UNR Journalism School Joins ‘Golden Age’ of Documentaries

Documentaries are a growing field in the marketplace and in academia, and are now even taught at the undergraduate level. Journalism student Luiza Vieira has this report about a new documentary film class by Kari Barber at UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism.

RENO, NEV– A Mac computer screen with multiple website pages opened, a big chair, a bicycle and a pile of papers — that is how journalism professor and documentary filmmaker Kari Barber’s office looks like. While I interview her, she confesses how hungry she is. Time has been limited for her while she teaches classes, takes care of her two sons, and tries to finish her most recent documentary project about all-black towns in Oklahoma, Struggle and Hope.

Barber explains why documentaries are so important to her and what inspires her to do them.

The Drive to Make Documentaries

“Documentaries have affected the way I live my life, (such as how) great novels affected the way I live my life,” said Barber. “While I really appreciate day to day reporting and I’ve done wire services reporting, for myself personally, I’m really interested now in how I can make an impact in the way people live their lives and I think documentaries are an extremely powerful way to do that.”

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Professor Kari Barber read assignment instructions to students during a recent documentary class in the TV studio of the Reynolds School of Journalism. Photo credit: Luiza Vieira.

It is with words like these that Barber decided to start a documentary filmmaking class at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The class was introduced to the course catalog this fall semester and it is the first time a creative filmmaking class is part of the Reynolds School of Journalism curriculum.

Inspired Students

Students like Ryan McGinnis are thrilled.

“Since probably high school I’ve always wanted to do documentary filmmaking,” said McGinnis, who was editing a rough cut of a film about the fighting culture in Reno. “I’ve always loved filmmaking and what not, and this is the first class I’ve been able to take where I can actually create my own material and do it like a full big project.”

The project McGinnis is working on is called Why We Fight. Students are hoping to have films ready by early December. There will be a screening open to the public on December 8th inside the Reynolds School of Journalism.

From International Reporting to Teaching Documentaries

Barber, who started her career at a TV station in Arkansas, also worked in print journalism, and traveled the world doing international reporting and radio before she began her path as an award-winning documentary filmmaker. She moved to Reno in 2013 and started teaching journalism classes at UNR’s J-School then. Even though she had already taught a digital media class at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she says teaching this class is still really challenging.

“I know the students would be excited to hear me say this but it is really hard to do a documentary in one semester,” said Barber.

“I really wanted a sense of closure and having taken a full circle and really create a product and so, I wanted to do the whole thing which is a lot in a matter of few months.”

A Film about Bible Prophecies and a Heavy Workload

Senior Chris Vega who is doing a film about current events and bible prophecies agrees that this class requires much more work than any other journalism classes he has taken before.

“This class is four months of never being finished, I’m going nuts because it’s really difficult because, I’ve gone to sleep thinking ‘Oh no, I have to do this, and I have to.. it’s never done’ like, there is always something else to do.”

There is so much that goes into making a film; the conception of an idea, the production aspect and shooting, just to name a few. But all of the students, including senior JD Christison, seem to agree that organizing videos and transcribing interviews are probably the hardest.

 

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Senior JD Christison is editing his film called Ghost Hunting in the Great Basin, a documentary about the paranormal culture in Northern Nevada. Photo credit: Luiza Vieira

 

“Film is such an endeavor you have to set so much time aside to creating this vision,” said Christison. “It is not like a walk in the park as everything is, detail, filming and editing, and logging. Logging alone is probably the most difficult part, you know? It is half of the battle.”

Telling Good Stories

For Barber, the hardest part of teaching students is how to tell a good story.

“There (should) never be repetition, I said it before and I will say it again, there can’t be a slow moment, you have to build and build and build, and every single scene matters, every shot matters, everything needs to be saying something that furthers the story.”

In class, as students are frantically going through interviews and shots, deciding what to use and what to leave behind as the deadline for finishing their project gets closer, Barber goes from group to group with some valuable advice.

“That is what makes a good story– is being extremely critical about your work,” said Barber. “I love saying it, ‘good is the enemy of great’ and if it is just good, then toss it out. You only want the great stuff.”

The class is also time consuming for Barber.

“It is quite time consuming to read their scripts,” she said, “but it is a really good exercise for them to have to articulate what is going to happen in their film.”

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Professor Kari Barber is giving feedback on Jared Longland’s script. His documentary is called “Home Away from Home”, an emotional story about the last days of a person’s life. Photo credit: Luiza Vieira

Sophomore Jared Longland, one of the youngest students in the class, says this is the first time he is working on a long video piece.

It’s been challenging, but he says he found in documentary, a new way to tell stories.

“When people think of journalism they think of news, and they think of this as what is happening today, this is what is happening now, where documentary is looking at things that are current but in a long form piece, in something that is more personal and deeper.”

A Film about the Last Days of People’s Lives

Longland is working on a project about the last days of people’s lives. The story is based on his grandmother, who ended up passing away during his film project.

“Being able to use my own family story and being able to really get deep into that from inside I think it is going to be really interesting,” he said.

Barber can’t hide her excitement but is also nervous about the films her students will be creating. However, she says that, in the end, if it does not go well, she hopes they can learn other skills from this class.

Nervousness About Final Cuts

“I do think every person in that class will come out with confidence and the ability to use video to tell any kind of story that is emotional, and compelling, has factual research in it, which is useful whether they are going into strategic communications or whether they are going to work for a company or are going into journalism or anything else,” Barber said.

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Professor Kari Barber and students discuss effective storytelling during the documentary class in the TV Studio of the Reynolds School of Journalism. Photo credit: Luiza Vieira.

Golden Age of Documentaries

Even though we are living in a time where everything seems to be going faster, Barber said documentaries are, in her own words, experiencing a “golden age”. She said that people actually enjoy seeing work with very high quality content that took lots of effort to create.  Fast-paced content is also sought out, she said, but it seems to be storytelling and reporting in between these two forms that is increasingly losing appeal.

McGinnis, the student who is working on the fighting film, says documentaries can be extremely inspirational, both for those who watch them and for those who make them.

Documentaries affirm who we are, he said, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and others, by showing the world from a unique perspective.

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