A Crash Course in Documentary Film

A Crash Course in Documentary Film

Date Posted: 
2018-09-17 14:58

Blog Series:


Kyle, South Dakota- I strolled into my first day of the Rolling REZ Arts Film Camp at Piya Wiconi not quite sure what to expect. Advertised as “a crash course in documentary-style filmmaking,” the film camp was aimed at young creatives wanting to learn more about filmmaking with limited resources.

I was here to learn. Not just about film, but on what all goes into practical Youth Media Training. How do you teach kids such a technical skills? How do you keep people engaged and interested? From everything I’d read prior to this experience, the Rolliing REZ Arts Film Camp was the perfect resource for all of my questions.

The camp was sponsored by the First People’s Fund out of Rapid City, South Dakota. Bryan Parker, the Rolling Rez Arts coordinator, brought Andres Torres-Vives as head instructor, and Razelle Benally, and Jesse Shortbull as assistant instructors. 

I was joined at the workshop by three kids from neighboring towns: Summer, Mateo and Jon. A few local and aspiring filmmakers also made an appearance, including Jedadiah Richards who has had his short films played at Native POP: People of the Plains. Honestly, I was a little disappointed by community involvement. I’d hoped that more kids would take advantage of this opportunity. But it didn’t make the experience any less memorable for those who attended.

Rolling REZ Arts Film Camp was broken up into three jam-packed days.

The first day we were thrown into the filmmaking basics. Torres-Vives, Benally and Shortbull introduced us to the equipment we would be using at the workshop, various filmmaking tools, and step-by-step instructions on scripts and storytelling. We assembled and disassembled various cameras and gear including lights, lenses, tripods, headphones and microphones. We were also schooled in various types of shots, such as wide, single, close up and reverse angles.

Armed with scores of new information, we stepped outside to put into practice what we’d learned. We all had a million questions on technicalities, but the fairly even student-to-teacher ratio allowed the instructors to work with us one-on-one. After getting a little more comfortable with our filming skills, we split into groups and were instructed to create a narrative, write a script and shoot a compelling short that incorporated each of the angles we were taught.

After a quick lunch of Indian tacos, we spent the rest of the day brainstorming different ways to shoot an improv scene acted out by Jesse Short Bull and Bryan parker. The two argued about a game of basketball while we set up two cameras and filmed from different distances and angles. By the end of the shoot, my brain was stuffed to its capacity and my legs wobbled from exhaustion, but I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. I’d started the day with hardly any knowledge on filmmaking or camera gear in general, and by the end of it, I was making calls on angles and camera settings. If this is what I’d learned on the first day, what did the next two days have in store?

Turns out, day two had a lot up its sleeve. We focused on one of the most important aspects of documentary filmmaking: the interview. After a thorough lesson on the elements of a documentary, and instruction on how to set up and conduct a successful interview, we set up a quick practice round where we interviewed the instructors. I personally was paired with Benally, who patiently walked me through my first interview.

With our first interview under our belts and a little more confidence to take it up a notch, we loaded up our gear and set out for the Oglala Lakota College’s museum. Upon arriving, we were introduced to one of the curators at the museum, a young lady who did beadwork.

We swiftly set up three cameras for the interview. From there, Jesse Short bull took the reins. As he interviewed the young woman, he laid out examples of what questions to ask, how to control the momentum of the interview and how to get the conversation flowing. Once the interview came to an end, we all spread out to gather b-roll (footage placed over the interview) related to the information she gave us.

Lunch at the hotel was followed by a quick session where each of the instructors presented their past work. We discussed the different elements of each piece and were given examples on how the information we were given was used in a practical environment.

Watching each piece, I felt like everything clicked. I felt like I was looking through a new pair of glasses. Before I just watched documentary pieces without really analyzing. I knew when a piece was good, and I knew when a piece was bad, but I wasn’t sure how to explain why. Now I felt like I was taking them apart piece by piece, and examining each part and understanding the individual styles of each filmmaker. I had words to my feelings, and that felt powerful.

We ended the day by downloading the footage from the last two days into Adobe Premiere. Tomorrow, the process of editing would began, but much to my disappointment, I wouldn’t be there. Duty called, and I had to return to Vision Maker. But I knew the experience would stick with me. 

I’d accomplished my mission. Throughout the camp, I felt engaged, interested and excited about what we were doing. I could literally see my improvements as we worked, encouraging my curiosity in my own abilities. And someday, if I could learn to apply this style of learning to our own program, it was my hope that we could instill that same sense of accomplishment to our own students.

About the instructors:

Andrez Torrez-Vives is a J. William Fulbright and Jacob K. Javits Scholar, and has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. Andres is a UCLA Film and Television Directing MFA, and film Professor at Arizona State University (ASU). His short film, ISTINMA won Best Short Film at the 39th Annual American Indian Motion Picture Awards and opened the 2015 Smithsonian Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, N.M.

Razelle Benally is an emerging independent filmmaker dedicated to creating stories with strong Indigenous female protagonists and hopes to bring a new perspective to the male-dominated film industry that has a history of marginalizing Indigenous peoples. She is a 2017 FPF Fellow received Best Documentary at SWAIA’s Classification X, and is an alumna of the Sundance Institute Native Filmmakers Lab, and was awarded the 2015 Sundance Institute’s Native Short Film Production Grant in 2015.

Jesse Short Bull is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and grew up near the Badlands of South Dakota in Interior, SD, Jesse has obtained a certificate in Television Production from Oglala Lakota College and worked there for four years. He currently attends the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. He was a 2013 recipient of the Sundance Native Program Development Fellowship which allowed him to develop his screenplay for the short film, Istinma. He is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing.

Special thanks to: First People’s Fund

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