Author: Caroline Olsen-Van Stone
John Silver, award-winning documentary filmmaker, held a seminar for non-film students last Thursday with support from the Language Lab, Film Department and IPO. A dozen students came to the documentary crash course he gave in the intimate setting of the Keck Language Lab.
Silver tailored his seminar to his audience and focused on 15 tips he finds most helpful to beginning doc makers. His tips ranged from technical how-to’s—camera angles, sound, etc.—to developing the documentary’s content.
He stressed the importance of makers being passionate about the subjects of their documentaries and learning to narrow the focus. “I see beginners all the time try to start with a 90-minute film, but you have to start small and have realistic expectations,” he said.
The students who attended are working on a variety of different subjects for a variety of reasons. “I am making a documentary of an organization that I volunteered for over the summer in New Orleans,” Nina Braynina (senior) said. As part of a semester project in his class, Spanish for Native Speakers, Brandon Ortega (first-year) plans to interview his grandparents in Mexico.
Silver also explained the importance of making a documentary interesting by using appropriate music and form techniques from fiction films. “Just because it’s a doc doesn’t mean it has to be boring,” he said.
Silver’s 25 years of experience in documentary filmmaking and grassroots organizing shone through in his short film Watsonville on Strike and his lecture. Using this short documentary, he showed how the camera angle, lighting, music, timing and attention to audience express the filmmaker’s message.
One scene shows a college student taking part in the workers’ rights protest. The first camera angle shows her head and shoulders, but when she says, “Excuse me, I guess I have to go now,” the camera zooms out to show her in handcuffs, being led to the police car. Silver used this scene to illustrate the importance of making choices about zoom and the lack of objectivity in filmmaking.
“There is no objectivity,” he said. “The choices you make change the meaning.”
He said the media often tries to portray both sides of a story, when really the crew has already picked one. “All art and film is political,” he said.
His particular focus has been grassroots organizing and helping labor rights groups though documentary. “My goal is to give voice to issues that are not dealt with or aren’t heard,” Silver said. “That is partisan and takes a stand, which is exactly what documentary makers need to do.”
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.