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Film School’s ‘Documentary 2’ Helps Students Explore the Genre

A course titled Documentary 2, offered in the Academy’s School of Motion Pictures & Television, provides students industry-focused education and the chance to pursue meaningful projects.

Walking into the Documentary 2 class, an initial observation might be the small class size. It’s a course where attention to detail matters first and foremost, and one offered only to a select number of students who have already proven their nonfiction narrative talents.

Sometimes, the class focuses on the business side of things. Drafting proper proposals, licensing agreements, and creating branded content are all part of the wider industry-focused learning Documentary 2 offers. According to Janice Engel, course instructor, branded content is an especially lucrative avenue for graduates to break into nowadays.

Students are encouraged to pursue and propose projects meaningful to them and are given creative freedom…with Engel’s guiding hand. Classes often branch into spirited discussions on a wide range of topics, all originating from and tying back to the medium of documentary film.

For a recent assignment, group or individual student projects developed documentaries that in some way informed how their projects were accomplished, exploring the ideas behind their projects or how they helped the filmmakers learn effective methods for completing the assignment. 

Jessica Carrillo, Documentary 2 student, portrayed her grandfather’s service in WWII. Photo courtesy Jessica Carrillo.

Shining on Service
One student, Jessica Carrillo, used the class to explore her grandfather’s military service during World War II. He was an assistant to a high-ranking general but never received proper recognition because he was Filipino-American. Through her project, she wanted to spotlight her grandfather’s time in the armed forces, and his important contributions to the war effort.

Networking Their Way In
Freija Edlund and Sam Hultqvist’s project centered around a commercial documentary titled Searching for Sugar Man. The search for the elusive musical cult figure Sixto Rodriguez (adored in South Africa) required a lot of international fact-finding with record store owners, former label heads and Detroit residents, jumping from one connection to the next looking for clues.

Edlund and Hultqvist employed similar leapfrogging techniques to reach’s creative director. Edlund and Hultqvist partnered to put the popular “six degrees of separation” networking theory to the test by using connections, charisma and charm to navigate their way into the office of VICE Los Angeles’ creative director.

It’s a social experiment that may translate into post-college employment. “As international students, their visas will expire three months after graduation,” Engel observes. “They are rolling the dice that not only will six degrees of separation work, but it will secure them jobs to stay in the USA.”

The two students’ first connection was Engel, their only personal connection to the entertainment industry at the time; Engel knows someone who knows an employee of VICE Los Angeles. In their production, Edlund and Hultqvist are already in the building; they just have to make it into the creative director’s office, which is famously difficult to enter.

Student Kiana Cruz’ documentary was about her struggle to end dependence on depression and anxiety medication. Photo courtesy Kiana Cruz.

The Examined Self
Kiana Cruz’s project focuses on her struggles with addiction to anxiety and depression medication. After nine years of continuous usage, “she has no idea what the outcome will be, but it is a heroic attempt to live her life drug-free,” Engel says.

Another Documentary 2 student, Cole Mitchek, chose to focus his project on bonsai gardening subcultures in the Bay Area. Photo courtesy Cole Mitchek.

Career Trajectories
Engel says she broke into the L.A. film world thanks to a degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts…with a lot of creative networking as well.

“I was selling sandwiches at the time,” she explains. “I’d sell sandwiches at the Writer’s Guild and at William Morris. I had a really good route. And, you know, I was the girl with the sandwiches.”

After her film about Berkeley rock band The Motels caught the eye of a major Los Angeles talent agency, “They were like, ‘You’re the girl with the sandwiches!’” Engel recalls, and her career grew from there.

Nowadays, she focuses her promotion advice on the realities of social media and online marketing. “It’s about branding yourself,” she says. “How are you going to make a brand? Are you making an Instagram account? Are you posting things?” It’s easier than ever to share and distribute your work, she says, and if the six degrees of separation theory is true, students may be closer to success than they realize.

Article by Kyle Roe, reporter for Academy Art U News

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