A Documentary Approach
Tough Subjects Tackled
Network television and local TV stations may be abandoning serious documentaries for “once over lightly” treatments, but an ambitious journalism program at the University of Southern California is helping to redress the balance.
The USC School of Journalism’s Student Documentary Program not only trains people to write and produce documentaries. It will soon supply television with the finished product.
Starting next year, Los Angeles public broadcasting station KCET-TV will air two of the student-made productions a year and will make them available to other PBS stations.
The first two productions, both 30-minute documentaries, have already been completed and accepted – “Gunshot,” an account of the trauma suffered by gunshot victims, and “Who’s Minding the Children?” a study of child care in the United States.
“To my knowledge, no other university school of journalism has such an agreement with a major broadcasting company,” says Joe Salzman, the school’s chairman of broadcasting. “Student films have been broadcast on a one-time basis. But we’ll be producing a steady stream of documentaries on social issues. They’ll be fed directly to public broadcasting and then be offered to cable and commercial television.”
The arrangement is possible partly because of the USC program’s commitment to creating first-rate, broadcast-quality productions.
“Film schools have been making high-products for a long time, but their documentaries tend to be about non-controversial subjects – a profile of a musician or a cultural documentary, for example,” Saltzman says. “We can bring a more journalistic, investigative approach to the subject.”
Since the School of Journalism is primarily a school for writers – not a technical school – students chosen for the production crew must be given blitz courses in camera work, lighting, sound, editing and other technical subjects.
The documentaries are researched and written for Saltzman’s documentary production class (Journalism 405). Every student writes a treatment on a subject of his or her choice. And each semester, one is selected for production.
The final products are created entirely by students but with rigorous inspection, consultation and review by Saltzman and Patrick Dunavan, a professional broadcaster who is staff producer at the school. Both men have extensive documentary credits and, between them, have won more than 80 awards in broadcast journalism.
The program cut its teeth on “Who’s Minding the Children?” which took two years to produce. The second effort, “Gunshot,” was completed in only six months and won first prize – the Eric Sevareid Award – in the information category of the 1982 national student Emmy competition.
During those six months, Shari Cookson DeSante, the documentary’s writer and producer, lived and breathed “Gunshot.” I started to become scared about going out, because I realized how easily someone could get shot,” she recalls.
DeSante’s pre-production legwork included locating five gunshot victims who were willing to be interviewed. The group consisted of a gang member, a schoolteacher shot in a classroom, the victim of a liquor store hold-up, a young artist shot while walking near his home, and a woman who was shot on a blind date by the date’s enraged girlfriend.
“I chose this combination of circumstances because I wanted to show that anyone can be shot, anywhere, anytime,” DeSante says.
The documentary has little narration. Mainly it’s a tightly edited story in which the victims recount their ordeals and the aftermath.
“I didn’t want to get into the issue of whether or not we should have gun control,” DeSante says. “That would have diluted the story’s impact.”
People who saw unedited versions of the documentary felt it was a powerful piece, but DeSante was not convinced until a screening was held for the victims.
“It was important to me that the victims liked the documentary, because it was their story,” she says. “At the screening, some of them broke down and had to leave the room. During the interviewing, they had been fairly composed. When I saw how the finished product affected them, that’s when I knew I had done okay.”
“When you see ‘Gunshot,’ you understand what it’s like to be shot, “Saltzman says. “If the subject had been tackled by a news or magazine show, you might have had a pro-and-con segment where someone who loves guns and someone who hates guns talk for a few minutes. That doesn’t give people any real insight into the problem.”
February 2, 1983
(Santa Clarita, California)
Transcribed by: S Cookson