Mentors for Media Makers

“We were starving artists. Starving to feed ourselves on celluloid and barbequed chicken,” recalls filmmaker Ron Mann of the time during the late ‘70s when he hitchhiked from Paris to Cannes, slept on the beach, and carried his sleeping bag to meetings with producers. Somewhere along that route, he met director Frederick
Marx (Hoop Dreams, Boys to Men?). Both were inexperienced and looking for guidance. “We were cinophiles wanting to meet filmmakers,” says Mann.

But even after the success of Hoop Dreams, Marx laments that he was unable to find professional filmmakers willing to offer support. Not having had a mentor “continues
to be an Achilles heal for me,” he says. Mentoring, as Marx sees it, is a crucial part of the process of turning passive recipients of media into active creators. And with increasingly accessible digital tools and so many new media outlets and political groups soliciting work from kids, he thinks it’s an ideal time to encourage young people to tell their stories.

He recently contacted Mann—whose most recent film Tales of the Rat Fink explores Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and custom car culture— and Doug Block—the founder and co-host of the D-Word community, an online discussion forum for documentary professionals— to invite them to participate in a new program he is developing, the Doc Mentoring Studio. Still in its nascent stages, the program will link students, community activists, and young nonfiction media makers with professional filmmakers who can help the students develop technical and production skills, as well as guide them in the craft of storytelling and other less concrete aspects of nonfiction filmmaking.

“When you have young people taking up these tools, they’re typically not jaded,” says Mann. “They just need a bit of guidance so they don’t spend their energy in the wrong place.”

The current plan is for Studio students, of which a minimum fifty percent will be people of color or from low-income backgrounds, to participate in the program for eight weeks. During that time, they’ll produce work that will be screened in their communities, broadcast through potential programming partnerships with Current TV, BBC2, and PBS, or distributed via the internet and “every medium imaginable,” says Marx. In addition to the Studio’s actual postproduction facilities, he hopes production companies such as Lucasfilm will give students access to their studios. He also hopes to create franchises in other cities.

The aim is not to churn out future filmmakers, but to foster “active citizens engaged
with media,” says Marx. Mann agrees: “You can go to a factory school and do it that way, but by having someone that mentors you, it’s more in the tradition, the Socratic approach.” Mann’s own mentor, director Emile de Antonio, “taught me everything I know. More importantly, he opened up his address book and showed me the ropes.”

On the flip side, as a college professor, Mann admits, “I get more out of it than the
students. I get so much feedback.” Marx adds that many people of his generation tend
to disconnect from young people and “often have fears around digital technology. They need to be mentored by the mentees.”

Block agrees that learning can be much more productive when the exchange of information comes from both sides. “Mentoring doesn’t just have to be taking someone under your wing for a long period of time. It can be a more general thing—a chance to share information,” he says. It can also help to form bonds that will hopefully live on beyond an 8-week session.

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About :

Erica Berenstein is The Independent’s editorial associate. She is working on becoming a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker. She recently produced two documentary videos in Zambia and is in the process of editing a third.