Lora Taub

“To move through this moment of reckoning, we must commit ourselves to deep inquiry…”
–Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown

In “The Documentary Future: A Call for Accountability,” authors Childress and Brown (2020) describe a moment of reckoning in the documentary field, catalyzed by a new class of filmmakers who are sounding “the call for a reimagining of the nonfiction filmmaking ethos, built on values of accountability, consent and respect for the agency of documented communities; and of a trust-based relationship between director and protagonist.”

Models and movement towards new ideals in documentary have emerged and gained prominence in the last decade. Spaces like the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Firelight Media, YouthFX, Scribe Video Center, and many more are centering and supporting the work of filmmakers of color whose exclusion from and exploitation within the entrenched patriarchal, imperialist, racist, capitalist documentary media industry. In spaces like these, nonfiction media making is being reimagined and reframed as “a vehicle for both personal expression, and as a tool to strengthen movements, build solidarity across disenfranchised communities, affirm the experiences and history of people in their communities, heal from trauma, and inspire joy and political action.”

What does this reckoning and reimagining mean for documentary programs in institutions of higher education, where curricula and pedagogy has been entrenched in the same hierarchical and exclusionary systems of power Childress and Brown are naming? What kinds of curricular and pedagogical transformations are necessary to not only ensure that programs in documentary studies and production do not reproduce longstanding inequities in the field, but are actually organized to help accelerate and expand the future of the field? What does deep inquiry look like in the context of undergraduate learning? What kinds of pedagogies and learning experiences enable documentary students to develop and grow as ethical makers? How do we reimagine curricula around accountability? What does an ethos of accountability imply for the ways we engage in community-based storytelling? What forms of accountability to community partners and participants can we imagine that recognize long histories of inequity  between institutions of higher education and the communities in which they are located?

Deep inquiry into documentary ethics, power, and accountability are at the heart of DOC 250: Rights and Responsibilities. At the level of this course, in Spring 2022, questions about accountability informed the course goals, content, design, and pedagogy. Working online in the pandemic, with a small group of students, we took as our focus the guidelines created by the Documentary Accountability Working Group and applied them to a series of films.

The Documentary Accountability Working Group Values include:

  • Integrate anti-oppression practices into your work
  • Acknowledge your positionality
  • Prioritize the needs, well-being and experience of the people associated with your film
  • Be transparent in your relationships
  • Treat all potential audience members with dignity, care, and concern

Throughout the semester, we applied these values to guide and structure deep inquiry into a series of documentary films.  Choosing which films to share with students, which filmmakers to encounter, whose voices to bring into our class conversations–these are all choices that carry their own kinds of implications and accountability. The curriculum was intentionally shaped to center the films and practices of documentary storytellers whose work is part of reimagining documentary futures untethered to the field’s extractive legacies and bound up with agency and dignity of the people and communities whose stories the work aims to document. The films we viewed include:

  • “A Love Song for Latasha,” Sophia Nahli Allison
  • “Faya Dayi,” Jessica Bashir (2021)
  • “Cameraperson,” Kirsten Johnson (2016)
  • “Dick Johnson is Dead,” Kirsten Johnson (2020)
  • “5b,” Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss (2019)
  • “Landfall,” Ceclia Aldorando (2020)

Drawing from weekly reflections on these films, considering the values prioritized by the Documentary Accountability Working Group in relation to these films, students Ryan Dratler, Madison Fearon, and Rosy Vinod each developed work that takes final shape as a chapter for this open educational resource. As co-authors they thoughtfully engaged each others’ ideas, carefully read each other’s work, and made collective decisions informing the book’s organization and structure. What they have co-created contributes to work that encourages deep inquiry among documentary students–who are storymakers in the making. As documentary curricula and pedagogy join up with the call to imagine more inclusive, accountable documentary futures, we need new texts that recognize many ways of knowing and values a wider range of what counts as expertise, whose voices matter. By creating an open educational resource, with its “Attribution-nonCommercial-ShareAlike” Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-SA), we invite others to remix, adapt, and build upon them non-commercially, as long as you credit the authors, and license any new creations under the same terms. In the end, opening documentary studies by co-creating an open educational text aligns with the movement to open documentary practices and productions.

References:

Childress, S., & Bullock Brown, N. (2020, August 6). The Documentary Future: A Call for Accountability. International Documentary Association. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.documentary.org/feature/documentary-future-call-accountability

Core Values for Ethical and Accountable Nonfiction Filmmaking. The  Documentary Accountability Working Group. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.docaccountability.org/values