NYU's Contemporary Documentary examines history and technique / by KirstenStudio

I've registered for NYU's SCPS course, Contemporary Documentary twice this year and luckily, the second time took.  Apparently there wasn't enough enrollment (I'm guessing) for a spring class, but you wouldn't know it by the summer quarter's class.  I haven't taken a count, but it's definitely well attended. Contemporary Documentary's summer course is taught by Anthony Kaufman, an accomplished and active film journalist who clearly knows his business.  Mr. Kaufman's writings can be found in Variety, Filmmaker Magazine, Huffington Post, Indiewire and many more notable publications.

Since signing up for the class, I've been checking out his Indiewire blog now and again and it's a terrific read.  Click here to read about the Contemporary Documentary class and his approach to teaching it.

So far, my experience with the class is that Mr. Kaufman does an excellent job of engaging his students.  He prompts discussion, listens diplomatically and asks directed questions to help his students think about different film objectives, techniques and how those techniques can aid those objectives effectively, as well historical significance. I'm not really referring to the technical aspect of filmmaking, although there is some coverage in class on the influence advancements in the technology in film equipment had on filmmaking styles and documentarist's creativity.  I'm mostly talking about creative choices be it through shooting or editing.  Whether is swish panning between to subjects to illustrate the back and forth escalating tension of an argument, or editing certain shots or music to suggest an emotion, motive, result or to add subtext.  That's what makes good filmmaking and it's important to be able to recognize it.

The class is divided up into an examination modern documentary sub-genres. Starting with the 1960's the first class looked at the shocking and controversial Titicut Follies, 1969, (pictured above) by legendary and still prolific and relevant, Frederick Wiseman, among a handful of other filmmakers who exemplify Direct Cinema's birth. Social Issue, Agit-Pop, Personal documentary are some of the many sub-genres the course will explore. The syllabus lists a few upcoming classes that cover significant filmmakers like Errol Morris who do indeed deserve their own category.

Mr. Kaufman also brings in guest speakers like Doug Block, who from my experience, is an informative, entertaining speaker and has been successfully making films for quite some time now. I LOVE his 51 Birch Street, a remarkable personal documentary. Mr. Block's recently produced Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles by filmmaker Jon Foy won the 2011 Sundance Film Festival's U.S. Documentary jury prize for Best Director and enjoyed a screening at Stranger Than Fiction this spring.  It looks as though he doesn't do too bad with producing other's works too.

Additionally, Mr. Kaufman assigns his students proposals, which are due periodically throughout the quarter.  Although I took Thom Powers' Documentary Development, Research and Financing class (highly recommended) last fall and he too requires a proposal project to be completed, I do think it's an exercise that is beneficial to do repeatedly.  It's not just about putting together a proposal for the purpose of gaining funding, it's about constructing and deconstructing a film premise. It's a effective way to discover a film's strengths and weaknesses.  The act of putting together a film proposal forces the filmmaker to consider important aspects of a film and work out potential issues that may arise in the story.  A story can sound perfect and intriguing in one's own head, but when a filmmaker starts putting it down on paper, it's a whole other experience and all-be-it a bit of a pain, you're better for it in the long run. It reminds me a little bit of screening something I've edited on my own and then watching it with another person(s).  I notice things that I hadn't before. Somehow I see things slightly differently.

I'm not exactly excited about the proposal assignments, but once I sort of dive in and start thinking, it becomes more interesting and like editing, is a series of problem solving exercises that hopefully opens doors of further creativity and opportunity.  On that note, I better get started.