Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: documentary Page 1 of 2

The New Americans – Photo Portraits

How do you capture a person’s essence in just a few key moments? At best, it’s a difficult assignment, but two photographers, Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, were determined to try. Last year they traveled America to create photo portraits of everyday Americans.

Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, from the Adobe Create Magazine site

They weren’t looking to make social commentary or show people struggling with life’s misfortunes. Rather, hoping for inspiration and uplift, they searched for Americans who had found a way to steer their lives in a positive direction. It was their stories Zach and Elle wanted to tell.

A Portrait of Today’s Americans

Elle, from the 100cameras.org site:

With all the bad news we see on a daily basis, Zach and I began wondering what a portrait of America actually looks like today. We wanted the good news to be just as public as the bad. It was partly an investigation to find the good, hoping it was just as prevalent, as well as a chance to travel the country for 2 months, exploring and celebrating the landscape.

The results, 20 photo essays with audio interviews, were featured in Adobe Create Magazine as The New Americans. Here’s one:

Diana, Navigating Risks

Or click here for Diana’s video.

Zach comments:

Diana said that one of the most important things that rock climbing has taught her is how to fail. She has learned how to take on challenges and when to quit them. But, by quitting them she isn’t giving up. Every climb will teach you what you can and cannot do. Climbing shows you what you’re made of and what you have to learn. Even more importantly, though, learning how to take risks while climbing has taught her how to take risks in life too.

Following Robert Frank’s Photo Journey

Zach and Elle’s photo and audio portraits were inspired by a similar journey taken 60 years ago by renown photographer Robert Frank. A Swiss immigrant, Frank traversed the country with his outsider’s eye, capturing America’s contradictions and re-defining documentary photography with his acclaimed photo portraits, The Americans.

Zach and Elle, from their site:

Dozens of our friends connected us to people they were inspired by. We left our home in San Francisco to embark on a 6-week road trip around the United States to meet these inspiring Americans in person. Our goal was to do what media often doesn’t do: To share stories that are simple, yet inspiring. And to tell them in an honest way.”

Zai, Fabricating Her Art

Or click here for Zai’s video.

From Zai’s site:

Elektra Steel produces bold, mosaic wall hangings. The company is run by designer and metalworker Zai Divecha, a Bay Area native and Yale graduate who learned to weld at age 14. Her specialty is TIG welding, a type of arc welding that’s known for its precision, control, and flexibility.

From Zai’s site:

“Glitch”    Materials: stainless steel, hot-rolled mild steel, steel flatbar, plywood  48″x 24″

A Few Words About Process

Elle, from the Adobe Create site:

We arrived not knowing any of these people, and then we’d spend two days with them in their home, with their families—so it was very immersive in that way. We tried not to have any strict roles, so we could stay as open as possible to the story and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Zach, from the 100 cameras site:

Sharing any work you create means that you have to be vulnerable. You are sharing a part of yourself, a part of your soul. Even though we tried to share people’s stories in pure form, who we are as artists surrounds the work itself…

Lillian, From Lawyer to Rancher

Or click here for Lillian’s video.

Zach comments on Lillian’s story:

Max, known as the last original cowboy by most of the locals, introduced Lillian to most of Pony’s longtime residents. We had a chance to meet some of their friends at the only bar in town that night. After hanging out with everyone inside it was easy to see why Lillian had always wanted to move here.

Robert Frank, Capturing America in the 1950s

In his seminal work, The Americans, Robert Frank uncovered a darker, more alienated vision of America.

“Canal Street – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Many of his portraits evoke the space that separated us, one from the other.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee” by Robert Frank

“Charleston, South Carolina” by Robert Frank

Perhaps his most famous portrait also graces the cover of The Americans. It captured a vision of the segregated South, encapsulated in the windows of a New Orleans trolley.

“Trolley – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Telling Stories

Frank shot dozens of images for each one that made it into his book. The photographs he chose evoke a vanished dream, forlorn hope or whispered secret that belied the rosy picture of life in America after WWII. In every case, Frank let the picture tell the story.

Zach and Elle’s work doesn’t rise to that level of complexity. Still, their stories give us a glimpse of people searching for something better – a more meaningful way to spend their days.

Frank’s imagery is lyrical but stark – exploring the underbelly of a different era in America. Zach and Elle paint romantic, optimistic portraits – one person finds their challenge in climbing, another in art, another leaves a lucrative but deadening existence for the natural beauty and warmth of community in rural Montana.

The last video I’d like to share features a couple who’ve discovered an intimacy with nature and each other. They’ve broadened their horizons by living in a very small space. It’s one of life’s contradictions – that by leaving the comfort and security of the familiar, we may find romance, adventure and a sense of fulfillment by traversing the unknown.

Greg and Kathleen’s Small Pleasures

I’ll let Zach introduce their photo portrait of Greg and Kathleen.

Zach:

What began as a simple idea turned into a reality when they moved out of their apartment and into the newly bought camper RV. The smallness was actually a joy for them. Having also lived in a tiny home for a year I can definitely say that there is something about the struggle of living in a tiny space that makes life more interesting and delightful.

Or click here for Greg and Kathleen’s video.

Kathleen has a blog that explores the living-in-a-van lifestyle. On her site, I found this enticing photo essay, reminding me of a delicious summer long ago spent traveling across America.

After watching these portraits of new Americans, I feel like I’ve met some people I’d like to know better. As for Zach and Elle, they plan to embark on another New Americans photo journey this December.

What is your take on the videos? Are these life-changing journeys only possible for the young or young at heart? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Summer’s Choice: Chasing the Ghost of the American Dream

When we meet Summer Jordan in the short video, Summer’s Choice, she’s a high school senior facing a terrible dilemma.

summerplugsears

Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

Her father’s dead, mother lost to drugs, so Summer lives with her ailing grandmother in a small California desert town. She’s a talented artist but her grandmother’s health and finances are failing and Summer feels guilty about leaving to pursue her dream of attending art school.

summereyes

Summer Jordan, from “Summer’s Choice”

It’s often said that education can offer a path out of poverty, but poverty pushes kids to drop out even before they finish high school. That dilemma is at the core of the video Summer’s Choice, created by two talented filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

toronto-film-scene-site

Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton, from the Toronto Film Scene site

From the Toronto Film Scene site:

Keith Fulton: It’s almost impossible for these kids to change their situation. They don’t have any money. They don’t have any emotional support. They don’t have stable places to live and places to get a meal. These problems make it hard to make school a priority for them.

Lou Pepe: There’s a strong sense with these kids that by the time they turned 18, they’ve witnessed and dealt with problems most Americans will never experience.

summersnails

Summer’s hands, from “Summer’s Choice”

The filmmakers, writing on the NYT Op-Docs site:

We take kids who can’t seem to stay on track and write them off, dismissing them with summary labels. It’s simpler that way — if we know what they are, we don’t really have to think about why. So more often than not, the roots of a “bad kid’s” difficulties are left unexplored, as they would most likely force us to look at histories of abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction or possibly even that huge unspoken problem that plagues our public education system: intractable, generational poverty.

The Video


If the video does not appear, click here.

Summer’s Choice was part of a larger documentary project by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

The Bad Kids

f8fb63cb-4503-4333-a89e-b7a5fddaa381

from “The Bad Kids”

Their feature documentary, The Bad Kids, is an intimate portrait of several students from Summer’s high school and the adults who try to help them turn their lives around. I haven’t seen The Bad Kids, but given the strength of Summer’s Choice, it’s bound to be an emotionally powerful documentary.

ion-cinema-site

from the ion cinema site

Here’s what the filmmakers have to say about how they collaborated on location, from an interview in Filmmakers Magazine

Pepe: Keith picked up the boom and mixer and did all of the sound recording, so we worked as a two-person camera/sound team. The advantage of this was that while I would be in-the-moment with the drama unfolding in front of the camera, Keith was always able to tip me off to the action happening behind me. Keith has a strong editorial eye, so he’s always whispering to me to grab the shot that he knows I haven’t noticed yet but that we’ll need in the editing room.

Every day in the course of 120 shooting days, for at least a few minutes, I would set off alone in search of “poetry.” A lot of times, I would come back empty-handed, but on some occasions, I would capture precious moments that gave a really intimate view of our subjects’ lives: a student trying his best to stay awake but falling asleep during class… a couple making out in a corner of the hallway… a boy staring at himself in the hallway mirror… a silent hug of comfort between two friends.

My thoughts on Summer’s Choice

nyt-photo

photo from NYT site

Summer’s Choice is beautifully realized, with quiet insights and great photography. The filmmakers’ compassionate, watchful eye makes Summer’s dilemma all the more immediate. The cinema verite style helps create an intimate portrait of a young person on the edge, yet with her inner strength and resilience, it has a hopeful, positive sensibility. Youth is often optimistic, but as adults, we can see how the cards are stacked against kids like Summer. You want her to beat the odds, but will she?

If nothing else, documentaries like this show how the American Dream has become more of a phantom for many of our fellow Americans. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

 

 

 

Home as a Vessel of Memory

What can we learn from the artifacts of a life left behind? If walls could speak – what would they tell us?

roderick_5

from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Perhaps every dwelling has a story to tell – but a memoir about an ancient Japanese farmhouse, and the American journalist and his Japanese friend who transformed it into a living symbol of craftsmanship and culture, captivated the imagination of filmmaker Davina Pardo – just as her short documentary, Minka, captured mine.

Minka

minka_davina_pardoGlobalOnenessProject_photo

Davina Pardo from the Global Oneness Project site

 

Davina Pardo:

I was intrigued by the idea of telling a person’s story through their home, and of this particular house as a vessel of memory.

Minka-Roderick-Cover

Minka was inspired by this book, written by American journalist John Roderick, who had a celebrated career with the Associated Press reporting on evolving political and cultural changes in China and Japan, following WWII. Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, chronicles Roderick’s later years living in his adopted homeland, Japan, and the simple but elegant home constructed for him by his friend, Yoshihiro Takashita.

roderick_7

from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick reported for the AP over five decades. Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive noted:

John was equal part lion and bon vivant. The result was a courageous reporter, elegant writer and marvelous storyteller.

The AP honored him with the rare title of Special Correspondent. His reporting helped shape American opinion on China. Still, with all his accomplishments as a journalist, he lived a challenging and rootless existence.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946. From the Sydney Morning Herald

 

Roderick:

In thirty years as an AP reporter and foreign correspondent, I owned nothing of real value and didn’t want to… Mine had been… a carefree, rootless, vagabond life.

After years of that “vagabond life,” he found himself longing for something missing – a sense of belonging and a place he could call home. He would find both in the land he once hated – Japan.

John Roderick’s Early Days

John Roderick was born at the start of WWI in rural Waterville, Maine, and orphaned at 16. He wrote for his high school and college papers and joined the Associated Press in 1937. Four years later, in “a day which will live in infamy,” Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. War was declared and Japan became a hated enemy.

Roderick:

A mixture of fact, fiction and propaganda… persuaded me, and millions of other Americans, that Japan was evil and the Japanese were monsters, buck-toothed, near-sighted, slow-witted, and cruel.

John joined the army and was sent to Yale to learn Japanese as an interpreter. The Office of Strategic Services recruited him and sent him to China. At the war’s end, John rejoined the AP and flew to Yan’an, the besieged capital of the Chinese communists, to cover Mao Tse-tung and his revolutionaries in their fight to take over China.

ap file 1946 with Mao Zedong

AP file photo of John Roderick with Mao Zedong

For seven months, Roderick lived in a cave alongside Mao and other Chinese communists leaders as they plotted to wrest power from the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai-shek. Roderick at first admired Mao and chronicled his rise. Later, he reported on the Chinese leader “turning from agrarian idealist to dictatorial tyrant.” For many in the West, it was Roderick’s journalism that helped part the bamboo curtain surrounding Chairman Mao and communist China.

0013729e4a9d0880dd6513

AP photo Roderick in China

Roderick also covered the Partition of Palestine and early days of Israeli independence, and reported on the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu that seized control of Viet Nam from the  French. Often he found himself witness to a clash of cultures and ideology. Perhaps life in China would someday offer the opportunity for a more peaceful, reflective life.

Roderick:

I loved the Chinese and their culture so much I planned to end my career and retire in Beijing. When I lived there in 1947, it was a sleepy, dusty city of scholars, philosophers, and unfocused dreamers. I felt I had the qualifications—it didn’t take much— to become one of those dreamers.

Roderick and Japan

Then, in 1959, the AP sent him to report on Japan’s re-emergence as one of the world’s superpowers. Arriving in Japan, he began to see a former enemy with new eyes.

RoderickJohn

Japan Times photo

Roderick:

“I expected to find the city peopled with the cruel and unattractive stereotypes of wartime propaganda… After years of hating the Japanese, I suddenly found them attractive, intelligent and enthusiastic about democracy and its freedoms… I was willing to stop thinking of the Japanese as enemies and tentatively consider recognizing them as friends.”

01

from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Among his newfound Japanese friends, Roderick became close with a young man, Yoshihiro Takishita (Yochan), who shared a similar rural upbringing and nostalgia for a simpler time.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.37.20 PM

Yoshihiro Takashita (Yochan), from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick:

Yochan was not an ordinary young man. For one thing he had an American sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a disdain for conventions. His relationship to his parents, and to me, could be described as affectionate, leavened with a large dose of bantering.

As their friendship grew, Yoshihiro’s family also befriended John and even found him a home – a 250-year-old hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof held together by wooden pegs and joinery.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.38.54 PM

from the Minka site

It was located in a distant hamlet, about to be abandoned and washed away by flooding. With Yoshihiro’s encouragement, and not wanting to disappoint the Takashita family, Roderick said “yes” to the farmhouse and the price of 5,000 yen.

Roderick:

5,000 yen in those days was the equivalent of fourteen U.S. dollars. I could hardly believe my ears. Hate it though I did, and though I didn’t want it at any price, I recognized that this drafty but magnificent old house was worth considerably more than that.

Roderick’s Minka Home

Minka_house

Roderick’s minka was built in 1734, photo from the Minka site

From a review of Roderick’s book:

Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years.

But Roderick’s reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him.

roderick_6

from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.

roderick_2

from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

From these humble beginnings, Roderick’s minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Yoshihiro Takashita

Craig Mod 2

Yoshihiro Takashita photo by Craig Mod

Yoshihiro took charge of reconstructing the minka.

Yoshihiro:

I was an amateur, but I knew it had been done in Japan before, many times. Those old houses were built by carpenters who were really architects as well as craftsmen.

A few years after the minka was built, Yoshihiro married and, encouraged by John, developed a successful business in Japanese antiques. He became a leading architect in reconstructing Japanese farmhouses and eventually rebuilt over forty minkas, including elaborate projects in Argentina and Hawaii.

Yoshihiro:

My kind of Japanese minka farmhouse is a shrine… All I know is that there is some kind of mystery of the space of these houses that gives a kind of healing power. It’s very comforting.

The Japanese government honored Roderick with its Order of the Sacred Treasure. In his later years, he adopted Yochan to insure their minka would be passed on to him when John died.

Roderick

from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick, thinking back on his relationship with Yochan and his family, wrote:

It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than forty years. The Takishitas have become my surrogate family, Yochan my adopted son. Because of them, our lives have changed and my long journey to Japan, which began in unreasoning hatred, has turned to love.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.39.09 PM

from the Minka site

minka-interior

from the Minka site

Davina Pardo’s Film, Minka

As Roderick’s health declined, Davina Pardo flew to Japan, hoping to capture his story, but John passed away a few days before she arrived. It fell to Yochan to tell the story of his friend and adopted father, John Roderick, and his beloved minka home.

minka_davina_pardoGlobalOnenessProject_photoDavina Pardo:

“We had always thought of it as a film about memory, but the tone changed; it became more of an elegy to John and a story about loss. Otherwise, our sense of the house as a metaphor for a relationship stayed consistent.”

 

 

Here’s the film. It runs 15 minutes, so find a quiet time to watch.

I love the gentle pace and sensibility of this video, the moments of stillness and the use of natural sound. The imagery too, evokes the simple beauty of the minka as Yochan, with a gentle dignity, tells us John’s story and the story of their home. There’s sadness there, a sense of loss and the memory of joyful times, too. More so, as narrator Yochan brings a sense of distance and respect that gives the piece an elegaic quality.

I think the minka and friendship with Yochan and his family finally gave John a sense of belonging and served as a relief to the hurly burly of life as a foreign correspondent.

When I first saw this film, I felt like I was being welcomed into a space that sheltered an extraordinary friendship. John Roderick came to Japan with a certain trepidation and found instead a sense of place, a home and something deeper… love.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 2.14.53 PM

from the Japan Times

Roderick:

I saw that the backbone and resolve of Japan lay… in the enduring values of the villages: hard work, communal spirit, fatalism, love and respect for nature, superstition, religious fervor, and a refusal to admit defeat no matter what the odds they face.

 

I hope you enjoyed the video and this post. Please send me your comments and share your thoughts. And thanks for reading.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.36.17 PM

a view from their minka, from the Minka site

 

 

 

 

Keep It Real: Video and Documentary

Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject

We the Economy is a series of 20 web videos on the economy covering everything from globalism to navigating supply and demand curves. The series is a pastiche of approaches transforming dry information into something at once witty, informative and fun – some pieces are excellent examples of how a video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.

In a series of five posts, TheVisionThing will critique the most successful programs to show how filmmakers fashion work that is a once provocative, informative and stimulating. The first post explores using actors, the second animation, the third using a host and this one looks at documentaries.

Miao Wang’s Powerful Documentary

I was so surprised by this documentary on globalism I had to watch it a second time just to absorb all it had to say.

Ep. 17: MADE BY CHINA IN AMERICA | Miao Wang from We The Economy on Vimeo.

Documentary filmmaker Miao Wang was born and raised in Beijing and works in New York. Her film Made by China in America clearly shows that the key to making a powerful documentary is a good story well told.

From the We the Economy website:

miaowang_page22nyc website

Miao Wang, photo from page22nyc website

When I was first approached to create a short film on the monster-sized, complex global topic of explaining China’s economic boom, trade, and its impact on the U.S. economy – I had a flashback to the intensity of cramming for exams at the University of Chicago, where I graduated with a BA in economics. I couldn’t say no to this challenge – a project that aptly combines my background in economics and film.

Exploding Expectations

Miao Wang’s video starts out as a typical bad news documentary. You meet a range of South Carolinians who were once involved in the area’s booming textile industry. They walk through abandoned factories and speak about broken dreams.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.38.09 PM

Frame grab from Made by China in America

With this approach, you expect the rest of the documentary will focus on the devastation caused by the loss of American jobs migrating overseas. Just as you settle back to hear that very familiar story the documentary takes a sharp turn and shows a growing Chinese investment in American workers and businesses. You learn why it makes sense for China to build factories here and how they’ve reshaped the local landscape by bringing back jobs, rebuilding lives and reinvigorating the American Dream. It’s an amazing story and one rarely if ever reported.

What Works and Why

Miao Wang structures her piece very effectively, setting up your expectations for one story and then making a turn towards a better one. Her graphics are powerful and a strong conceptual element in the story, although there’s so much going on it’s hard to absorb all the information.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.42.44 PM

Frame grab from Made by China in America

Still, they support her story and the visual treatment works elegantly within the documentary style. The sound bites are well chosen and the camera work, while at times crude, manages to create a strong visual presence – especially in the wide shots. It’s very moving to go out into the field and get a first hand view of abandoned factories, the people left behind and the struggle to put their lives back together. Documentaries are very powerful for that reason – they plunk you right in the middle of the action, introduce you to real people and show you the challenges they face.

Miao Wang fashions her documentary with a light touch – she lets the process evolve naturally to capture our interest and curiosity. In making her documentary Miao Wang has a point of view, but wisely keeps it in the background as she unfolds the story bit by bit. Her piece is so compelling, it makes us change our preconceptions about China’s impact on America’s economy.

last shot

Frame grab from Made by China in America

From the CNBC website:

Miao_Wangphoto by Jake Price

Miao Wang, photo by Jake Price

I see Chinese investment in the U.S. as a positive opportunity for the U.S. as well as China. After all, these Chinese companies have to operate on the U.S. playing field, under U.S. regulations, contributing to the local tax base, and hiring Americans. The U.S. has the responsibility and advantage to guide these companies to better governance practices. In turn, China could play a role in helping to revive the U.S. economy.

A Chinese proverb goes, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.”

You can check out Miao Wang’s other video projects at her company site, Three Waters Productions.

Albert Hughes and City on the Rise

City on the Rise is another form of classic documentary, a strong emotional piece with a lot of heart. It also focuses on globalization – what happens when jobs go overseas.

We The Economy: City On The Rise from Eric Alexander-Hughes on Vimeo.

America’s industrial revolution was launched in cities like Detroit, once a center for technology and innovation. Albert Hughes goes back to the city of his birth to explore what happens when jobs disappear.

Director Albert Hughes, from the We the Economy website:

"The Book of Eli" - Photocall

Albert Hughes from eurweb.com website

Anything having to do with money or the economy has always been totally foreign to a person like me. I don’t even live in the U.S. anymore and rarely carry more than 20 bucks in my pocket! I kept thinking about it but just wasn’t able to wrap my head around such an abstract subject. And then it finally hit me… Detroit, the place I was born. A place that would be the perfect case study for what can happen to a society when the bottom falls out — whether it be from the effects of globalization or automation eliminating countless manufacturing jobs.

What Works and Why

Early on Albert Hughes made some choices for his video that help heighten its impact. He uses stock footage newsreels to show the early days of Detroit. The stock footage was shot in black and white and Hughes decided to turn his present day exteriors black and white as well. That choice creates a strong visual consistency, especially since the bulk of the story is centered in the past, with the loss of jobs and decline of the city – all fairly dark subjects and well-suited to a monochrome treatment.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.53.21 PM

Frame grab from City on the Rise

City on the Rise is well-structured, as it first shows the rise of industry and a flourishing city, then the decline, and finishes with a positive turn and signs of recovery. The visuals are so compelling that part of the story is simply told with text on the screen and stark images of decay. And then there’s the personal stories.

Albert Hughes:

AlbertHughes dcine.org

Albert Hughes, from the dcine.org website

The whole story was suddenly there for me — and hit home in a very personal way as my father was once an auto worker, as well as many family members. I tried my best to tell the story on a personal level and hear from the former auto workers as well as city officials. I didn’t want to wallow in the glut of the city or the doom and gloom everyone has become so familiar with. I wanted to show the city in a new light.

The people featured in the video are eloquent advocates for their own stories as well as the larger theme of the city’s decline and hopeful return. Personalizing the story with the two workers makes the piece more emotional. Ultimately this documentary is about people’s lives, not statistics, and making that the focus is key to its power.

The interview settings work well with an abstract environment that visually supports the story’s content. The interview setups are well-framed and free of clutter and distraction.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.33.40 PM

Still of Kathy Milam from City on the Rise

You learn from former autoworker Kathy Milam how she adapted to the challenges thrust at her when she lost her job. In telling her story, she also becomes a symbol for a city fighting its way back.

The piece was edited by Albert’s son, Eric Alexander-Hughes. The pace moves along but also gives you time to absorb the content. The music stays more in the background but still makes its point by helping create the mood. The images work well – you see the devastation in the abandoned buildings and later on, the hope and excitement in the faces of Detroit’s people.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.07.13 PM

Still from City on the Rise

Although Albert Hughes obviously has a point of view, like Miao Wang, he kept it in the background. Instead, you feel the immediacy of the story told by people who are living it. You feel their passion and pathos – they become your guides to understand what has happened and their dream for a better life still to come. This is another strength of documentary – it can put you right in the middle of things and make you feel you’re part of the experience.

Together, these documentaries convey their information with passion and conviction as they show how the loss of jobs impacts a community and the people who live there. They both raise up positive stories from the depths of a ruined economy – offering hope where others only find despair. They tell engaging stories, moving from place to place as each new story element serves the next until you arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue. City on the Rise and Made by China in America are two excellent examples of powerful documentary storytelling.

This is the fourth of five posts on how master communicators use video to inform or educate. You can find an earlier post on using actors here, on using animation here and on using a host here. Next week we’ll look at an excellent advocacy video that engages you as it reveals a powerful story. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.

Page 1 of 2