for the documentary. "There has never been a better time to become a documentarian," he says. "I think there's an important shakeout coming in the way films will be made and shown. Once the Internet becomes capable of delivering films at decent quality, it will function as a huge library. There are so many stories, so many cultures that have not been touched yet by serious and accomplished filmmaking."

Rabiger should know. He has been educating documentary filmmakers for more than three decades. Rabiger will receive the 2003 Preservation and Scholarship Award at the 19th Annual IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards in December. The IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award is given to an individual or organization that has made substantial and enduring contributions to nonfiction filmmaking.

Rabiger says that over his years as a teacher, his students' understanding of film has changed radically. "The taste and knowledge of students has absolutely revolutionized in my time," he notes. "The amount of knowledge and acuity of all young people learning to make films has advanced incredibly. Tape libraries have had a lot to do with that."

Rabiger says that trend will only accelerate as the Internet and other distribution models facilitate access to films and the tools of filmmaking. "We'll be able to choose films from a particular country or director, and the result will be a growth of interest," he maintains. "I think filmmakers will be able to cater to specialized audiences. Filmmaking will become less centralized, with an increase in regional filmmaking."

Rabiger followed his father, a makeup artist, into the British film industry in 1956. He became an assistant film editor at age 17, and went on to work on 12 feature films at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, most notably under directors Raoul Walsh and Tony Richardson. In 1962 he moved to television documentary and edited some 30 films for the BBC, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Granada Television and others. Between 1967 and 1972 he directed 21 documentaries in six countries for the BBC Documentary Department, and helped pioneer an oral history series.

Rabiger migrated to the United States in 1972 to teach at Columbia College Chicago in a fledgling film department of 60 students. He wrote reviews and criticism and in the late 1980s published the first editions of Directing the Documentary and Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics (both Focal Press: Boston), books that would eventually be used around the world to educate aspiring filmmakers. In 1988 he founded the Documentary Center at Columbia College. He designed and led workshops in Europe, and in 1996 became chair of Columbia's Film/Video Department, now grown to 1,700 students.

Rabiger decided to concentrate on writing in 2001. That same year, the Columbia Film/Video Department's documentary center was renamed The Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary. In 2002 he was made an honorary professor at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His directing books (now in third editions) have been translated into Spanish, German, Chinese and Korean. He has lectured around the globe, and he is currently writing the libretto for an opera adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Rabiger says that the key to educating filmmakers is to help them use life experience to imbue their films with a point of view. His credo: "The educator's job is to find out what passion and quest the student brings, then connect this to knowledge, experience and influences that will help the budding director speak authentically through the screen. The industry and audiences do not need many competent operatives—there are usually plenty available. What it does need desperately are individuals with the interior resources to act provocatively on us through film art. Every crew member can be an artist in this way, not just king-of-the-hill directors."

Rabiger points out that film education is a relatively new venture. "For much of this century people learned filmmaking by apprenticeship," he says. "Learning the relevant skills to direct is still remarkably difficult—both in the film industry and even in film schools, where there is greater freedom to experiment. You would think that since almost every film student enrolls to become a writer/director, film schools would oblige by concentrating on issues of control and authorship. But few go beyond reflecting the priorities and conditions of the film industry, which never set out to educate anybody."

Rabiger emphasizes that developing those "interior resources" is a crucial part of learning to make good films. He says that this important aspect of becoming a filmmaker can be overwhelmed by the need to learn to control the apparatus of filmmaking. He recalls his early work as a documentarian and how he learned the emotional aspect of the task in an essay entitled "On Becoming a Midwife."

An excerpt:

"As with the fiction films of my apprenticeship, it was the prolonged and agonizing exposure to humdrum documentary materials that goaded me into recognizing the way things worked. How film language, for example, was predicated on the way one reacted inwardly to a stream of reality in everyday life, and how so many anomalies and contradictions lie at the heart of representing reality. Unavoidably, documentary used what I had taken to be fictional techniques, since by successfully orchestrating reality materials­­—even on a very modest scale—I could make myself [and anyone else present] experience the same surge of emotions at every viewing. It was easy to impart knowledge in an orderly and logical way, but to make one's audience feel something, now that was another realm.

"Thirty years later it's hard to know if I knew I was working to trigger processes of emotional recognition, but somewhere I must have realized that an audience hardly discriminates between films of fiction or of ‘reality,' except in the early moments of viewing when it decides if and how to suspend disbelief. Ultimately we compare truth claims on the screen with what we know viscerally from life, no matter whether real people or actors playing characters depict it. We are changed not by new information but by strong feelings."

The goal of a cinema educator should be putting students in touch with their artistic selves, Rabiger believes. "Outstanding filmmakers are like artists everywhere; they use their medium to find or impose an order, so they can highlight an order in what looks like chaos," he writes. "Like great fiction films, great documentaries tend to play out aspects of the human predicament in order to dramatize and organize what is troubling, unjust, or unanswerable. For the rare young director already capable of working at this magnitude, all of life and all of life's work is grist for the mill."


David Huering is a writer at Creative Communications Services. He is the former editor of American Cinematographer magazine.


Previous Preservation & Scholarship Awards

1985        Erik Barnouw

1986        Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art

1987        Kemp Niver

1988        Jack Coogan

1989        David Shephard

1990        Alan Rosenthal

1991        William T. Murphy

1992        Robert Rosen

1993        Vanderbilt University Television News Archive

1994        John E. Allen

1995        Roger Mayer

1996        National Film Board of Canada

1997        Jonas Mekas

1998        George T. Stoney

1999        George Eastman House

2000        The Film Foundation

2001        Pacific Film Archive

2002        Imperial War Museum