Challenge

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I already told Ben G. this joke, but it's the only joke about documentary film I know:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in documentary film?
A: First, you start with a large fortune...

I've been thinking about this since this morning, when I had my first chance to talk (albeit briefly) one-on-one with each of the new teachers. The very first one, a young woman, said straight out that she didn't care to participate and that she hated the "commercialization" of (in this case) the Teacher Corps. That's not a direct quote, but my interpretation of what she said. And there was no hostility in the statement, just a simple rejection of something behind the concept -- her idea of the motive behind it perhaps, or the motive behind film/video/television in general. She referred to negative experiences with the media in the past, and having had plenty of bad experiences with the media myself (from the other end of things, I assume) I can't say I blame her.

The irony was that in telling me she wanted nothing to do with my film, she ensured that I noticed her immediately and liked her right away. She was thoughtful and honest and willing (very, very willing) to challenge people around her. I love that and I want to meet more people who approach the world that way. But it leads me to think that it would be helpful if I discussed briefly my own motives. I spent the morning asking each of these new teachers, "what brought you here? What do you hope to accomplish during your time in the Teacher Corps?" In short, what's your purpose? And it's a question that could equally apply to me, so I'm offering my own answer.

I know this much: I'm not cut out to be a teacher -- or at least, not a public high school teacher in the delta. There was a brief moment when I considered applying to the MTC myself, but the impulse was driven by my desire to be of use to the Corps, not because I particularly wanted to become a teacher. I recognized immediately that an ambivalent teacher would be of no use to the Corps. But I continued to nose through the then-first-year teachers' blogs for the next few months, and one evening, on an impulse, I left a casually supportive comment on one teacher's blog. Within hours I found myself quite unexpectedly pulled into the possibility of making this film. It was not so much a matter of me making a proposal as it was a happy intersection of circumstance. But I discovered that I could be of use to the MTC using skills that I already have in a medium and artfom to which I've already devoted myself, so I was eager to provide whatever service I could.

This film isn't for me, it's for the Teacher Corps. This is their film, not mine. At present, the Corps has left its creation in my hands, but at the end of the day my mission is to serve the larger interests of the MTC before all others. It's not wholly about charity, of course; the project will also (I hope) serve some of my own interests, but they're predominantly intangible. For me, this project is an opportunity to prove my ability to handle a large-scale documentary production, a chance to gain experience and put some of my theories to the test, and above all, to dig deeper into my chosen medium. What it emphatically is not about is money or commercial success. My cinematic roots lie in generations of filmmakers who turned away from the industry and set out to make films of substance, films that generally only a small, dedicated audience would ever see. I'm not interested in some reality-television version of the MTC (sorry, Ben; I know how you love your reality TV), and in spite of some of the language in the release form I don't expect anyone to ever "buy" any part of this film. I do hope that people see it, provided it goes forward; and if people like it, if I find that I've made a film with some narrative or artistic merit, obviously that would make me very, very happy. But foremost I want to produce a film that advocates for the Teacher Corps, and my interest in getting it seen comes from my desire to see it serve the Corps as well as possible. Any concrete benefit that derives from the film belongs completely to the MTC, not to me. All I'm asking for myself is a chance to make a better filmmaker of myself through applied practice, and a chance to use my training and abilities to help and further the MTC's goals in whatever way I can.

I didn't have time to go into any of that this morning, though. I have no desire to push anyone who doesn't want to be involved into participating; this is an inherently intrusive, sometimes tension-filled process that only the willing should undertake. But I hope I get a chance to talk to her again and throughout the year, without the camera if that's what she prefers -- and not just about this film project, but about her experiences. I can tell she's going to have some interesting things to say, and I want to understand her point of view. I need as much honest input as I can get if I'm going to be true to the teacher's experience of the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

As far as on-camera subjects go, though, I think I'm going to be spoiled for choice. This is a very thoughtful, well-spoken group of people embarking on an intensely challenging period of their lives -- it's an innately interesting situation. So much so that I'm having to reconcile myself to the fact that there's going to be more going on than I can reasonably hope to capture. One of the hardest things about documentary, especially at the beginning, is that for all your planning and plotting and tentative ideas about the arc of the story, the film in many ways has its own mind and its own will. Documentary isn't so much about directing as it is about guiding when you can or, more often, just hanging on and keeping an open enough mind to see what's in front of you. But there's no question that in many ways I'm going to be looking to the teachers to help me find a handle, and I want them to feel confident that we're all working towards the same ultimate goal.

Speaking of which, I hope everyone reading this makes note of their ability to post comments and feels free to use it. And if comments don't suit you, I love to get email and I do my best to answer promptly. I want to know what people are thinking -- and by that I mean what they're really thinking. I'm going to trust that nobody is afraid to pose a challenge or to disagree with me and lay out all the reasons why. In fact I am actively inviting you to do so. Thus far, I think it's safe to say we're off to a good start on this point.

PS: Oh, and also, for anyone who uses an RSS feed reader, this blog does have a feed.



Roll Camera

Monday, May 29, 2006

I was going to write a long post detailing everything that's brought me to this point -- but then all my errands today took longer than I expected, and at the moment I'm only about half an hour away from my optimum bedtime. And there's no way I'm actually going to make that bedtime, but I figure I should at least make the attempt, and writing a thorough background post just isn't part of that plan.

So instead, for the time being, I'll write about the questions and issues that are at the forefront of my mind as I prepare to shoot tomorrow, and come back and fill in the details later on. In a nutshell, though, I'm working on a film about the Mississippi Teacher Corps, about the Mississippi delta students it serves, and about the new class of incoming teachers that begins its two-year course tomorrow.

I've got nearly three hours of footage already, having taken a trip into a typical delta town with the program director, Ben Guest, where I got to meet a lot of people and made a sort of mad dash to understand the key issues and problems facing the teacher corps. I talked to students, I talked to authorities, I talked to teachers who have already finished their first year. I came away, predictably, with many, many more questions than answers. And that's okay -- I don't need to have all the answers at the beginning, if in fact I can ever expect to have them at all. But I do need to know which questions to ask.

The big question, the question above all the other questions, is what the purpose of this film is going to be. Is it meant to promote the MTC, to attract new recruits and more funding, to sell the program to the outside world? Or is it meant to tell the Teacher Corps' story? Hopefully the two will ultimately be one and the same, or at least compatible. There are moments, though, when I'm not certain that they are. The idea of "hope" seems to be very much in doubt; asking people why they teach in the delta has so far only produced non-committal statements of vague, modest purpose. Most of the second-years just seem to want to get through the experience alive and intact. There's very little trace of passionate idealism, although I can't imagine that they all entered the program so jaded. So I'm very eager to get in with the incoming class as soon as possible and ask them why they came and what they hope to accomplish before they become as worn-down as their predecessors. Because, after all, "it's almost hopeless but it's still worth doing" isn't that great a sales pitch for potential recruits and donors.

Having said that, the experience itself has no less value just because it's a difficult one for most. An almost-hopeless story is as worth telling as an almost-hopeless job is worth doing. So I've isolated a few major themes that I find particularly compelling at this early stage, which hopefully make up a synthesis of the underlying issues in the Mississippi Teacher Corps:

Race: certainly not all of the new teachers are white, but generally speaking most of them are. Almost all of the students are black. Thus, many of these teachers will be having their own first minority experience in the delta, so I'm interested to see both how their students react to them and how they react to their new society. Will there be culture shock? And if the ultimate goal of teaching these students to see them graduate and, ideally, go off to college, for many of the students it will mean their first foray out of black society and into a world where they become a social minority for the first time. There's a lot of crossing back-and-forth between two segments of American society implicit in the situation, which is, for most of the people involved, a break from the comfortable status quo.

Class: Being white obviously doesn't necessarily mean that one comes from a privileged or middle-class background; and being black doesn't necessarily mean that one comes from the underclass. But in the delta, race and class are inextricably tied. The general trend in the Corps is of people from fairly comfortable, stable, well-educated backgrounds coming to the aid of people from bad schools and third- and fourth-generation poverty. Some of the teachers will have had first- or second-hand experience with poverty already, but I'm guessing that just as many will not. Of course, those with resources helping those without is the whole idea. But as with race, class is going to be an inherent source of tension.

Students and Teachers: Or more explicitly, which is which? The teachers are themselves students who rely upon their own students to help them learn. The assumed student/teacher dichotomy only tenuously applies in the teacher corps.

And most importantly:

Saviors and the Saved: Not to imply that anyone involved thinks of themselves as a superhero, but the obvious narrative line in cinematic terms would be one of an outsider arriving to help people who, for whatever reason, cannot help themselves. In light of all of the above, this one is frought with problems. How many teachers will attempt to help and find that their help is rejected? How many will find that, regardless of whether their help is accepted, they lack the means to produce much change or make any progress? What would it mean to "save" a student, if such a thing is even possible? What does success look like?

From what I've seen so far, these incoming student-teachers will face three major sources of conflict during the program: their students, other teachers and administrators, and their own disillusionment. I find myself in the happy situation of being able to go through the coming year alongside these new teachers without actually having to do any of the hardest work, and I have the luxury of being able to take an analytical and interpretive approach to their experiences. Since I won't have to deal with the stress and exhaustion and conflict myself, I've settled on a role for myself as the stubborn optimist, relentlessly hanging on to whatever ideals the new teachers express to me in these early days. I'm going to trust their first hopes to guide the development of the film, and use them as a compass to navigate around the obstacles ahead.

All this means that I'm reliant upon them to share their experiences and tell me how it really is for them, the bad parts as well as the good parts. My objective is to make a film on behalf of the teacher corps, but my aim is to do that by letting these new teachers speak as much as possible for themselves. They are the teacher corps, they're the ones who found enough value and enough hope in the idea to promise two years of their young adulthoods to delta kids. I'm betting the success of the film that that'll be all the sales pitch I'll need.

And it's now well past my optimum bedtime -- I'll see you all tomorrow.



Biography

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Amy Frazier is a journeyman filmmaker living and working in Memphis, Tennessee and northern Mississippi. She works in both film production and film education, having spent several years serving as a traffic coordinator and workshop coordinator for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She also spent a year working as the workshop coordinator at the Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative, facilitating and teaching workshops on all aspects of film practice and appreciation for the general public. Her wide-ranging film credits as producer, director, DP, camera operator, camera assistant, sound tech, and editor are evidence of her comprehensive, artisanal approach to filmmaking and her belief that the the most interesting films are hand-made by individual artists.

Amy's cinematic values stem in large part from the influence of her teachers and mentors, who include the maverick British director Mike Leigh and the veteran American independent director Jay Craven. Like them, she supports the idea of regionally- and locally-grounded film rooted in the lives and experiences of real people. She counts among her most cherished influences Maya Deren, Albert and David Maysles, Fredrick Wiseman, Jane Campion, Yimou Zhang, Dziga Vertov, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. She's also seen everything David Cronenberg has ever done.

She still hasn't made up her mind whether she prefers working in dramatic or documentary film, so she does a bit of both.



Writing

Undergraduate Thesis:

A Subversive Art: The New Potential of American Film Culture


Part 1: Title; Thanks; Table of Contents (pdf)
Part 2: Introduction; An Anagram on the Ideas of Maya Deren (pdf)
Part 3: Amos Vogel and the Way Forward (pdf)
Part 4: Interview with Karen Cooper of Film Forum (pdf)

(html versions coming soon)

Essays:

Concepts of Reality in Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Rossellini's Rome Open City (pdf)



Resume

(download as pdf, Word doc)

CAREER OBJECTIVE: film/video production in commercial, industrial, or nonprofit fields


SUMMARY OF QUALIFICATIONS:

- more than five years production experience with crew credits on 18 films
- natural gift for idea development, organization, and collaboration
- committed to continually expanding my skill set; currently studying digital imaging and effects on an independent basis
- dedicated to producing top-quality work while maintaining a high degree of professionalism


TECHNICAL PROFILE:

CAMERA: Arri 16mm BL and 35 I, Panaflex GII, Moviecam Super America
Canon XL1 and XL2, Panasonic AG-DVX100, Sony DSR-250 and DSR-400
OFFLINE EDITING: 16mm and 35mm Steenbeck, Final Cut Pro
CREW: production assistance, boom operation, set construction


PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

2005
- Camera Operator and 1st AC, Streaker, Creative Forces, Memphis TN
- 2nd AD, Away(A)wake, Sawed-Off Productions, Memphis TN

2003-2004
- Workshop Instructor and Co-ordinator, Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative, Memphis TN

2002
- Research Assistant, Zero Tolerance, J Bird Productions, Santa Monica CA
- Production Assistant, Denny's #05, "Recess" and "Sharing", Directorz Productions, Dallas TX / Los Angeles
- Sound Recordist, Blue Citrus Hearts, Sawed-Off Productions, Memphis TN


EDUCATION

- B.A. with honors in Film Studies; Marlboro College, Marlboro VT
- Art and Technique of Filmmaking; London Film School, London, United Kingdom


Credits

FULL CREDITS:

2007-2008

- Co-producer, Camera, Editor; "Delta Year", DV feature (due 2008)

2006

- Producer, Camera, Editor; "Hollandale", DV short
- Producer, Director, Camera, Editor; "Devastortion", DV short

2005

- Producer, Director, Camera Operator, Editor; "Eyes of a Blue Dog", DV short

2004

- Camera Operator, 1st AC; "Streaker", DV feature, Creative Forces Productions, Memphis TN
- 2nd AD; "Away(Awake)", DV feature, Sawed-Off Productions, Memphis TN

2002

- Production Assistant; Denny's #05, "Recess" and "Sharing", 35mm commercials, Directorz Productions,
Los Angeles CA
- Camera operator; "The Churches of Tunica County", DV/multimedia installation, Tunica County Museum,
Tunica MS
- Sound Recordist; "Blue Citrus Hearts", DV feature, Sawed-Off Productions, Memphis TN

2001

- Sound Recordist; "Love's Gone", 35mm short, Inge Fjortoft/LFS
- Assistant Producer; "The One that Got Away", 35mm short, Geli Padberg/LFS
- 1st AC; "Bride and Gloom", 35mm short, Christian Regnadot/LFS
- Producer, Camera Operator; "The Third Hand", 35mm short, Amy Frazier/LFS
- DP; "Apart", 35mm short, Rebecca Finley/LFS

2000

- Co-Producer, DP; "Tattoo Stories", 16mm short, Amy Frazier/Naveed Ahktar/LFS
(screened at 2000 BBC British Short Film Festival)
- Producer, Director, Editor; "The Woodsman and the Devil", 16mm short, Amy Frazier/LFS
- Camera Operator; "We Have Your Friends", 16mm short, Rebecca Finley/LFS
- DP; "Magic Hour", 16mm short, Patricia Watson/LFS

1999

- DP; "Lifeless", 16mm short, James Cotton/LFS

1998

- Producer, Director, Editor; "Consuela", S-VHS short, Amy Frazier/Marlboro College
- Producer, Director, Editor; "The God Hunters", S-VHS short, Amy Frazier/Marlboro College


Clips

"Devastortion", 5 min.




"Hollandale" part 1, 6 min.




"Hollandale" part 2, 5 min.



Testing

Thursday, May 25, 2006
Nothing here yet. Move along.