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Director's Note, December 2015

December 16, 2015

Documentary work at its richest not only brings to public attention stories that matter, but also provides tools for thinking and reshaping our understanding of subjects both familiar or new.  A well-researched, compellingly framed project should cause its audience to reflect, to ask: Is this a persuasive interpretation?  What's at stake? What should happen next?

Compelling may not mean straightforward and clear-cut. MDOCS was fortunate this month to host David Felix Sutcliffe for a screening of (T)error (2015), an award-winning documentary film that he co-directed with Lyric Cabral. (T)error draws viewers into the world of an FBI informant whose work helps the government build a case against a Muslim man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When the target of the operation is arrested as a result of the investigation, viewers might disagree on the justice of that outcome. Was it good preventive anti-terrorism work or, as the film's title suggests, an error both in this case and systemically? Is the informant perpetrator or victim, or a little bit of both? While the filmmakers' perspective is clear, the evidence they lay out invites the audience to weigh the case as it unfolds, to grapple with ambiguities and to think about the ethics of choices made by states, societies and individuals in the name of peace and security. 

When universal answers are hard to come by, documentarians rely on the law and on an ethical compass to make choices—who to interview, what to include or exclude, how much to tell or withhold, and when and where to share their work. Challenges inevitably arise, whether exploring family secrets, as documentary filmmaker and new member of the English Department Cecilia Aldarondo's new film discovers, or digging into military policy. Just this week, the U.S. military decided to seek a general court-martial for Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who went off base in Afghanistan and spent five years as a captive of the Taliban before being released in a prisoner swap. A Washington Post reporter wonders whether the military's decision was influenced by the start this week of the second series of Serial, the popular podcast program that opened its coverage of the Bergdahl story with the soldier's discussion of how he deliberately walked off base in 2009. As documentarians seek creative and honest representations of their stories, being prepared for possible consequences for themselves or the people involved in the storytelling is an important part of preparation.

As we look forward to spring '16, MDOCS expects to engage student documentarians such as Caleb Weiss (profiled by Skidmore's Creative Minute video series in a story by Sara Marsh '18), in figuring out how to tackle and address the many ways in which practical choices—whom to interview, what release forms to sign, the budget for insurance—as well as creative imperatives shape the production, distribution, reception and impact of documentary work. Stay tuned as MDOCS attends to the important choices that shape documentary storytelling when the microphone and camera are off, the exhibit lights are off and before the website goes live.

One key to making those conversations resonate is to build connections and learn from each other. Last week, MDOCS partnered with Media and Film Studies, Project Vis and the Arts Administration program to host a "Networking Night" with area practitioners that may lead to better understanding of professional opportunities as well as internship placements for the spring. Jake DeNicola '15, was back on campus to consult with MDOCS and Sutcliffe about the documentary film project he's plunged into after Storytellers' Institute and graduation—and talks about the joys and challenges ahead. Evian Pan '17, shared her summer project, the Saratoga Chinese Oral History Project at the Researching New York conference in Albany, testing her hypotheses and getting feedback and grant tips from history professionals.

See you in the new year! And if any great documentary work inspires you over the holiday season, please share your recommendations with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Jordana Dym