I just finished my first quarter teaching the documentary curriculum at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. It was a tremendous honor to be asked to teach at such a prestigious film program and I remain very impressed by the caliber of both the students and the faculty there. Much of the work I saw come out of the undergraduate and graduate cohorts this year was quite strong.
One of my goals in teaching documentary film production is to dismantle the high wall that has for decades separated non-fiction filmmaking from other modes of cinema. There is no reason why filmmakers can’t or shouldn’t maneuver between genres, especially considering how much these genres have to offer one another. At their core, the building blocks of strong narrative are universal; it is how we execute these narratives that varies so widely.
It’s very refreshing to be situated in a program so famous for its focus on narrative production. When I started working on feature films, commercials, and dramatic episodics it was in hopes of learning how to deliver the kind of cinematography and attention to style that I’d like to see more of in non-fiction filmmaking. Many of my documentary colleagues at the time felt that I had “gone over the wall,” but to me it made perfect sense. This cross-genre sensibility is very present in the curriculum I teach and in my classes we study not just documentary films, but narrative and commercial work as well, particularly projects that exhibit cinematic realism. The mission is clear: how can we marry the emotional power and accessibility of non-fiction cinema with the kind of aesthetic innovation that makes scripted storytelling so rewarding?
The documentary genre is undergoing a very exciting evolution. Non-fiction makers today are testing and expanding its aesthetic boundaries more often and in more ways than ever before. These developments are very encouraging: it’s high time for non-fiction filmmaking to move away from the idea of “document,” which suggests journalistic intention, and toward an even more inspiring cinematic platform.
It was a wonderfully rewarding experience teaching this quarter and I can’t wait to see what my students do next.
The view from Anchorage Street: high surf, summer winds. Anticipation.