Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Listening to Community Voices: Documenting the past and present of a neighborhood

Relevant Theory / Research

The most relevant theoretical foundation for this class are Bill Nichols’ books Introduction to Documentary and Representing Reality. Before initiating production, the class discussed Nichols’ concept of “voice” within the context of the documentation of a social reality foreign to the video maker.  Since the idea for the project was started by the SECA community as a way to document audio-visually the history of the neighborhood, we decided that the safest way to approach the task was to distance ourselves from the subjects documented.  Concrete results of this decision were the elimination of a narrator or presenter for the documentary and the exclusive use of music composed and performed by SECA members in the editing of the project.  We assume that limiting the aspects in which the video makers would have creative control and develop a “voice” will benefit from the immediacy and perhaps accuracy of the process.

We assume that the main objective of the project was the actual documentation of members of the community – more than the production of a documentary.  It was SECA who decided the list of interviewees and it was the interviewees who proposed the locations and contents of each interview.  This approach distanced the contents of the class from most of the traditional works of documentary video making.  Since we assumed the nonexistence of an agenda and a script, the task of the students was solely to capture the testimony of the residents without assumptions or narrative inclinations.  The dialogue, then, between students and the community deepened in the interaction while documenting more than in the analysis or crafting of a comprehensive video piece.

This apparent anticlimactic structure (the class did not conclude with a video containing social statements or comments) has opened a new possibility in the understanding of pedagogical methods of both filmmaking and community engagement.  In the aspects of filmmaking, students have developed a greater understanding of the importance of observation and non-intrusiveness. We trusted that limiting the aspects in which the video makers would have creative control and develop a “voice” would benefit the immediacy and, perhaps, accuracy of the process. These intentions and principles can be compared with documentary modes such as Cinema Verite, and Direct Cinema (both of which Nichols refers as Observational); however, contrary to these cases the objective of this class was of service more than interpretation. Contrary to my expectations, the lack of a final conclusive video piece and the concentration in the service was particularly stimulating for the students.  Without intending to resonate with Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, the class resulted in both social interaction and video making practices paralleling some of the core dialogical principles of Freire’s ideas presented in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.


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