Durham County

The one about the Oscar winner and the would-be filmmakers

Everyone makes mistakes: Students working on their first documentary film, their teacher (and filmmaker) Todd Tinkham, even Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams.

“You have to make mistakes,” Williams told students at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s annual School of Doc. “That’s how you learn.” Tinkham was critiquing some footage students took last week at the Museum of Life and Science. Williams was at the class to give support and answer questions about making film.

“We made a lot of mistakes yesterday, myself included,” Tinkham told the students. A lot of what they had shot was not usable, he said. Tinkham is spending his seventh summer teaching students everything from composing a good shot to getting the proper release forms. Thirteen high school students from Durham Public Schools are taking the five-week course free of charge. “A lot of them didn’t touch a [digital camera] until yesterday,” Tinkham said.

Williams directed the 2010 documentary “Music by Prudence,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, Short Subject. It chronicles the music of Zimbabwean singer Prudence Mabhena, who uses music to show that people with disabilities need not have limitations.

His documentary “Life, Animated” received the 2016 Audience Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, who is autistic and who as a child began using Disney characters to make sense of his world.

Williams is now a governor of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A student asked him about building connections with the people he has filmed.

“That’s a process that takes time. As a documentary filmmaker, one of the luxuries is you have time,” Williams said. He spent a year with Prudence Mabhena to tell her story. He also spent a lot of time at an orphanage for disabled children in Zimbabwe. “I didn’t know how to behave. I was uncomfortable” at first, he said. Soon, he realized that the children were able to joke about their disabilities, and he became more relaxed.

“Life, Animated” also introduced him to autism. “As I got comfortable with Owen, I learned to communicate with him .... I grew as a person and a filmmaker,” Williams said. “My goal was to transform the audience to see the world through [Owen’s] eyes.”

He also told the students about his journey from reporter to documentary filmmaker. He worked for CNN and got the assignment to cover the Sundance Film Festival, where he interviewed a lot of documentary filmmakers. He decided “for me, documentaries were the real stories being told,” and he jumped ship.

Marie Cox, a student at Jordan High School, said she had made a “mockumentary” once, but School of Doc “is my first real experience being fully immersed” in filmmaking. She thinks she has found a niche in editing and interviewing. “I enjoy getting to talk to people and learn more about them,” she said.

Tinkham reviewed some of the students’ mistakes, and showed how to make their shots more effective. He and the students also exchanged ideas about the shoot for their final project, a film about the Museum of Life and Sciene, a better experience. He also showed Williams a film the students had shot earlier of local songwriter Sadie Zimet, as an example of what Tinkham called their best work so far.

Tinkham was giving out assignments: who will shoot the bears, who will shoot the faces of people watching the bears. “We’ve just got to do a better job of getting a beginning, a middle and an end,” Tinkham said. “You guys have the skills.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

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