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The Teachable Moment: Supporting Your Documentary Career in the Classroom

By Laura Almo

Sam Pollard, professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts

How do documentary makers support themselves and their filmmaking careers?  You don't go into documentary to get rich--and while you can't survive on passion alone, we all need to eat and pay the bills. From doing freelance work in the industry to waiting tables (or insert your service industry job of choice here), there's a whole slew of ways to make ends meet--and one of the most common is teaching. But what does teaching entail? How does one balance teaching with filmmaking--and is this a feasible income-generating option?

There are many ways to incorporate teaching into a documentary career, and there's no one correct way to do it. Success and satisfaction depend on each individual situation: A full-time faculty position may work for one person, while a part-time gig at a media arts center may be the right choice for someone else. You want to feel energized by teaching--when you walk into the classroom, you want to feel excited about sharing your wisdom and expertise; when you walk out of the classroom, you want to feel inspired and reassured that the time spent teaching enhances your own filmmaking.

Many programs--including New York University, University of Southern California, University of California at Berkeley and University of Texas, Austin--that have a focus, or at least some classes, on documentary film, value the working professional and seek instructors/professors with real-world experience and a substantial body of work. The rewards are tremendous: inspiration for your own work; fresh, innovative ways of looking at the world; and the personal satisfaction of knowing you've helped someone in their filmmaking journey are just a few.

When you're teaching, however, you tend to do fewer projects, and they take longer to complete. Jon Else (Wonders Are Many), who heads the Documentary Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, secured a three-quarter-time teaching position in 1997. Else says that before he began teaching at UC Berkeley, he would make one big (think $1 million budget) documentary and freelance 90 days, in a given year; now he makes one big film about every three years, and freelances 30 days a year.

A full-time teaching job demands a lot more than teaching a few classes a week. "The teaching part is unalloyed fun," says Else. But, in addition to class time, there is planning for classes, committee meetings, administrative duties, advising students and office hours.

"Do not underestimate the importance of committee work, " says Marco Williams (Banished), associate arts professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. This is an essential part of the job. Part-time and adjunct positions require fewer administrative duties, yet instructors spend significant time preparing for classes, grading papers and/or projects, holding office hours and guiding students.

So how do people make time for everything? "You just do it," says Williams.

Stories about catch-as-catch-can schedules abound. Williams details how he managed the demanding production schedule for his 2002 film Two Towns of Jasper: "I was teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays. I would get on a plane on Wednesdays after class and then catch the last flight Sunday night back from Houston to New York in order to teach on Monday."

Sam Pollard (When the Levees Broke) recalls racing between a class at NYU and a screening with Spike Lee. "I started the projector in class, hurried off to the screening and got back to class just as the lights were coming up in time for class discussion," he says.

Paul Stekler, a professor of communication at the Radio-Television-Film Department at UT Austin, says that collaborating makes it easier to do projects while teaching. You can try to do production in the summer, but everyone knows you can't always decide when production will actually begin.

It was just luck that production of The Choice (for FRONTLINE) took place entirely in the summer. Had the Democratic race between Obama and Clinton ended earlier, production would have started in the spring.

Kate Amend (Into the Arms of Strangers), who works from home and also teaches the Editing component of Advanced Production at USC, factors one day of teaching a week into her schedule. She lets the director she's working with know that Wednesdays she will be teaching and often she'll make the day up on the weekend. It works out well; not only does the director have a chance to work with the material, but this gives Amend a chance to get out of her home office.

Since so many independent filmmakers spend time working at home, alone or one-on-one with a director or an editor, teaching offers a community, says Lisa Leeman (Who Needs Sleep?), an adjunct faculty member at USC. "Not only do I love the interaction with the students, but I really enjoy the collegial fellowship with the faculty," she says.

But there are compromises and challenges to both full- and part-time teaching: You can't always be in two places at once; doing too much can diminish the quality of everything; you don't want your own projects to languish, nor do you want students to be neglected. For many, there is the option to take a leave of absence. Programs that value the working filmmaker understand the push and pull of balancing teaching with filmmaking and try to make it easy for people to take a leave.

Lest we forget, you have to be able to nurture your own career. For people who are teaching but not doing much work professionally, there's a lot more frustration and resentment with students, says Mark Jonathan Harris (Into the Arms of Strangers), Distinguished Professor at USC. You don't want to feel that teaching is a distraction, draining your creative energy and taking you further from your own work. "There is the chance that if you're teaching full time, it may take you further from the freelance world," says Will Zavala, an assistant professor at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Media Arts Center. "You're going to be in an educational setting, so you should like that."

The general consensus is that practicing filmmakers who are content with their work situation outside of the classroom find teaching rewarding. Full- and part-time instructors alike comment that teaching is inspiring, energizing and rejuvenating.  It keeps them current in so many ways: new technology, what's hot on the Internet, how young people see the world today and fresh ways to tell stories.

Rob Epstein (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), who co-chairs the media arts program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, showed a work-in-progress clip to his students. The result of the discussion was that Epstein realized he wasn't going to reach a young audience. "It became clear I need to think out of the documentary box," he says.

Teaching isn't for everyone, and great filmmakers don't necessarily make great teachers. Some personality types are better suited for teaching: you have to be comfortable with public speaking, skilled in giving constructive criticism and patient, and you have to find the process stimulating. "A good teacher enjoys the process and likes to articulate the process," says Jeffrey Tuchman (Save Our History: Voices of Civil Rights), who taught at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism for seven years. "You have to like to talk about what you're doing, not just do it."

Some filmmaking skills are transferable to teaching: Being a good producer--organized, prepared and motivated--is key. But teaching also means being an entertainer and a mentor. "In order to be an effective teacher, you have to really be able to pay attention to each student as an individual," says Epstein. And, there is a certain amount of "pastoral counseling" adds Else. "Students have lives and sometimes lives get rough and they need someone to talk to," adding that he keeps a box of Kleenex in his office. "Also, documentary is a rough life--it's fantastic too--but there's stuff you can give them a heads-up about--like what it's going to be like when they finish school, the kind of guidance I wish people had given me early on." 

And when it comes to the bottom line, full-time positions provide a steady paycheck, health insurance and some kind of retirement fund; part-time positions are a dependable source of income, but it's probably not going to change your economic status very much. In fact, if you're teaching one class, there's a good chance you'll have to look for additional ways to supplement your income.

As for practical matters, in many cases it is not essential to have an advanced degree in order to teach in film programs, although it may help. Prestigious colleges, universities and art institutions look for people with a thriving career, a significant body of work and strong teaching skills. "I say to applicants, ‘Let me see your films,'" says Harris. However, this is not the case universally. Smaller programs and those trying to establish themselves may very well require degrees--and, of course, teaching experience. If you're interested in teaching but don't have the experience, ask a friend or colleague if you can teach one class as a guest lecturer.

Like filmmaking, there's a real difference reading about teaching and doing it--and you won't know if you like it until you try.


Laura Almo is a contributing editor at Documentary. She can be reached at