Documenting the truth is not so easy
AM 378 is more than just a series
of numbers and letters. It is more
than just a course, for that matter. For
those students who have taken or are
taking Professor of English Phyllis
Mannocchi's American Studies class
American Dreams: The
Documentary Film Perspective, it
has been a source of inspiration and
an eye-opening experience.
The College's only productionbased class--which has, according to Mannocchi, existed "in some form since 1978" when she came to the College--is in its last year.
At the start of the semester, the class, which is capped at 30 and limited to seniors, watches all sorts of documentaries with a critical eye. "Documentaries are often viewed as objective, but they're not," Whitney Lynn '09, a current student, said. "Anything you see is edited. Her classmate, Tarini Manchanda '09, echoed her sentiments: "I don't really think that there is really any objectivity in film...[you are] looking at the world through the eyes of the film-maker."
The course description points to the "reality or art, truth-telling or f i c t ion-making, propaganda or objective presentation, responsibility of the filmmaker" at the heart of these discussions.
After engaging in the work of others, the course moves on to the hands-on part: making documentaries. Split into five groups of six, the students come up with a topic for a 12- 15 minute piece concerning an aspect of life in Maine. This year, students are researching and trying to capture the stories of Waterville's own Hathaway mill, the economic role of maple sugaring, coming out as a gay teen in Maine, the National Guard and railfans, who are a rare and dedicated breed of railroad enthusiasts.
Lynn's group is creating the documentary on the National Guard. Currently in the final stages of production, the film focuses "mainly on the young people...how being in the National Guard has shifted the course of their lives and how they view deployment." She discussed the stigma that has surrounded the National Guard, especially after the John Kerry/George W. Bush presidential race in 2004. "People are excited to know that we're interested in it...it's so far removed from what we usually do."
"It's teach-as-you-go. It gets you off the Hill and gets you involved in the community in [unusual and deep ways]," she said. Maine has a rich military history that Lynn says she is just learning about and experiencing for the first time in her four years in Waterville.
Manchanda, who is working with the Railfans crew, noted the level of difficulty and detail that goes into the production of a documentary. "You have to build that trust" with your subjects, she said, in order to have an effective interview regarding something intensely personal. "It's a great way to realize there's a bigger world out there," Lynn said. The class has left a lasting impression on many alumni, too. Mark Taylor '89, who took the class during his time on the Hill, now works as the head of production for TNT & TBS. "I oversee budgeting, scheduling, crew hires and daily surprises for all of our original programming," he said in an e-mail. "The class (and most importantly, Phyllis) inspired me to follow my dreams and work in film and television instead of the art world." Currently, Daniel Martin '01, another of Mannocchi's former students, is a producer on Dancing With the Stars on ABC. "I learned an incredible amount in [the class]," he wrote in an e-mail. "From composition and the rule of thirds to the importance of mic'ing people you're interviewing--a lesson I learned the hard way in class...--I learned a lot of about the technical aspects of production.
But even more important, the class, and Professor Ma n n o c c h i , helped me realize that production (film and television) was what I wanted to spend my life doing." Al t h o u g h the class attracts students with and without prior experience in film product i o n , Ma n n o c c h i described her students as the "best of the best." Yet she expressed concern over the lack of support for the class from both a technological and an administrative standpoint. As a course that requires equipment outside of the norm, a support network is key. "I'm tired of fighting for this class," Mannocchi said. "My students deserve the best." "It's been a challenge working with the [school's] equipment," Manchanda said. "The class doesn't get much attention from the administration." Mannocchi pointed to peer institutions who do have successful productionbased film classes.
For Manchanda, producing documentaries-- both on her own and through the class--has been an incredible learning experience. "I think it's a really effective way of communicating...more effective than writing a paper...for me, it's how I learn," she said. As a liberal arts institution, the College "should invest in a production-based film studies program" because film is "an effective way to communicate ideas," she said. "I think Colby's missing something if people don't know how to express themselves in ways other than a paper."
This year's five documentaries will be shown on May 9 in Given Auditorium. Both students and Professor Mannocchi are excited to show the fruits of their labor to the community.