Teaching documentary filmmaking: Steve Thomas reflects on the VCA
About Steve Thomas
Steve lectured in Documentary at the VCA School of Film and TV from 1998 to 2009. In 2012, after completing his Masters by Research, Steve returned to the VCA School of Film and TV part-time and has embarked on a PhD at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships.
Steve Thomas’s feature documentary Hope (2008) won Best Social/Political Documentary at the ATOM Awards and was a finalist in the Australian Human Rights Awards and Australian Directors Guild Awards. His next documentary project, Freedom Stories, is in development.
In December 2009 I left the School of Film and TV at the Victorian College of the Arts after 10 years of teaching documentary filmmaking. Overall, I have to say that I never ceased to be surprised and inspired by my students. Not by all of them of course, and not necessarily by their knowledge of documentary when they arrived — but the commitment and determination shown by many and the quality of the films they made was impressive. I certainly learned a thing or two from my students.
Documentary is only taught at the VCA at the postgraduate level, so my students tended to have more life (and tertiary) experience and more maturity than undergraduates. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean they knew much about documentary. Why would they? Such knowledge is certainly not easy to come by. Some of the students had already completed film studies courses and had a grounding in the documentary tradition of filmmakers like John Grierson and Robert Flaherty, had heard of Chris Marker’s work and had possibly seen a Bob Connolly film. But applicants regularly disappointed at the interview stage when asked to name documentary filmmakers who had influenced them, often straining to come up with something more than a passing reference to Michael Moore or Errol Morris.
Any deficit in their knowledge of the documentary tradition was, however soon overcome by exposure to our documentary screen studies program. In any case, this ‘ignorance’ did not prevent the students from expressing an enthusiasm for ‘real stories’ and, more often than not, a passion for and commitment to social justice, human rights or telling the stories of the different or disenfranchised.
We are told that the young don’t care about politics and social justice, their time being fully taken up by consumption, so I never ceased to be impressed by my students’ commitment or the fact that they even wanted to study documentary, particularly given its reputation as a cottage industry. LIke any filmmaker, I harboured a hope that some of them might actually have seen my films and I was invariably disappointed — but this was a reminder that I needed to start where the students were ‘at’ rather than with me.
Of course it’s not easy to separate the attitudes and knowledge displayed by students from the quality of their teaching. This is a complicated area because there’s the fundamental question of whether someone can be taught to be ‘creative’, not to mention persistent and determined, all of these being essential ingredients for artistic success.
My own experience was that those who were ready to learn did so, but students can only absorb and respond to what their teachers put out, unless they are to become the teachers themselves. I was always at pains to emphasise that students were preparing to join a community of filmmakers with mutual interests. We might discuss for hours in class what exactly documentary is and not come to many (or even any) firm conclusions. Nevertheless, out there is a documentary community – around 400 of whom purposefully gather each year at the Australian International Documentary Conference.
I also felt it was important to give my students ideas about documentary filmmaking that they could respond to — adopt, adapt or reject — as they saw fit. This included discussing my own approach, which in many ways is rather purist. While the films made over the period that I taught at the VCA were remarkably diverse, I think my mark was on them, if only because I insisted that students respect their participants and not simply make more ‘victim pictures’ or docos about freaks for our voyeuristic pleasure.
Furthermore, the mandate of a film school is to defend the independent documentary and to fight for its legitimate place in the world. This has become even more important with the blurring of factual genres and the challenges of reality TV. My students were under no illusion that they were preparing to take on ethical responsibilities as well as ensure the survival of a medium that few films and TV bureaucrats seem to really care about in their ratings-driven world.
Looking back through the class lists of the 100 or so doco students I had the privilege to teach, I am continually reminded of the commitment and passion that resulted not just in the telling of important, untold stories but in some excellent films. There has never been any formal survey of student outcomes but anecdotally and through personal knowledge I know that well over half are still making films. And although many resort to other jobs for regular income, I personally know of more than thirty VCA graduates who are currently working in documentary production. These estimates don’t include those I’ve lost touch with and overseas students who have returned home. Given the problematic nature and small size of the film industry, that is a roll call of which to be proud.
Not only have I learn from my students, I have also developed a working relationship with some of them that will doubtless bear fruit in the future. Returning, though, to all that great student work produced during those ten years at the VCA, there are a 100 or so graduating documentaries sitting in the archives from which a terrific series could be compiled, a series that would provide an intriguing reflection on Australian life during the first decade of the third millenium — now that’s impressive!
This refection has been abridged from Metro magazine where this article was originally published: issue 166, Summer 2010.
A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.