D.A. Pennebaker at The New School
D.A. Pennebaker teaches at master class at The New School. Photo: The New School

Box office receipts confirm what The New School’s assistant chair for documentary studies Annie Howell already knows: “Documentaries are hot!” This current trend toward truth in moviemaking has prompted the New York City-based university to create an all-new Certificate in Documentary Media Studies, a one-year, full-time, graduate-level program.

As she gets ready to graduate her first class in May—and gears up for year two of the program—Howell spoke with MM about the impetus behind the Documentary Studies program and how prospective students can get a leg up on the competition. 

Jennifer Wood (MM): Though a lot of other schools teach nonfiction moviemaking, very few offer something like The New School’s Documentary Studies Certificate. What was the impetus behind this program?

Annie Howell (AH): Documentaries are hot! More seriously, at The New School, documentary study and practice have always thrived. Institutionally, there is an emphasis on making change in the world as well as on developing a serious art practice within a social and historical context. We looked around, saw the types of students we were already attracting, took a look at our great faculty—including documentary historian Deirdre Boyle, film programmers Michelle Materre and David Nugent, and filmmakers who have studied or taught here such as Laura Poitras and Alan Berliner—and determined we were simply a great fit for documentary. New York City is also, simply put, one of the world’s documentary capitals.

MM: The program accepts applications from “accomplished students (regardless of major),” which seems to hint at an ongoing trend in the world of moviemaking right now. We see a lot of new voices emerging who have been trained in other mediums—architecture, fashion, mathematics, you name it! Why do you think this is the case?

AH: I believe documentary is the interdisciplinary discipline. In addition to spanning academic fields—film studies, anthropology, sociology, to name a few—good documentary engages with both form and content; hopefully content that has real relevance in peoples’ lives. Documentary films allow us to experience situations, meet individuals and understand issues in a personal, emotional or intellectual way that is simply unique, and that tends to have appeal across mediums, fields of study and professions.

MM: What are some of the more interesting case studies you’ve encountered in terms of educational or professional background?

AH: Currently in our program we have a criminologist, an attorney, a social worker, a few photographers and a painter as well as business and marketing executives.

MM: The program is not just theoretical or production-based, but instead encompasses both of these facets, and also explores the history of the format. With all the ways in which the documentary format is changing today, why does it matter whether a student knows about the nonfiction works that preceded him or her?

AH: Knowing and understanding the work that created the foundations, broke the “rules” and helped the form evolve is crucial for any maker, regardless of whether that individual is shooting professionally or making films on her cell phone. When a student has a rich engagement with documentary history and the critical writings it inspired, he is not only enhancing his own filmmaking through intellectual and creative reference, but also placing himself within a social, historical and intellectual dialogue. This is only a good thing.

MM: The program accepts just 20 students each year, so it’s extremely competitive. What are the things that you look for in potential students? What can someone do to really impress you?

AH: Most prominently, we look for creative and intellectual promise that includes a propensity for expressing ideas visually. We require a video self portrait, so if someone wants to really knock our socks off, she’ll take that opportunity to reveal something specific about herself that speaks to a larger personal truth, using cinematic—visual, filmable, concrete—means. The story of “you” as revealed through your favorite coffee cup or route to work is perfectly acceptable. I would stay away from dogs and cats, though.

MM: Aside from making some great connections—with fellow students and New School faculty—each student will graduate with his or her very own, 30-minute documentary. How have some of your current students been able to launch their careers with this project?

AH: Well, as we’re in the middle of year one, our current students have to push toward the May finish before any launching is even considered. We’ve seen amazing progress so far. Others who have studied at The New School in the past have excelled in documentary (Yonghi Yang’s Dear Pyongyang won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2006 and Laura Poitras’ My County, My Country is an Academy Award nominee), so my feeling is we’ll be adding to that group significantly with this intensive program.

MM: You’re just graduating your inaugural class now, which is made up of 19 students with varying backgrounds and interests. What was the hardest lesson you learned in year one of the program? What were some of the biggest surprises?

AH: Hardest lesson? Being reminded that documentary filmmaking requires such personal bravery. Biggest surprise? Students continue to be amazingly brave, even after the most trying challenges. Actually, it wasn’t much of a surprise considering the quality of these students—but their continued bravery and determination does inspire me in that it really shows on the screen.

MM: How do you see the program evolving and changing over the next few years? What improvements do you hope to see?

AH: We are committed to keeping the program intensive, and we’d like to eventually develop an MFA. Our certificate is unique right now in that you can opt for one year of intensive study at the graduate level or take those credits into our MA in Media Studies program and be halfway finished with a Master’s Degree. We’ll continue to improve the program as we move forward, that’s a given.

MM: How can one apply to become a part of the next class?

AH: Visit our site at www.newschool.edu/doc and link to the online application for Fall 2007, which is due March 15. And start shooting that self portrait!

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