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October 24, 2002 Students dive into documentaries



by Louise Solomita

Peter Downie’s documentary class, an advanced workshop course for journalism students, was a little fuller than usual March 3.

Students presented their documentary projects on two Montreal charities, Project Chance and The Yellow Door, to an audience of teachers, classmates, and representatives from the organizations.

“I’m so proud of this class and what you guys have accomplished,” Downie told his students, while passing out bags of popcorn in preparation for the screening.

Downie gave his class, which includes both graduate and undergraduate journalism students, six weeks to produce documentaries on charities about which they initially knew very little. Downie himself admits that his mandate was “impossible.”

At the beginning of the term, he divided the class up, and set both groups to work on the profiles. Many of the students did not know each other or how to operate the video equipment.

“You’ve got to be nuts to take this course,” Downie recalled telling his students on the first day of class. After watching the two 30-minute documentaries his students managed to produce, however, Downie said proudly, “It turns out they’re all nuts.”

The documentary on Project Chance, a low-cost housing unit with daycare service for single mothers who are also full-time students, looked closely at the lives of three women, who discussed their choices, challenges and goals. The women spoke about daily life at Project Chance, and provided various perspectives on being a student and a single mother.

Suan Cross, director of Project Chance, appreciated this personalized approach. “The thing I liked about the documentary was that it really focused on the single mothers,” she said. “It was more about the women than about second chances.” Cross was particularly pleased that the documentary never became a simple promotional video for the organization.

The documentary about the Yellow Door, an organization that offers community service in the downtown area through several volunteer programs, focused on its services for the elderly, which include friendly visits. The students’ interviews with both the volunteers and the senior citizens demonstrated the rewards for both parties of taking part in such an organization.

Flo Tracy, program director at the Yellow Door, thought the documentary was “excellent.” She particularly liked the fact that that the final product was in both French and English.

Downie’s students were proud of having done all the researching, interviewing, filming and hours upon hours of editing. Tom Peacock, who worked on the Yellow Door documentary, said he is happy with the final product, especially given the technical challenges that he and his fellow students faced during the course. “Everyone was a beginner,” he said, “and there were problems every step of the way.”

Michèle Mischler, who worked on the Project Chance documentary, said the most rewarding part of the process was presenting the final product to the single mothers featured in the interviews.

“The biggest accomplishment, for me, was that they felt they were properly represented,” she said.

The students will spend the remainder of the term working on individual documentaries on a topic of their choice.

Downie hopes that Concordia Broadcast Journalism will eventually become known as a centre for documentary-making.

This was the first year he assigned Montreal charities to his students as a documentary subject, and given the positive outcome and the various other charities out there to explore, he will continue the project next year.