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Two Decades of Documentaries
October 25, 2010
GW’s acclaimed Documentary Center celebrates its 20th anniversary.
By Samara Sit
It began in 1990 with a little seed money, a handful of students and a mandate from the university: Launch a center to teach documentary filmmaking and explore the integration of history in the media.
Twenty years and one name change later, GW’s Documentary Center can claim credit for a successful roster of nearly 400 alumni and several award-winning documentaries.
Nina Gilden Seavey, M.A. ’91, began what was then called the Center for History in the Media to examine the growing field of historical documentaries. Initially, Ms. Seavey co-taught with her film partner, Paul Wagner, a five-week course called the Institute for Documentary Filmmaking. The program immersed graduate students in the basics of documentary production.
By the mid-1990s, additional support from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences grew the program into the Documentary Center and the filmmaking institute became an intense, six-month-long certificate program now based in Columbian College’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Recently, a multiyear partnership with the U.S. Department of State expanded the reach of the center’s work into developing nations through an International Emerging Filmmakers Fellowship program.
The center’s pedagogy is in keeping with Ms. Seavey’s view that film schools should focus on documentary style and the collaborative creative process. “Film schools that don’t are setting up young filmmakers for disappointment when they find they can’t explain themselves creatively,” Ms. Seavey says.
The center, which now also accepts undergraduates, attracts a wide variety of students, some of whom apply the curriculum’s visual storytelling and group-work mentality outside of the film industry.
Psychiatrist Yavar Moghimi, M.D. ’07, who completed the center’s certificate program earlier this year, sees expanding his visual storytelling skills as a way to help his patients.
“We live in a more visual time now and to be skilled in filmmaking allows you to tell a story in a way that is more accessible to people,” he says.
Ms. Seavey’s work as an Emmy Award-winning documentarian is also based at the center, and her students have the opportunity to get involved in making those documentaries to gain real-world experience.
“Plot, story development, mechanisms of expression— what I struggle with even with my 25 years of experience are the same things my students struggle with,” says Ms. Seavey, whose films have spanned topics like polio, country music and bullfighting. Her just-completed film 4th & Goal follows six football players in their quest to sign with the NFL.
Peter Rollberg, a professor of Slavic languages, film studies and international affairs, has worked with Ms. Seavey on the advisory board of the Film Studies committee, a group that oversees the undergraduate minor. He assisted her work on the film The Ballad of Bering Strait and says GW is “blessed” to have her as a member of the faculty.
“Seavey, with her untiring and hard-to-defeat demeanor, has really put the arts, and film in particular, at the center of attention for people here,” says Dr. Rollberg.
Katie Dickey, B.A. ’09, enrolled in the certificate program at the Documentary Center during her senior year at GW.
“D.C. is really the place to be if you want to work in documentary filmmaking,” says Ms. Dickey, who is now working with director Gorman Bechard on a documentary about the Replacements. “The center will place you well, and if you work hard, you can get to where you want to be.”
All GW community members are invited to celebrate the Documentary Center’s 20th birthday tomorrow night with a screening of Ms. Seavey’s new film. For more information, click here.
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