Documentary Intersections / Interventions

Documentary Intersections / Interventions

CAMS 322  •  Wini Wood

An image of a country road and an image of a home with both a US and a Confederate flag

Two screen captures from students' CAMS 322 documentary video.

For this seminar on advanced theory of documentary film, I wanted to supplement the normal course activities (reading, viewing, responding, paper-writing) with a small experiment in documentary film production. The goal was not to learn to make a film, but rather to think more deeply about how a serious documentary film is, in fact, made, and to come to understand one film, and one type of film, more deeply. We took as our starting point the influential 1960 French documentary, Chronique d’un été, in which anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin investigated their own “tribe” of Parisians, taking to the streets and asking the question, “Are you happy?” For our class film, we decided to investigate the current zeitgeist, asking “Do you feel safe?” With the help of Jordan Tynes, the class worked to develop a structure that would produce footage that was fairly consistent: all checked out the same kind of camera from LTS, we developed a set of questions to ask, limited the footage to no more than 10 minutes, and established a checklist to be sure everyone successfully managed to bring footage home. The class fanned out over spring break, investigating “safety” wherever they happened to be. We then developed a collaborative editing regime: I broke the class into two teams; each team could use the entire class’s footage for the final film, which was to be 10-15 minutes in length; each individual on a team was assigned one week’s worth of work. The first teammate made a rough cut; the second refined it; the third worked with sound; the fourth created the fine cut.


First, I was astonished at how smoothly the entire project went—each student worked hard to honor her responsibility to the team. Second, the two films raised important issues that we did not plan before doing the actual documentation (for example, gender differences in perceptions of safety; differences between people on the Wellesley campus and people in America’s heartland; biases for and against “the South”, and so on). Students perceived these differences in the body of footage they’d assembled, and highlighted them through editing: thus, they came to understand a basic tenet of cinéma verité filmmaking much better than by watching and reading about these kinds of films. By working collaboratively, we were able to accomplish an extensive piece of documentary filmmaking that surpasses what any single student can do in a course—but in a fairly cost-effective way that did not take time away from other class activities.

Here’s an interesting link to a related project, an interactive documentary that similarly riffs on Chronique d’un été:

I had students examine this site in preparation for our own project, and we considered whether to do a straight film for the project, or to mount separate pieces of work in i-doc format. While some students were intrigued by the developing form of the web-based i-doc, most were not, and as a group, preferred to merge their material into a more traditional film. Nevertheless, this project opened up space for us to consider the emergent form of the i-doc, and I will likely work on ways to develop a class i-doc in a future iteration of the course.