Documentary Film at Andrews University Brings Social Consciousness to Adventism

(Spectrumbot) #1

In this digital era, films are not only a main source of entertainment, but also one of the most effective ways of communicating ideas. Documentaries in particular are a form of visual storytelling that can address important social issues through the lens of nonfiction narrative.

Take for example the impact “Blackfish” (2013) had on SeaWorld. The film documented the controversial captivity of killer whales and exposed the dangers captive orcas pose to humans and to themselves. Following the film’s July 2013 release, park attendance began to drop. By August 2014, SeaWorld announced a stock drop of 30%, and by November, its shares had fallen 50% according to the Blackfish website's accounting.

In a similar way, "Food Inc." (2008) shone a bright light on the corporatization of agriculture, revealing the ways unregulated agribusiness harms consumers and the environment.

Within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, we have seen the impact of documentaries like “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” which opened ground for conversation with LGBT individuals in the Adventist community. Martin Doblmeier's look at the denomination in his series, “The ADVENTISTS,” “The ADVENTISTS 2,” and “The BLUEPRINT,” have extended localized conversations about Adventist education and the church's health message to a broad national audience.

Documentaries have become the voice for Adventist filmmakers like Paul Kim, who wishes to use his creative force towards social causes relevant today. Paul Kim is an associate professor of documentary film at Andrew’s University. As a professor, his stated mission is to help the Adventist community engage and create culture.

In an email exchange, Kim shared his vision:

“With the digital revolution that we’re still undergoing, film and new media have an outsized impact in this realm, and so to me it’s a no brainer to have a film program that not only develops content creators, but helps all students—including non-filmmakers—better understand the medium that they spend more time with than anything else.”

Kim believes that global pressures are pushing content creators to make films that reach an extremely broad audience; Kim finds this troubling, and argues that “these films cater the lowest common denominator of basic human interest and emotion.” This is why, he argues, it is important for Adventist higher education to grow and support local and niche storytellers who are exploring topics, narratives, and characters whose stories might never be told otherwise. For Kim documentary film has a special part in creating culture and community.

“Documentaries have a unique place in society. On one end of the spectrum, it’s art. Thus like all good art the work is its own justification, and yet is designed to elicit a response that is its own unique experiences and especially valuable to a thriving society. On the other hand it can also be seen as a form of journalism, which has a very specific purpose to inform viewers on specific topics so that they can be active members of a functioning democracy. Documentary film is neither one nor the other, but has a relationship with both.”

The Andrews program was intentionally called "Documentary Film," as opposed to "documentary production," because, Kim says, “we wanted to emphasize that our program is not simply teaching students the creative trade, it’s teaching critical thinkers.” To that end, the curriculum includes courses in film studies and critical analysis, which are now also available to Andrews University’s general education students. Kim says of film students that they stretch themselves on an array of projects, "but the major emphasis is on their senior thesis film, which is at least a yearlong effort."

Current student projects include a personal narrative documentary about a student’s struggle with an arthritic spinal condition that ends up crippling him on the eve of his university graduation; a story about a Mexican-American who is trying to come to terms with his ethnic heritage by comparing the side of his family who immigrated to the States with those who decided to stay in their mother country; and an upcoming story about a filmmaker who is telling the story of her sister, an autistic high school graduate who is trying to navigate their way into a college experience, and how this impacts the trajectory of her entire family.

"These would be extremely ambitious projects even for experienced professionals," Kim noted, "so we can be really proud that this upcoming generation is so willing to tackle such major themes."

Nina Vallado is one of Kim's students. Vallado, currently a sophomore in Documentary Film, has taken her learning outside of the classroom by becoming assistant director of AUFilms, a student-led collective that created promotional content for the Andrews Student Association and original content for student entertainment.

“I caught a small glimpse of what is in store for me in the future. This job has kept me busier than my schoolwork. It has given me so much real life production knowledge,”Vallado said.

Asked why she had chosen this major Vallado explained, “I knew I loved documentary film and its purpose. [Kim] showed me so many possibilities with documentary, and it inspired me all the more. More so than the future possibilities, I had a story I wanted to tell.” Reflecting on her immediate goals, Vallado adds, “Right now my primary goal is to finish my Senior Thesis Documentary about autism.” As for the future she says, “I want to tell stories that make a difference in society. I want to tell stories that contribute to making a better world for those who need their stories to be told.”

The goal for Adventist filmmakers and educators like Kim is to raise a new generation of Adventists who are in tune with the culture of the time, but remain active with the Church’s mission of bringing healing to the world. In Kim’s words, “I think our young talent can use [Documentary Film] as part of being that prophetic voice that Adventism used to be—as is described by the Adventist Peace Fellowship in being ‘concerned with restoring personal and social wholeness through a commitment to justice and peace.’ (from their vision statement).”

This article is part of a series on film programs in Adventist higher education. You can read the first article in the series here: "La Sierra's Film Prgram Trains the Next Generation of Adventist Storytellers."

Brenda Delfino is an English major with a writing emphasis at La Sierra University, and a student intern for Spectrum.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

I am a reader more than a watcher. but the digital generation is the economic force world round. Never the less, one must be a good writer before attempting any higher art form. Story telling is a mental exercise of verbalization regardless of the media. language must be the substrate of all story telling. the Script, the Script, the Script, always the SCRIPT. A picture may display a thousand words.But one must know those words before one attempts the picture.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud”. what a picture, what a description of the human condition. Now digitize that. Tom Z

(Erik Stenbakken) #3

As a former English teacher and former magazine editor, the English language is near and dear to me. As a commercial photographer and film maker/videographer, pictures are important too. They are not mutually exclusive, nor are they both necessary in every case.

While one needs mastery of the concept of STORY to make either a dramatic film or documentary, one does not need a SCRIPT to tell a documentary. It is possible (maybe better?) not to have a script in a documentary video. Why? Because a documentary video, at it’s best, is an exploration of what is, or what appears to be. A documentary can ask questions, and not offer answers, certainly not scripted ones.

There needs to be a structure to any story, including a documentary. But perhaps it would be better to call it an “outline” rather than a script. “Script” is where I enter a story knowing how it begins and ends and my characters do and say what I want them to in order to get me where I decided they should go before the story unfolds. That is, I have the ending pre-determined. An outline however, says, "this is what I think will happen, and I this is where I think the story goes. And from there, within a framework, I begin my journalistic exploration of other people’s worlds. Sometimes those worlds fit what I expected, but often, if I dig far enough, I find that what I uncover doesn’t meet my expectations. My findings may even question or contradict my expectations. And in the documentary world, the paramount ethical question is, “What do I include? What do I exclude?”

Documentary work, as outlined in the article, is about discovery and revealing as things unfold. An honest documentary is the telling of someone else’s story. Not mine. Narrative film can and should follow a predetermined script (I just wrote one last week). It’s important to remember those differences both as a creator and as a viewer.

It’s worth noting that both documentary and narrative can be used to be persuasive in nature. It would be a mistake to think that only pre-scripted works have a goal or point in mind. Remember, the film maker can (and does) actively decide what to include that makes (or questions) their premise.

Why would I even say this? Why does it matter? I believe it has everything to do with having an open mind. None of this is directed at the previous commentator. It simply reminded me how important a topic this is. I’ve seen it over and over where someone enters a discussion or debate or search determined to find or see only that which will support their already-determined, pre-selected opinion or belief: dogma. That’s fine if one is making or viewing film that is clearly dogma (though it does make for poor film). It’s dangerous, and dishonest when calling the work “documentary.” It’s a documentary if it’s their story and I let them speak. It should be done and called a monologue if it’s all about my ideas. If I launch into a documentary, interview others as such, but then edit/distort their comments to fit my premise or idea, that’s both dishonest and insidious – but it’s tempting. This is especially important in works dealing with religion, faith, or the church. That’s why I’m waiving a red flag here.

Very glad to hear that Andrews is coupling this coursework with critical thinking coursework. Fantastic call, and kudos to those who suggested that pairing. Hopefully, that produces documentary work that is more like exploration than dogma.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

One does not engage in a documentary without prior deep background. Interviews are not cold turkey. There is framework at the detailed level. I have had to give testimony before legislative committees. in preparation I not only prepared the subject material, I studied the legislative history of the committee. I needed to know to whomI was addressing. Documentaries are not a stroll in the park. Every scene is framed. Tom Z

(Erik Stenbakken) #5

Agreed. If one is SPEAKING as an interviewee, home work is essential. And, as you say, homework is in order on the part of the one doing the interview. One does not do interviews cold turkey unless it’s a “man on the street” type interview (which hardly makes a documentary.

I’ve only done interviews for 20 years, so have a lot to learn. But one thing I have learned is that what I THINK the interview subject will say is not always what they say. At that point, do I exclude them from the documentary? Or do I allow them to say what they said? That is the ever-unfolding question of a documentary.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

Onl in political debate does one attempt to put words in another’s mouth, a very dangerous ploy. but even in political debate preparation is vital. Tom Z

(Erik Stenbakken) #7

Thomas, very true! Preparation of our own thoughts is always a good idea in virtually any arena.

(Neville) #8

If I may presumptuously jump into Thomas and Erik’s conversation, perhaps I would ask Tom if it would help if we thought of the documentarian/filmmaker as the legislative committee rather than the interviewee; in which case, the challenge is to decide who to interview and what questions and follow-up questions to ask. To push the analogy even further, one might even ask who to invite voluntarily and who to subpoena (“ambush journalism” style) to get down to the “deeper truth”.

The committee-documentary analogy/comparison breaks down however when one takes into account a legislative committee’s task is to discover facts that affect a specific piece of legislation, while a documentary filmmaker’s goal may be to tell a specific story that speaks to the larger, general human condition.

The final product of one (legislative committee) is, indeed, very precisely chosen words, preferably with the narrowest latitude for interpretation (legislation); while the final product of the other (documentary film) is a story–primarily visual (and may or may not also include powerful, insightful words), hopefully with multiple layers of meaning and interpretation.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #9

there are slight similarities, but on the whole quite different…In my case, Dr Bruce Rice, father of Rick Rice and I held 5 days plans to stop smoking. as ,luck would have it the wife of the Speaker Pro Tem of the Ga. house was a successful graduate. Thus I became good friends with the Speaker. the Chancellor of the University System would have me present issues before the Health and Ecology Committee among others.Thus I was able to get good background. I received several congratulatory notes from the Chancellor an Vice Chancellor for legislative affairs. my point is that any successful project requires preparation in depth. I should have written, preparation,preparation preparation rather than script, script,script. Tom Z

(Paul B. Kim) #10

Tom, I appreciate your input here. You’d be glad to know that we fully embrace the notion that good writing is at the heart of what we do as filmmakers. All of our students are required to take several writing courses, some general and some more specific. Film is not simply a visual medium, it is a collective one, so it’s inclusive with what you are describing.

However, not all writing is in the form of a “script”, as the beauty of documentary is that it is both broad and ever evolving. Some documentaries require an intensely detailed script (think Ken Burns), while others would be inhibited by them.

Your last anecdote seems to point to a major difference between the written word and the visual, and I would argue that there is a closer relationship than you suggest. Story, whether through written or visual form, is at its core an emotional one. Your reciting “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is a great suggestion as an experimental short film.

(Steve Mga) #11

"I wandered lonely as a cloud"
The MANY pictures this brings to mind.
It can mean “Isolation”.
It can mean the feeling of being on a wonderful trail by oneself, awaiting the next surprise.
It can mean being able to “see” something that others do not “see” or “understand”.
It can mean being on an “exploration” of trying to find something new, a new, only you thought of, of you only attempting discovery.

The Script is the all important interpretation. And the Script can Include ALL these interpretations.
Thanks Tom. A full-of-wonder [wonderful] little phrase. [Even this, the Definition vs the Word changes the mental picture of The Word.]

(Steve Mga) #12

Critical Thinking in a course such as this is DANGEROUS!
If one is making a documentary to see What Is, one MAY FIND “What Is”.
This can impact the person collecting the Data, and IF the “What Is” is not left on the cutting room floor, the What Is can also impact those who will enjoy watching the Data collected. And is possible to watch and brain analyze the What Is many times over.
VERY!! DANGEROUS!! Especially if "free will’ is allowed at an SDA University by inquisitive minds.
[unexpected consequences]

(Thomas J Zwemer) #13

Steve. thank you. A story-- I was on an attack transport heading for Luzon. I was assigned a detail to take stores from the hold up to the galley. that at times called for a quarter of beef weighing 245 lbs. I weighed 165 lbs. The Galley was one flight up on a ship at sea. I would heft the beef on the level, but climbing was another story. . but the drill was one beef one man. After about two days of struggle, the crew took a break. One said something about pigeon milk. I said, yes there was something called pigeon milk. It wasn’t milk but it was semi digested grain that the adult pigeon would regurgitate into the baby pigeon’s beak. they all laughed and said, ok college boy, go up to the crows nest and get us some pigeon milk. of course, I went on deck and to the ship’s library and got a book of English literature sat in the shade and read. After several hours, I returned and confessed, I couldn’t find any pigeon milk. they all had a hearty laugh at my expense. the next day they sent me for a board stretcher, the next for a bucket of stripped ink, the next for a bucket of electricity. I carried no more beef and I learned to love English literature… Tom Z

(Kim Green) #14

Sounds like a fantastic program and I am positive that much good will come out of it. Though my interests lie in the commercial field of copywriting scripts there is so much that one has to know in order to create something that appeals to the eye and ear. It is the ultimate challenge to combine the two and come up with something that emotional connects and inspires.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #15

There are three stories running in which critical thinking is a must. B Williams, Bill Cosby, and Fox News/CBC That does not include the Middle East–Who brings up Yellow Cake, or they tried to kill my dad? No they question Oboma’s Birth record. Documentaries require research, before hand and after the fact.Documentaries are more than an interview, even if it is only Lady Gaga. Tom Z