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Nancy Kalow on “Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary”

Nancy Kalow is a folklorist and filmmaker who has taught at the Center for Documentary Studies since 2000. She attended Harvard University (A.B.), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (M.A.), and was a Rockefeller Fellow at UNC’s University Center for International Studies. She has documented southern traditional music and material culture, Primitive Baptist preaching and visionary narratives in eastern North Carolina, and the music and religious folklife of the Mexican community in central North Carolina. Her video documentary Sadobabies was a winner of a Gold Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the Special Jury Trophy at the San Francisco Film Festival. In addition to teaching, she is working on a documentary project about “dead media” and maintains a blog called Documentary Starts Here. She has been co-chair of the Selection Committee of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival since 2003. In 2011 CDS Books published her e-book Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary, which is available on the CDS website.


The following is from an interview with Nancy Kalow conducted by Lauren Hart of CDS.

LH: What is it like serving on the Full Frame Festival’s Selection Committee?

NK: The film festival started in Durham in 1998, and in 1999 I joined the Selection Committee, which is a diverse volunteer group overseen by the Full Frame programming department. There are twenty of us carefully watching and vociferously advocating for all the terrific films that come in to Full Frame, and it is painful that there isn’t room during the festival to show many more films. Actually, the e-book is a sometimes-opinionated distillation of all that watching!

LH: I love your approach to filmmaking in Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary because it dispels the notion that one needs expensive equipment and extensive training in order to make a film. In the book you say that you are “passionate about the democratization of documentary filmmaking.” Can you talk about what this means and how documentary filmmaking can be a useful skill for people with assorted backgrounds and with different levels of technical experience?

NK: In the mid-2000s, a student was the first to do the Visual Storytelling assignments on a cell phone, pretty much shocking me and everyone in the class into understanding the egalitarian potential when anyone who wants to make a documentary has access to a great story and some basics on how to make inexpensive equipment work for them. Many CDS students go on to film school, big-budget projects, and professional work in filmmaking, which is very exciting. But when you’re just getting started, the idea, the story, and the characters may need to be documented now, before a lot of production money can be raised. Low-budged documentaries don’t have to look low-budget, and the e-book explains how to do it.

LH: What projects are you currently working on?

NK: Low-budget, one-man-crew doc shorts are especially fun to make, and they’re even more meaningful when they can be shared at a film festival or by putting video up on the web. My ongoing “Dead Media” project is on a website, for example, documenting old audio recording machines from the mid-twentieth century with view-camera photography and a camcorder video. My blog, Documentary Starts Here, considers hundreds of films, including rarities such as The Tourist by Robb Moss, Seraphita’s Diary, by Frederick Wiseman, and Robert Drew’s Yanki No, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock. More web projects are in the works.

LH: Can you describe your educational background and explain how you came to documentary work and to teaching filmmaking?

NK: Folklore graduate story at UNC-Chapel Hill provided a rigorous grounding in fieldwork and theory, as well as an ethical approach to rendering the stories and traditions of a community. The professors there, such as Dan Patterson, Trudier-Harris, and Jim Peacock, have much in common with the faculty at CDS. In the early camcorder era of the late 1980s, they encouraged the use of video to document cultural expression and folklife, including material culture, music, religion, and narrative. Two of my undergraduate teachers, David Riesman and John Stilgoe, were big influences on exploring the interdisciplinary  breadth of documentary work.

In 2000, CDS’s Education and Curriculum Director, Charles Thompson, asked me to teach Visual Storytelling, a camcorder video “one-man-crew” course. It was a chance to put into practice the key elements in low-budget documentary filmmaking with a series of weekly assignments, such as shooting a process, an interview, or a performance. Continuing Education students bring their own ideas, experience, and access to the class. No one has ever needed a suggestion on what to document. Student films are revelatory for everyone involved: the filmmaker has an “I can do this!” moment; the people in the documentary are enthusiastic about collaborating; classmates learn what works and what doesn’t work. The new e-book is a lively and compact version of the Visual Storytelling class based on many years of teaching and a “tried and true” methodology.

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Download a PDF of Visual Storytelling here

One Response to “Nancy Kalow on “Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary””

  1. […] The goal of the certificate program is the completion of a set of courses culminating in the Final Project Seminar, in which students finish and present a substantial documentary project; this spring’s seminar was taught by a longtime CDS instructor, filmmaker and folklorist Nancy Kalow. […]

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