A new class offered this fall through the Department of Telecommunications unites history and film production through the study of the documentary.
Dr. Thomas Mascaro, telecommunications, has developed Documentaries and American History, which looks at productions from World War II to the present.
Documentary is one of the fastest-growing segments of the media industry, propelled by such recent theatrical hits as Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War,” and the French production “March of the Penguins.”
Though these films deal with issues as disparate as gun control, jobs leaving the United States and the Vietnam War, they share a background in research and fact-finding, Mascaro said. “The basic skills involved are in collecting evidence, sifting it into its most coherent parts and then making it visual,” he explained, adding that documentaries may also be in the form of audio broadcasts.
Cross-listed with the history department, the new course has about 30 undergraduate and graduate students, including 10 history majors. “The telecommunications students learn to understand the research and writing needed for the content of the production, and the history majors learn how the topic can be expressed visually,” he said, explaining the course’s interdisciplinary appeal.
Students watch and discuss films on Three Mile Island, the space program, 9/11 and the first Clinton presidential campaign, among others. They compile their own “evidence books” on topics they might be interested in and learn to do research beyond the Internet, including interviews with people who had experience with the topic or event, scholarly works and news coverage. “I encourage them to get out there and really dig in,” Mascaro said.
Noting that documentaries are becoming “edgier,” he explained that the purpose and the contribution of the medium is to “take a longer view of a larger topic” and to present viewers with enough facts that, despite the director’s possible bias, they may draw their own conclusions.
The new class builds upon a previous course taught by Mascaro called Documentary and Scripting, in which students research and write for a production based upon a theme. Popular with history, telecommunications and film students, the class offers the history students a tangible product for their portfolio that demonstrates what can be done with a history degree, and film students the basis for their work in the next class in the sequence, Advanced Video Production.
Graduate students in the Documentaries and American History class are assigned to write papers to submit to a juried paper competition in the documentary studies division of the Broadcast Education Association, the educational arm of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The new division was created in response to a proposal from Mascaro and a colleague, Dr. William Deering of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. As editor of BEA’s history division newsletter, Mascaro had observed a growing interest in documentaries among members at the association’s annual meetings, and a preponderance of documentary submissions under the “Other” category for the organization’s Media Arts Festival.
Since its official founding last year, the division has become the fourth-largest component of BEA. Mascaro was elected to a two-year term as its chair.
Mascaro, whose Ph.D. dissertation was on network documentaries during the Reagan years, frequently publishes on the documentary. He has been chosen to write the introduction to the documentary chapter in the upcoming HBO Reader. The cable channel has produced upward of 100 documentaries, Mascaro pointed out. The rise of cable channels such as Discovery and History have also contributed to the number of documentaries being produced.
Mascaro co-edited the summer 2005 edition of the Journal of Popular Film and Television, a theme issue titled “African Americans in Film and Television: Twentieth-Century Lessons for a New Millennium.” Co-edited with Dr. Jannette Dates, dean of the School of Communications at Howard University, “the issue speaks quite directly to the broad discussions of race that are taking place as a result of Hurricane Katrina,” Mascaro said, an event he described as “changing the face of journalism.”
Also this summer, Mascaro published an article in Journalism History on a controversial CBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Another piece by him appeared in Television Quarterly about PBS’s decision to edit out profanities from “A Company of Soldiers,” a documentary on American troops in Iraq. (BGSU’s PBS affiliate, WBGU, decided to run the unedited original version.)