Billy Field was on a London train in 1972 when he saw a newspaper with the words “British Film Institute” in red. A law-school bound senior majoring in American Studies, Field didn’t think anything of it at first, but as he got off the train, a light went off.
He wanted to make films. And he wanted to teach others to make films.
“When I was a kid I wanted to make movies, but there was no one to teach me how to make movies,” Field said. “If you wanted to play football, there were plenty of people to teach you to play football. But if you wanted to make films there was nobody to teach you.”
After moving to Kansas City to work at the famed Calvin Film Productions and then spending 15 years in Hollywood writing and making movies, Field came back to Alabama and now teaches filmmaking to honors students. The idea for Field’s Honors Documentary Filmmaking class developed from a book he wrote for children, called Make A Movie That Tells A Story. He didn’t want his students to make films that were only relevant within the class; he wanted them to create something that connected them to the community.
Students in Honors Documentary Filmmaking produce films about Alabama history, which are then used as a part of the history curriculum in K-12 classrooms. The class has been offered as an honors fine arts credit for nine years now, and almost 90 films from the class have been published on Field’s website lightscameraalabama.com.
Most students have no prior filmmaking experience, so Field teaches them about conceptualizing a story, interviewing subjects, filming, controlling light and sound, and editing.
Previous classes have made documentaries about Alabama’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion, George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” and the racially motivated murder of Emmitt Till in Mississippi. Field said making a film allows the students to connect to the events and issues they’re discussing in a deeper way than simply reading about it.
“A kid will want to make a movie, but they don’t want to learn history,” Field said. “But in the process of making a movie, they have to learn the history. They’ve learned to think about history. History is not dates and names; history is stories.”
Publishing the films on the website adds another level of pressure to the assignment. Not only is the content available to friends and classmates, but also it is accessible around the world. Field said this creates a sense of accountability; students put extra effort into the work because they know it’s going to be shown publicly with their name on it. This also allows students to take advantage of a relatively new medium of communication, social media.
“You can make the best film in the world, but it doesn’t matter if nobody sees it,” said Evan Terry, a student teaching assistant for the class. “I think social media is a great platform for sharing documentaries. Thirty years ago you’d make a documentary and you’d have to get a TV station to carry it or you’d have to find a theater to show it in, so an independent or student documentary was very difficult to distribute to people.”
Now, Terry said, a documentary can be shared through multiple platforms of social media for free and reach a larger audience.
Although the films are based on Alabama history, Field pushes his students to use them as a platform to address broader issues. Filmmaker Gracie Dover’s film Old Row or No Row began as a history of the Greek system at Alabama but grew into an examination of social stratification in society.
“It started off really superficial just about the Greek system at Alabama and it ended up having this really awesome deep meaning,” said Dover, a sophomore majoring in American Studies. “The final angle ended up being why do humans put themselves above other humans? Why do we feel the need to turn other humans into horrible monsters in order to create an identity? I really explored that side of it.”
While her project was not without setbacks, Dover said it taught her a new way to approach challenges.
“There were times when I was so frustrated and I thought this class is so hard why am I doing this? It’s an elective,” Dover said, “But I learned that you can’t just expect things to happen. You really have to go out there and make them happen.”
Repeatedly, students have said their work in the class goes beyond grades, Terry agrees.
“There’s a real sense of accomplishment, you feel proud of what you made,” Terry said. “Most classes, you get a grade, and that’s it. With this, you’ve been spending a whole semester working on the film and you grow to really care about the story. The grade is one of the least important things about it.”
Students are often surprised by how well their films turn out after months of researching, planning, shooting and pulling all-nighters in the editing lab.
“One of the most satisfying moments of the class is to see students push back from the screen after having just watched their movie and say, ‘I did that?’” Field said.
While he doesn’t expect everyone who takes his class to end up in the film industry, Field said he hopes the knowledge of how to make a film that communicates a message will help them in whatever career they have in the future.
For example, he explained, documentary-style filmmaking can be used in the engineering field to document a problem with a structure and then share it with other engineers around the world to collaborate on a solution. Additionally, he said one of the most powerful uses of documentaries is for activism in local communities.
“We live in a world now where video can be very powerful,” Field said. “It can be like a language, if you learn the language of cinema then you can communicate using your phone. It’s really empowering you to say things. If you’ve got something you care about and you want to say something about it, you can blog about it, you can write an email about it, but when you make a movie about it – movies are designed to make people care.”
Field said the basis for every film is a problem, and the documentary is a way to explore the solutions to that problem, even if there are no concrete answers yet. He hopes through his class, students will take away not only the technical ability for filmmaking but the skills of story telling and analysis necessary to discuss issues and make change.
“Right now we’ve got a lot of problems in the world, we’ve got wars all over the place,” he said. “I think one of the reasons we have wars is that we don’t understand each other. Maybe through the digital world we can get to know each other. So I think for everybody to be able to make some kind of a movie and express themselves to try to say something that they want to say is a powerful tool.”