Personal Essay Filmmaking, Round 2

This is a whirlwind summer class, I’ll tell you what. We’re now officially half-way through the course, and we’re having a number of realizations about the complex product that we’re asking students to create in a 2 week period.

Perhaps one of the more curious elements of this course is the way in which it was conceived: when we first got the itch to teach it, we were thinking about how someone with some background in film studies and filmmaking and someone with expertise in writing and the personal essay could pool their knowledge to guide a class through making a personal essay film. It stands to reason, of course, that a team-taught approach would engender rich projects.

What I think we hoped for, and are now only starting to see in concrete form, are all of the ways in which these two genres (film and writing) intersect, propel, and complicate each other. There are any number of points to elaborate on here, but let’s stick to the most burning one. Question of the week: does the visual work as a process?

Like any good writing professor, my colleague will tell you that writing is a process for thinking. By guiding students through a number of experiments and prompts, we teach people how to use writing to enrich their thinking about a topic, an argument, an idea. In teaching students to make films, I’ve always intuitively asked them to use visual images (still or moving) in the same way. How can a particular shot, a leitmotif, a editing effect help you think about the narrative arc of your film?

But is this really the same thing? Do our brains work with images in ways that they work with writing? More than “does the visual work as a process” the better question is “how might the visual work as a process?”  Right now, we’ve been talking with the students about the ways in which particular scenes in personal essay films work with abstract images.  Our constant callback is a scene from Ozeki’s documentary, in which she tells a story about her grandmother returning to Japan from Hawaii, thinking that she has a stomach tumor, only to find out later that she’s pregnant.  On the screen is extended black and white footage of a bird in a cage.  What’s the relationship, we ask, between the image and the story?  Does it represent it in some way?  Does it have an ironic relationship to it?  How does it evoke a tone?

It’s a significant jump from analysis of that scene to creation and implementation of your own abstract  images in film, however.  How does one locate such an image?  Then, how do you film it?  Then, how do you edit, juxtapose it with other images, add sound or narration?

These kinds of questions, it seems to me, highlight the ways in which filmmaking becomes a significant synthetic process that combines multimodal reading, analysis, and application.  The trick, however, is how to help students make the move from analysis to application.  A move, I hear, that is much like one lauded in writing courses.

More notes from the field to come.

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