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'Hoop Dreams' Director To Teach Documentary Filmmaking

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March 1, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Steve James -- best known as the award winning film director, producer and co-editor of “Hoop Dreams” -- will co-teach a television documentary filmmaking class at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the Spring quarter.

“Hoop Dreams” recently was named to the National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress. In 1994, it won every major documentary award of 1994 and earned James the coveted Directors Guild Award. A variant on the American dream, the film tells the stories of two high school boys growing up amid drug addiction, poverty and violence, and trying to improve their lives by winning basketball scholarships.

Fifteen undergraduates from Medill and the radio/television film department of Northwestern’s School of Communication will be selected for the class, titled simply “Television News Documentary.” They will work as a team over 12 weeks to create a non-fiction film that revolves around the impending gentrification of a Chicago neighborhood.

Jon Petrovich, professor and broadcast journalism chairperson at Medill, and Larry Lichty, professor of radio/television/film, will co-teach with James. Petrovich brings to the class 37 years of broadcasting experience --15 as executive vice president of CNN.

Lichty recently was a consultant on last year’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie directed by George Clooney about broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. Lichty first became involved in documentary work as director of media research for the 13-episode series “Vietnam: A Television History.” It was public television’s most successful documentary when it aired in 1983.

According to all three co-teachers, the audience for documentaries has grown exponentially since “Hoop Dreams” was released in 1994. “It was a significant event when a documentary played in a commercial theatre back then,” says James. “People have come to realize documentaries don’t have to be medicine that you go see because they’re good for you. They know that they can be enlightening and still be entertaining.”

Petrovich and Lichty point not only to Michael Moore’s record-breaking “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which earned almost $120 million and had the widest U.S. release ever for a documentary. They also single out critically acclaimed non-fiction films “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “March of the Penguins,” “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Murderball,” “Grizzly Man,” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” that recently played in mainstream cinemas.

“Clearly there is a market for well-made and entertaining non-fiction films, and their increasing popularity has made filmmakers confident in the genre’s future,” Petrovich says. Digital technology also is making it easier for film students and aspiring journalists to shoot a film.

James is looking forward to teaching within a journalism school. “When I teach it’s usually in film departments or with aspiring filmmakers who aren’t doing journalism,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to engage with people who identify first as journalists.”

For his part, James sees himself not as a journalist but as “a filmmaker who delves into real-life stories.” Nonetheless, he worked as executive producer, story director and series editor of “The New Americans,” an acclaimed seven-hour PBS miniseries about immigration that aired in 2004. His 2005 film, “Reel Paradise,” was his fourth documentary to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

James insists he is not so much “issue-oriented” as interested in telling stories about “ordinary” people who can illuminate a topic he has chosen to explore. “In my experience, you go into a documentary with a plan about what you want to accomplish, but you don’t lock yourself into a rigid blueprint about how you’re going to achieve it,” he says. That may be why, he jests, his films often take years to complete.

James, Petrovich and Lichty will help their students “hit the ground running” by choosing the film’s subject and locale in advance. “With so little time,” James says, “it will be an intensive class…We’ll regularly view and comment on their work and (ask them to) rework and re-edit again and again.”

A byproduct of the class for the students will be learning about collaboration. With 12 weeks to create a product, James says working effectively together will be an absolute necessity. “The students will view collaboration as a blessing and not as a curse,” he says.