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Documentary Filmmaking Has a Race Problem, and This Festival May Have the Solution

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams shares his experiences with the Full Frame Documentary Festival's new high school program to address issues with race in the doc world.

Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams

Daniel Bergeron

Lack of diversity in Hollywood has been well documented thanks to #OscarSoWhite, but lack of diversity in the documentary world is less talked about. While the documentary community is way ahead of Hollywood, it is still nowhere near where it needs to be. Filmmakers of color rarely get hired by the powerful production companies, and they are not getting supported enough by broadcasters and funders to tell their own stories. All too often, white documentary filmmakers are the ones telling the stories of people of color.

Full Frame has taken this topic on in a big way with their #DocSoWhite Speakeasy panels. But they are not just citing the problem; they are coming up with solutions. One of these solutions is a high school program called “School of Doc,” which is helping to build a diverse community of filmmakers by reaching them early.

As in most public schools across the country, many Durham public high school students have never been given the opportunity to study documentary film, despite being offered other types of arts courses.

Full Frame director Deirdre Haj began the program in 2010 in an effort to improve access to documentary film for public school students and to diversify the documentary pipeline. Her mission was to create a program that empowered minority students to tell their own stories, and to expose them to future career opportunities. Deirdre hopes to continue expanding the program from its original five-week summer camp to include an after-school program during the academic year, and to establish a four-year film scholarship at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

I was first introduced to Deirdre when I screened my film “God Loves Uganda” at Full Frame. Since then, I have returned to the festival as a juror, and currently serve on Full Frame’s advisory board. This summer, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Durham to check out the School of Doc, and the program blew me away. Full Frame put out a wide call to public high schools in the Durham area and chose 13 students, with varying levels of experience, from a well-tuned application.

Many of the students had little-to-no filmmaking experience before the program began. All of the students chosen to participate in School of Doc were selected based upon their love and enthusiasm for film and storytelling.

One such student, Marie, applied to the School of Doc program having no prior experience. In her application, she described how much Ava Duvernay’s film “13th” inspired her. “The knowledge bestowed upon me from this film is overwhelming and anything that I can learn from means so much to me,” she wrote. “I think what makes any documentary great is the lasting impact that it has on the community, and the change it can enact.” In another application, a student named Jaylah wrote of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “I really love the third one because it shows no matter how small or large you stand in this world you are just as important.”

During the monthlong School of Doc program, the kids form production teams and take on tasks they are interested in, including director, camera person, sound person, and editor. They are handed equipment the first day and make some pretty impressive short documentaries led by the caring and guiding hands of their dedicated teachers, Todd Tinkham and Eric Barstow.

When I walked into the room where the kids were working, it warmed my heart to see such a fantastic group of future documentary filmmakers sitting in a circle—Latin, black, Arab, Asian, and white kids all working together.

Before the students showed me their work, they had some questions for me. Smart questions like, what part of documentary filmmaking do I like best? How do I get my subjects to trust me? And why did I leave TV to work in documentary film? I told them that with so much talk of “fake news,” documentary seemed to me the one place you can find truth and take a deep dive into the human experience.

I also told them that we needed their voices to have a real conversation – that white documentary filmmakers don’t always have the sensitivities and life experience to tell stories of people of color. It’s not like one can’t tell a story as an outsider; sometimes, that is exactly what is needed, but that people of color should also be telling the world about their communities from their point of view.

Even though the program is still young, the School of Doc has made a substantial impact on its students. One of the first participants, Mario Daye, is currently pursuing a degree from North Carolina A&T State University, has worked professionally as a Production Assistant, and is the owner of a photography and video production company.

When I was in high school, I felt totally alienated from the world, but I loved movies. They were my escape, but coming from a disadvantaged community, I never knew that filmmaking was an option for me. A program like School of Doc would have been a game-changer.

The students I met and talked to in Durham realized that the possibilities are endless for them. Anansi, a high school sophomore, told me that her passion was editing. Katie had virtually no filmmaking experience before the program began, and said she loves seeing the world through the lens of a camera. I didn’t realize these things until I was 30! They all had a glorious head start, and I couldn’t be happier.

A few years ago, I met Destini Riley, a young School of Doc grad, who made a touching and moving film called “I, Destini” about how her brother’s incarceration affected their entire family. Co-directed with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University alum Nicholas Pilarski, “I, Destini” was screened at festivals, including Full Frame, won awards, and got her into film school. Now, her destiny has been changed forever, and we are all enriched because of it.

Roger Ross Williams is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and a member of the Full Frame Advisory Board.

The 21st Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will take place April 5-8, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

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