The Middle Distance 6.14.13: When the Lights Come Up

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Photo by Sean Cayton

For the last six weeks, I’ve been taking a crash course in documentary filmmaking. I thought I’d be learning some technical terminology, a little technique, and a bit about how funding, marketing and distribution happens around nonfiction films.

I did learn these things, but I also learned that as consumers of media in the U.S., we need to demand availability of these films where they can readily and easily be seen by general audiences as traditional journalism wanes.

I also learned that Colorado can lay claim to two of the best documentary filmmakers currently working in the medium.

Our class was lucky enough to have a Colorado Springs native, returned home to be with family, teaching our class. Tom Shepard grew up in the Old North End of the Springs, attended North Junior High and Palmer High School, and keeps close touch with his roots though he has lived in the Bay Area of California for many years since attending college at Stanford.

In his 18 years as a filmmaker, Shepard has explored contemporary issues that continue to resonate over time. His first film, Scout’s Honor, took the 2001 Sundance Audience Award and is still in active circulation on public television and in educational settings because of the pertinence and timeliness of its subject: Boy Scouts of America’s policy of excluding gay boys and men from scouting and leadership. Listening to the polarized national reporting on the issue in recent weeks, I wished Tom’s thoughtful treatment of the legality, ethics, and profound human impact of discrimination based on sexual orientation could guide the discussion somehow.

Shepard went on to make Knocking, an exploration of the role Jehovah’s Witnesses have played in legal battles for free speech in America and their historic role as witnesses to the holocaust in Nazi Germany. His film Whiz Kids follows the coming-of-age of a group of competitors in the nation’s most prestigious high school science competition, and how their love of learning and mastering science guides their lives. Most recently, Tom co-produced and edited The Grove, a look at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a 7-acre sanctuary in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park honoring the lives of Americans lost to AIDS and those who, because of societal attitudes, were often forced to grieve their loved ones silently. As efforts to bring wider national recognition to The Grove ensue in the film, disagreement breaks out over how this national memorial should function, and how to truly honor the dead.

These films, and others we watched over the course of our six-week class, did what the best journalism does. They invited us to question our assumptions and consider the many sides of a complicated societal problem. They dared us to not be complacent about what we don’t understand.

One week, we watched a film by another filmmaker with Colorado Springs ties, Daniel Junge, a Colorado College graduate whose short documentary Saving Face won the Academy Award in 2012. Junge’s first film, Chiefs, about a high school basketball championship in his native Wyoming, won Best Feature Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002, and subsequent films covered the first woman elected President of Liberia, the killing of a 73-year old Catholic nun in Brazil, and the campaign of Washington Governor Booth Gardner to enact state legislation allowing assisted suicide. With Saving Face, Junge brought to light the brutally injured and disfigured women survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan, and a plastic surgeon dedicated to helping restore their health and dignity. In the course of the making of this 40-minute film, a law is passed by Pakistan’s national legislative body to criminalize acid attacks and inflict stiff prison sentences on those convicted.

Our class Skyped with Junge from his Denver home after watching his film. He cited a “robust film studies” program at CC as an early inspiration, and remembered with obvious reverence his mentor at NYU film school, George Stoney. Stoney, who died recently at age 96, is revered for asking essential questions about the value of documentary, questions obviously embraced by both Shepard and Junge:
What will the audience do [when the lights come up]? Will they be more bitter, more stuck, more true to the ideas and assumptions they had when they walked in? Or will they be a little more willing to look around and see who they laughed with over the past 90 minutes? Will they be able to have more compassion for the other? Will they be able to sit with their discomfort? (from “As Thoughts of George Rise Up: Judith Helfland on Long-Time Mentor George Stoney,”

Out here in the curious middle distance, where it sometimes looks as if no one can see anyone else, that is a welcome challenge.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


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