With a Local Lens, Documentary Filmmaking Course Unites Theory and Practice

Leveraging the people and places of Boston for inspiration, students in the English Department's "Ethics in Documentary Film" course grapple with the challenges and questions raised by creative work.

Professional journalists have long been expected to abide by an established code of ethics—to seek the truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and be accountable and transparent (Society of Professional Journalists). Nonetheless, we are in an era when consumer distrust in mainstream media is at an all-time high[1]—as is, perhaps consequently, the popularity of documentary films.

While documentary filmmakers are often seen as refreshing, independent voices, they are not without their own ethical challenges and responsibilities, to both the subject and the viewer. They also should minimize harm, treating their subjects with dignity and respect. And they must honor the trust of the audience and avoid creating drama or conflict where it doesn't naturally exist, among other concerns.   

When Associate Professor of Communication & Media Studies Andrea McDonnell launched the "Ethics in Documentary Film" course in Fall 2018, her goal was to combine a critical approach to viewing and interpreting documentary film through this lens with an experiential learning process.

"It was my hope that by putting theories of filmmaking to use firsthand, students could grapple with the challenges and questions raised by creative work," McDonnell said. "I also hoped that students could begin to see filmmaking, research and writing as related forms of creative production, all of which require their own best practices and ethical decision-making processes."

McDonnell's practice-based course explores these questions through engagement with popular and academic literature in the field and through screening and discussion of contemporary documentaries that consider ethical questions of the day.

The course is divided into thirds—during the first third of the course, students discuss ethical questions related to documentary and creative production.  Next, they view and critique films in class while working in teams to create their own 10-minute shorts. Lastly, the class views and critiques the work of their peers.  The documentary-making process itself, by design, is entirely student-driven. Students choose their groups and topics, delegate responsibilities, create storyboards, conduct research, shoot original content and edit the final cuts.     

In the process, students are exposed to ideas and questions that may not have previously been a part of their worldview, McDonnell said. They also develop team building strategies, gain a working knowledge of film and editing equipment and software, and learn about an element of their community.  

Boston served as an essential element of the course, with students drawing inspiration from the city's people and places to shape their final products. Students addressed gender discrimination in the music industry through interviews with members of the Berklee College of Music community, the controversial history (and recent renaming) of Boston landmark Yawkey Way, and the weekly "Common Art" program, which is hosted at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, among others.  

Common Art began in 1999 and provides space, materials and caring staff to support unhoused and low income individuals as they develop their artistic abilities. People who live in shelters, rooming houses, on unclaimed couches and benches and on Boston's streets, are invited to gather every Wednesday to draw, paint, sculpt, make crafts, and to share with other artists in like circumstances.

"For most members, Common Art is a singular chance to express their artistic gifts," the program's website states. "For some, art is a professional path, interrupted and suspended by calamity and homelessness. For others, it's an opportunity to express unheard opinions, ideas and truths. For others, it's pure joy, an oasis of form and color in otherwise dry times. For all, it's a simple and welcome relief from daily difficulty."  

Korey Rodecker '19 and Anna Jacobs '19 created "Safe Space Once a Week" to celebrate the work being done by both the artists and the staff at the Common Art program.  

"Korey and I thought that what 'Common Art' is doing is amazing and shows peoples' kindness," Jacobs said. "When interviewing people, my stereotypes about homelessness were broken down. We also learned that filmmakers have to be consistent with and devoted to the process, must possess good communication skills, and be not afraid to step out of his or her comfort zone."

"My goal in teaching the course is to prompt students to consider ethical questions in both abstract and practical ways," McDonnell said. "I believe that useful theory should inform our practice and vice versa.  This class allowed students to test ideas through hands-on engagement." 

View more student documentaries on the English Department's blog.

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/157589/distrust-media-hits-new-high.aspx

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