The veterans’ stories were riveting. The war footage was harrowing. And the discussion on pedagogy was really interesting.
Students in a course on making historical documentaries, taught by History Prof. Chad Montrie in collaboration with Dr. Mitchell Shuldman of Media Services, showed their completed projects to fellow students, visitors and two of the film subjects themselves.
The challenge was to profile the experience of an American war veteran. Alternatively, the two-student teams could track the experience of a UMass Lowell student involved in the Village Empowerment project in Peru.
Think it’s easy? Not exactly.
Lining Up the Subject Interview
Michael Casey is a published poet and Vietnam veteran, whose powerful writings interested two students. Convincing him to be profiled was another matter.
“We had to conduct two pre-interviews with Michael to establish the project’s validity – that we would treat him seriously and with respect,” said Jonathan Treibick, senior majoring in philosophy, with teammate Brandon Vaccaro.
Kosovo veteran John Berrini was in a class with Mario Marchesi, senior history major, where they got to know each other. Marchesi and Michael McMahon, junior in English, made the film. And Vietnam Marine Corps veteran David Tierney willingly described his experiences and injuries to two different student teams, yet the resulting profiles are distinctive.
Working with a student subject on campus was even more difficult. The students had school, research and work commitments, or their schedules conflicted.
Oh, the Rough, Rough Cut!
Several students made a similar point about the process of shaping a documentary: What you, the audience, see on the screen is not what we, the filmmakers, heard in the interview.
“There’s a real element of craft in dealing with a primary resource,” said Treibick. “We had to come up with a theme, a way of organizing the material with a point of view. … The process elevates what’s normal to something much better.”
“Seeing the rough cut and getting to a finished version takes an unbelievable amount of coordinated effort,” said Andrew Tisei, junior majoring in criminal justice and history. “The time management seems more realistic and satisfying in a way that reflects real work experience.”
The Angst of Public Screening
Putting your work out there for your classmates – all the people who have been learning the very same material – seems a lot more stressful than turning in a paper to your professor for a private reading.
But, as different from essay writing as documentary filmmaking can be, some students found themselves becoming better, more critical, writers.
“Making the documentary was about how to cut away what’s boring,” said Treibick. “When I look at my written work, I think, ‘This part must be really irritating to my professor to read,’ so I cut it out. Maybe it doesn’t reach the word count, but it’s a better piece.”
Check out a playlist
of some of the student videos.