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The Limitations and Breakthroughs of Teaching Filmmaking Over Zoom

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I teach documentary filmmaking at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at Mizzou. One basic lesson about filming interviews is that you should try to place your subject in an environment where they feel comfortable. Filming someone in their own home is common; it’s relaxing, and people can be themselves. When Yance Ford switches on his camera to talk to my class over Zoom, he’s in what looks like his home office, but it could be a bedroom. I don’t ask. The Oscar-nominated director of Strong Island is wearing a T-shirt and clearly feeling chill.

Holding classes over Zoom has become a necessity in a pandemic. We used to fly in visiting artists, and it was a real loss when all that was cancelled. The now-ubiquitous Zoom image is draining for students and professors alike. But I’ve had Yance talk to my students many times, and this is the best class we’ve done. The insights flow freely. He holds his face close to the camera, not unlike the signature image of Strong Island. He discusses the mechanics of that close-up interview technique that helps give the movie its unique intensity. Thousands of miles away, my students lean forward to watch their own screens. Something potent happens when he maneuvers his face into the exact same angle and distance from the camera as in his film. “Like this,” he says. And I can see them get it.

From Strong Island (2017), dir. Yance Ford (image courtesy Netflix)

Any image can be made into a movie, but there’s something different about Zoom. Skype, FaceTime, and other videoconferencing tools have always held the faintest scent of cinema, but Zoom doesn’t feel quite like them — there’s its sudden omnipresence, its particular image quality, its ease of use, the way we’ve all learned lighting techniques (or not), its frame, the quiet desperation on both ends of the line, etc. The circumstances of use its have made us all think about the image in a way that feels almost like filmmaking. Our homes are now stages, and we learn a lot about each other based on where and how we film ourselves. Small performances and self-projected fantasies often make for great nonfiction cinema. In the before-times, we were more selective about when to turn on our video images. Now we all live on camera, so we might as well become decent documentarians.

Maybe we’re also getting more interested in reading images. Think about how carefully you’ll study the bookshelves and décor behind the person you Zoom with, looking for clues. Remember the brief national fixation with Barack Obama’s bare bookshelves? As the late great documentary editor Jonathan Oppenheim said, interview is behavior, and the frame reveals personality.

Early in the pandemic, Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Damon Smith released a Zoom-based installment of their series Room H.264, and it showed the possibilities of this now nearly universal visual language. The frame is locked, the silence of thinking is magnified, and the unfeeling camera creates a flat canvas from which mise-en-scène pops forward. It’s all stasis and energy, like some of my favorite films. Every day, across the world, we’re all imitating Chantal Akerman.

When things broke in March, I wasn’t so happy when I realized that virtually all my teaching would be virtual. Still, no expenditures for travel means lower costs and more guests for the students — an unspoken lesson in budget filmmaking. Many of my students are young filmmakers. Getting together and watching films in class is crucial. Since young people are now so accustomed to watching movies on laptops and tablets, I cringed at the thought of adding to their small-screen time while losing the comradery and magic of in-person group screenings. This was no way to watch movies together. Early in the semester, though, the immediacy of the Zoom interview (as opposed to the oft-stilted energy of an in-class visit) became clear. Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Film Festival, seemed really comfortable talking to us in medium close-up from her home in our first chat of the Fall. Tabitha is a friend and eminently approachable, but for students who sometimes view their dreams as distant and abstract, humanizing one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the business was affecting. It was one of the light-switched-on moments I crave as both a teacher and a filmmaker — the kind of connection cinema forges.

Later we chatted with Hale County This Morning, This Evening director RaMell Ross, and he was even closer to the camera. Filmmakers invented this kind of close-up for good reason. The charge of RaMell creating such a mighty image of himself to talk about his own mighty images was palpable. There was value in seeing Brandy Burre, the lead of my film Actress, Zooming in from the same room where a crucial scene took place, now years later after her life has changed significantly. There was a subtle tension when Steve James got up from his desk to put away his dog, leaving the frame for us to study, before returning to talk about the triumphs and regrets of his work since Hoop Dreams, which he said paid for his house. There was a crackling energy when Garrett Bradley Zoomed in from a closet at MoMA, where she was in the process of both promoting her brilliant film Time and installing her groundbreaking exhibition. “Don’t try to be a genius,” she told the wide-eyed students, “Do it and be a good person.”

A scene from Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), dir. RaMell Ross (image courtesy IDIOM Film)

At its best, documentary is cinema in the present tense, though its images are filmed in the past; the sense of happening is a construction. But when Turner Ross gets up from his seat next to his brother Bill during Zoom class to walk his laptop over to a wall of images which he says are inspiring their new film, that’s happening, and it’s a revelation. And the students experienced this moment in the same frame through which they watched the brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. This feels like a breakthrough, teaching filmmaking directly with filmmaking.

Now we’re at the end of this semester, at the end of a never-ending year. I’m exhausted, and so are my students. Our eyes have been melted by virtual everything, our brains rewired, and we don’t know when we’ll be in class together again. In the middle of an ongoing pandemic, with US democracy on life support, this exhaustion is the tiniest of tragedies. But reflecting back on these Zoom conversations and the little one-shot movies we inadvertently made with so many amazing filmmakers, I can’t help but feel that maybe some of the fatigue is the sweet kind, like after a good movie. I’ve learned a lot as a teacher, and when this all passes, I’m going to keep exploring the possibilities of teaching image-making through images of the makers.

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