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Skidmore College
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Doc on Campus: Filmmaker Chip Duncan

November 19, 2015

by Sara Marsh, '18

On October 21, Chip Duncan moderated a discussion with Senator George Mitchell in the evening. Earlier in the day, he stopped in to Nicky Tavares' "Introduction to Documentary FIlmmaking" class to talk about his company and newest projects.

Chip is the president of the Duncan Entertainment Group, a documentary production company formed in 1984. The group produces nonfiction content for television and other digital media platforms as well as films for educational use. Projects include the films The Reagan Presidency, Landslide—A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover and Row Your Boat, a drama featuring Jon Bon Jovi.

In an hourlong conversation, Chip talked about his career as a documentary filmmaker and two of his recent projects, a personal story and a more research-driven film. Currently Chip is screening a short documentary titled The Sound Man, which features Kenyan audio journalist Abdul Ramadhan. The film covers Abdul’s life in Africa’s largest slum, Kibera. Chip discussed the difficulties of creating the film and the impact of specific choices he had to make during production of a film based on a bilingual character.

One of the biggest obstacles Chip had to overcome while creating The Sound Man was the language barrier between Abdul and himself. In interviews, Abdul’s full story did not emerge when conversation was in English, and he was unable to connect emotionally to the issues he was discussing. Ultimately, Chip described making the choice to conduct an interview in Swahili instead, which completely transformed Abdul as a subject—he was able to speak freely and fully express the horrors he witnessed during his life in Kibera. However, getting the emotion by working in Swahili had consequences. By changing the language of the interviews, Chip described how he may have lost the possibility of an American market. As he noted, "Americans hate subtitles." This story revealed how a crucial creative choice potentially sacrificed both publicity and finances for the sake of the integrity of his film.

Chip Duncan visiting a classroom
Chip Duncan, Producer/Director/Writer/Editor on 
The Sound Man, screening clips for Nicky Tavares’ class.

Chip showed a trailer from a current project being filmed at Mayo Medical School in Minnesota that will examine Mayo’s medical students’ journeys as they complete their first dissection of the human body. Though the film is still in its early stages, Chip described how the footage and interviews have directed him towards a possible storytelling focus on the lives of a few students’ experiences with their "first patients."

He noted how this film had different challenges. Before beginning this project, Chip had to get permission from the school, the students and the donor families, a process that took a long time. Despite this tedious procedure, Chip stressed the importance of covering one’s bases before making a film. Had Chip not asked the donor families for permission to film their deceased family members, for example, he may not have been able to use any footage of the cadavers. The documentary story-building process was also an important point; with much but not all filming complete, Chip described how he is not sure how he will weave the different components of his film together, yet he hopes to feature it on either Showtime or Netflix.

Chip is a great example of a filmmaker who combines both business and creativity into his practice. He is both prolific and successful and showed students just how many different choices go into creating a film. For more information on Chip, visit his website