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Feb. 23, 2012 Volume 33, No. 21

Intersection of journalism and documentary subject of MU conference


Journalism and filmmaking, a sometimes contentious pairing

Lights! Camera! Journalism?

To prepare movie buffs for the ninth annual True/False Film Fest, MU will host a three-day conference Feb. 29 through March 2 titled “Based on a True Story: Intersections of Documentary Film and Journalism” at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

The conference will highlight the convergence of film and journalism into documentary. A diverse group of filmmakers, film critics, journalists and academics will discuss objectivity in film, grassroots filmmaking, fair use and copyright law, documentary style, documentary journalism and future projects.

“Rather than host a strictly scholarly conference, with ‘Based on a Story,’ we hope to engage the community in a dynamic conversation with filmmakers, critics and academics,” said Stephanie Craft, chair of journalism studies.

“We aim to explore these issues in a way that we can all relate to them,” she said.

Film and print

Craft and Brad Prager, associate professor of German and an active member of the Program in Film Studies, organized the event to incorporate multiple disciplines and nonacademic professionals.

Because of their efforts, the conference received a $20,000 grant from Mizzou Advantage, as part of its Media of the Future initiative, to supplement funding. Although intended as a one-time event, Craft and Prager said the conference will foster relations among departments and the community, and Craft said it would probably lead to the creation of a documentary film class.

Local filmmaker Chad Freidrichs, a film instructor at Stephens College, will give a presentation on the art of the documentary at a round-table discussion. His documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, explores the rise and fall of urban housing in America and debunks several myths surrounding the infamous case of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.

The film has received many awards, including one for best use of archival footage from the International Documentary Association, and awards for best feature documentary from the Oxford Film Festival and Kansas City Film Fest.

“One thing that documentaries are good at is putting a big story on screen,” Freidrichs said. The story could be covered in a journalism article, he said, “but that doesn’t give you the same experience.”

Besides the experience, there are other differences between documentaries and traditional print journalism. Some of the differences can create tension when they overlap.

Craft said the success of the documentary in recent years has attracted journalists who are looking at multimedia to weave narratives. But the documentaries must be visually appealing and have a strong narrative. This can cause filmmaker journalists to lose sight of the need to vet information, even if it makes the documentary less interesting, Craft said.

Some documentaries also come with a point of view toward their subjects, while journalism typically is about being fair and keeping an objective distance from subjects.

What’s more, journalists are taught to keep themselves out of the story, while documentarians often become subjects in their movies. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock became celebrities through their documentary. Lynn True and Nelson Walker star in their film Summer Pasture, about their living with Tibetan nomads for a summer; True and Walker will be at the conference.

“Documentary filmmakers are liberated in a certain way,” Prager said. “Some take that liberation and run with it. Documentary filmmakers get so deep in their subjects that they can’t separate themselves.”

But audiences can get upset when filmmakers become too much a part of the story, Freidrichs said.

This debate, and many others, will keep the conversation going at the conference.

“I hope that people come away with an expanded idea of where there’s overlap between documentary and journalism and what those implications are,” Craft said.

Plenty of experts

Besides Freidrichs, there is a wealth of other interesting filmmakers taking part in the conference.

Peter Nicks, who won an Emmy in 1999 for Blame Somebody Else, will be part of an in-depth question-and-answer discussion about his new project, The Waiting Room. Nicks has worked as a staff producer for ABC News and produced the PBS documentary Life 360.

Jason Spingarn-Koff, a video journalist for The New York Times, is director of Life 2.0, which was part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. He’s worked in the past on documentary projects with PBS, the BBC, MSNBC, and Wired News.

Film critics Nathan Rabin of  The A.V. Club, Bertsy Sharkley of The Los Angeles Times, Karina Longworth of LA Weekly and Tom Roston of PBS’ Doc Soup Blog will be on hand to offer their unique perspectives. Also scheduled to participate are Patricia Audferheide, professor of communication studies at American University, and Michael Renov, professor and vice dean of academic affairs at the University of Southern California.

— Trevor Eischen