The overall value of higher education

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In his Nov. 23 Sunday Opinion commentary, “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” Peter Thiel set up several straw-man rationales for the value of higher education. Each of these was based in a purely market-based philosophy: Perhaps education is an investment in one’s future career; or maybe it is about consumption, or a competition of sorts. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Thiel then took down each one of these straw men, thus questioning the ultimate value of higher education and the president’s assertion that it is of value for all Americans.

Mr. Thiel failed to consider that there are other reasons for higher education, particularly in a democracy. Especially in the liberal arts tradition, education is not thought of exclusively as job preparation. The core skills and values of independent thought, critical thinking, research and analysis are applicable to citizens in ways that transcend career or economics. Human beings ought to be not only economic decision-makers but also citizens in an active polity and contributors to a vibrant culture.

To the extent that Mr. Thiel is suggesting that higher education does not always live up to these ideals, I agree. To the presumption that it should be evaluated solely on economic utility, I disagree wholeheartedly.

(published in The Washington Post.)

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Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga

I watch a lot of documentaries. In fact, I first saw Virunga at Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America. I was there just to watch documentaries and I probably saw 20 in that week alone. In all of that documentary-watching, Virunga — named for the Congolese national park that is its subject — still stands out as a uniquely compelling film.

I also teach non-fiction filmmaking, and there are certain issues that persist in the eternal discussion of what makes a great documentary (and what are the limits of what can rightly be called a documentary at all). Do we judge a documentary primarily by its cinematic qualities or its political saliency? Is it more important to innovate the form or to impact social action? Any way you look at it, this film about the plight of the last surviving population of mountain gorillas, imperiled by endemic warfare and Big Oil, gets high marks.

In cinematic terms, Virunga plays more like a fiction film — an action thriller, really — than any documentary I can remember. It is an emotional roller-coaster akin not so much to Harlan County, USA as to The Bourne Identity. At Hot Docs, I was sitting next to documentary film critic Tom Roston, who later ranked Virunga his #1 film at the festival. Seeing it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on a giant screen with perfect projection and sound was truly a treat, even for a seasoned doc-head.

As far as innovation is concerned, what’s unique in my experience is the way Virungaachieves its narrative engagement through a mixture of genres. The first part of the film is influenced primarily by the natural-history tradition of filmmaking. Even well-worn visual themes (gorillas, mist, mountains) become sumptuous when rendered for the big screen as expertly as they are here. Yes, there are familiar tropes at work in the film, romantic and humanist notions about nature, and anthropomorphizing narrative structures. However, when the actuality merits the long aerial shots and expressive close-ups of endangered primates, we are enchanted.

This enchantment is not put to the expected uses by Virunga, and this is the real magic of the film. Just as we are getting comfortable with these familiar archetypes and rhythms, Virunga changes the script. A tense military situation is developing nearby. Unusually for a natural history piece, soon we are meeting new characters, learning about troop movements and front lines. As the tension builds, we realize that this conflict is not merely a vague context for a warm and fuzzy story of gorillas and park rangers, but a major part of this film. When we return to scenes in the park, the stakes have risen dramatically.

It’s a pleasing hybrid, but just as we begin to feel we have Virunga all figured out, another style and genre are introduced. The British oil company SOCO International is irresponsibly exploring for oil. Corruption is afoot. Another new character, freelance reporter Mélanie Gouby, is on the inside of this story, potentially at her own peril. With an investigative style that now includes tense hidden-camera footage, the mode of documentary filmmaking has again completely shifted.

It sounds like this shouldn’t work, but it does. These stories are woven together like a tightly plotted novel, informing and converging as the film unfolds. Perhaps it works too well. This was Tom Roston’s initial comment to me as we walked out off the theater. He picks up on the theme in his piece: “This is not a typical film for the doc crowd. It’s a movie for the mainstream. But that very well may be its greatest flaw. The doc audience could be thrown by the slickness of Virunga, and its Hollywood-style storytelling. […] I loved it. I’m a doc-lover with a mainstream sensibility.”

I’m a doc-lover with a formal sensibility, and I loved it too. However, to judge from the awards discussion and the comments of some peers (mainly filmmakers and academics), Tom was not incorrect. Many found the combination of styles jarring or the storytelling too pat. While I can see those criticisms, I didn’t see them on my first viewing, when I was completely enthralled.

We can continue to argue Virunga’s contribution to the documentary form, but we must also acknowledge that it delivers on a different set of goals around awareness and agency. As much as this film plays like a Hollywood blockbuster, it is also an activist film to its core, with a clear cause and a loud call to action.

It is a common critique of documentary criticism that it focuses on content to the exclusion of form. While this may be true, what we should strive for is balance. The importance of a topic or message does matter to the overall quality of a documentary film. A talented and sensitive filmmaker can uncover this import even with a subject that may seem mundane on its surface. The subject of Virunga, however, is epic. The mixture of genres, heavily molded into a dramatic narrative package, delivers on a central moral message that cannot be missed. If we, as humans, allow this archetypal example of natural beauty and renewable value to fall victim to the forces of greed and corruption, is anything safe?

It is a powerful message, but can a film make a difference? This is yet another way that we tend to judge documentaries nowadays. The creators of Virunga do indeed encourage viewers to get involved and provide tools on their own website. There’s little doubt that, as with Blackfish, The Cove and many others before them, the powerful interests indicted in Virunga will challenge the veracity of the claims made by the film. This in itself can be seen as progress towards holding these interests accountable.

Can Virgunga National Park be saved? On that question, only time can tell. I am of the school of thought that believes the supposed divide between art and impact in documentary is a false dichotomy (hat tip, Cara Mertes). If a film is going to change minds or prompt action, it must first grab our attention with great storytelling about a topic that really matters. For starters, Virunga is all that.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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Playback: Jeff Malmberg’s ‘Marwencol’

Midway through Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. My chin was in my hand and my mouth was slightly open. Also, I actually realized it. There was a moment during the film when I consciously thought, “How did I get in this position?” This film had hypnotized me.

That was SilverDocs 2010. I was privileged enough to be at the film festival just to watch films. I spent a lot of that year going to festivals to study and prepare to cut my first feature doc. I’d been to school for documentary and I had the support of the university where I teach production. I was in a very analytical, diagnostic mode, trying to understand filmmakers’ choices and how each film worked with an audience.

I’m accustomed to understanding a film in terms of structure and methodology on the first viewing. Marwencol, the story of Mark Hogancamp seeking recovery from a brutal attack through creating a miniature World War II town in his back yard, had cast a spell on me. At least in that first viewing, I had no idea how it worked—and that drove me crazy. As soon as it was available on home video, I watched it repeatedly to understand its structure and get a handle on its deftness.

Marwencol is a film about many things: traumatic brain injury, coping, art and the human condition. That day, it reminded me of just how captivating a well-made doc can be. Catching myself on the edge of my chair was inspiring. It didn’t remind me of why I want to make movies; it reminded me why I like watching them.

When I go to screenings of my film now, I look for that body language in the audience: the leaning forward, the open mouths. I especially like to see peoples’ hands touching their faces. I want to see that my film has reached them. It’s not an intellectual thing, but a physical-emotional one. The discussion, the questioning of facts, the unpacking of issues and meaning—those things will come later.

Marwencol reminded me that a documentary can make you forget where you are for a moment and allow yourself to be present in the world of the film. A great documentary doesn’t just explain an issue or even tell a story; it transports us. I suppose that is the appeal of most movies—to live in a different world for a couple hours. Too often, however, this power is employed solely for escapism.

Just as a great documentary can transport us, it can also transform us. Marwencol seems to be saying that we all create models of the world, at least in our own minds. At the beginning of the film, Mark’s model world is private. During the course of the film, he shares it and in doing so is transformed. Like Mark Hogancamp’s miniature world, a great documentary is not just a way out, but also a way through.

(published in Documentary Magazine.)

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A film about childhood

Michael Moses Ward, age 13.

Michael Moses Ward, age 13.

When I think about it, Let the Fire Burn has always been about childhood. I was an eleven-year-old growing up in Philadelphia when the fire happened.

Childhood—for those of us lucky enough to have one—is really all about your parents sheltering you and protecting you. In order to better protect you, they tell a little white lie. The nature of that lie is that it’s all going to be okay, that the world is a fair place, that if you do good and play by the rules, everything will turn out alright.

So, childhood has an expiration date. There is a point in everyone’s life—often a traumatic event—when the bubble created by that white lie bursts. There is a moment when we all realize the harsh truth: the world is not a fair place.

At eleven, the events of May 13, 1985, scared me. It was impossible to avoid the images on TV, the smoke on the skyline, the tension everywhere. As a child, I was unprepared with the ready-made frames that adults use to help explain and thus emotionally negotiate public tragedies—and this was tragedy, destruction, and injustice on an epic scale. It happened in the place where I lived, and it was perpetrated on children. As a child, I could not comfortably put this event in a box and label it as an example of racism, or police brutality, or even war. In my childhood bubble, I did not yet have a context for these things. However, I knew intrinsically that the children were not to blame and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.

The world is not a fair place.

I think that art is all about making something out of the things that really bother us, frighten us, upset us, make us mad, make us sad…. Rationally, we know that we cannot fix these things. A movie is not going to fundamentally change the nature of reality. But art is not rational. We have an overwhelming need to understand. So we tell stories, paint pictures, and make films to digest, to grapple, and to remember.

A film cannot bring justice to the deaths of eleven people, but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.

* * *

In memory of Michael Moses Ward 1971–2013.

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Hot Docs: The Fest

What a great festival, what a great city. My eyes have been opened to a new level of urban coolness and engagement with documentary. I mean, this place has the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – a gigantic year-round all-doc theater. On the last day of the festival, there was a line around the block to pack the place on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema - a year-round docs-only theater (photo from http://www.hotdocs.ca/)

AND there is the TIFF Lightbox. This is like an art house and a Cineplex had a kid, then fed it steroids, and then sent it to boarding school at MoMA. When they are not hosting film festivals, they are doing stuff like this.

The University Toronto is like a city unto itself and the interplay of old and new architecture here is endlessly entertaining. In general, I found the mixtures and juxtapositions of this city extremely endearing. On the last Saturday of the film festival, there was a giant pot festival in Queen’s Park. Hundreds upon hundreds of tokers, puffing away with alacrity. On Sunday, in the exact same place, dozens of bagpipe players were honoring a fallen police officer in an intricate memorial ceremony.

I got to really spend some time in all parts of the festival, pitching at the forum, and hanging around to catch a bunch of films and parties, talking with a lot of filmmakers and delegates. It was a great show. Bravo to Programmer Charlotte Cook, who programmed her first festival and wrote a great piece about it, Forum Director Elizabeth Radshaw, who made the impossible look effortless, and everyone who helped put on this extraordinary festival.

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