In this digital era, films are not only a main source of entertainment, but also one of the most effective ways of communicating ideas. Documentaries in particular are a form of visual storytelling that can address important social issues through the lens of nonfiction narrative.
Take for example the impact “Blackfish” (2013) had on SeaWorld. The film documented the controversial captivity of killer whales and exposed the dangers captive orcas pose to humans and to themselves. Following the film’s July 2013 release, park attendance began to drop. By August 2014, SeaWorld announced a stock drop of 30%, and by November, its shares had fallen 50% according to the Blackfish website’s accounting.
In a similar way, “Food Inc.” (2008) shone a bright light on the corporatization of agriculture, revealing the ways unregulated agribusiness harms consumers and the environment.
Within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, we have seen the impact of documentaries like “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” which opened ground for conversation with LGBT individuals in the Adventist community. Martin Doblmeier’s look at the denomination in his series, “The ADVENTISTS,” “The ADVENTISTS 2,” and “The BLUEPRINT,” have extended localized conversations about Adventist education and the church’s health message to a broad national audience.
Documentaries have become the voice for Adventist filmmakers like Paul Kim, who wishes to use his creative force towards social causes relevant today. Paul Kim is an associate professor of documentary film at Andrew’s University. As a professor, his stated mission is to help the Adventist community engage and create culture.
In an email exchange, Kim shared his vision:
“With the digital revolution that we’re still undergoing, film and new media have an outsized impact in this realm, and so to me it’s a no brainer to have a film program that not only develops content creators, but helps all students—including non-filmmakers—better understand the medium that they spend more time with than anything else.”
Kim believes that global pressures are pushing content creators to make films that reach an extremely broad audience; Kim finds this troubling, and argues that “these films cater the lowest common denominator of basic human interest and emotion.” This is why, he argues, it is important for Adventist higher education to grow and support local and niche storytellers who are exploring topics, narratives, and characters whose stories might never be told otherwise. For Kim documentary film has a special part in creating culture and community.
“Documentaries have a unique place in society. On one end of the spectrum, it’s art. Thus like all good art the work is its own justification, and yet is designed to elicit a response that is its own unique experiences and especially valuable to a thriving society. On the other hand it can also be seen as a form of journalism, which has a very specific purpose to inform viewers on specific topics so that they can be active members of a functioning democracy. Documentary film is neither one nor the other, but has a relationship with both.”
The Andrews program was intentionally called “Documentary Film,” as opposed to “documentary production,” because, Kim says, “we wanted to emphasize that our program is not simply teaching students the creative trade, it’s teaching critical thinkers.” To that end, the curriculum includes courses in film studies and critical analysis, which are now also available to Andrews University’s general education students. Kim says of film students that they stretch themselves on an array of projects, “but the major emphasis is on their senior thesis film, which is at least a yearlong effort.”
Current student projects include a personal narrative documentary about a student’s struggle with an arthritic spinal condition that ends up crippling him on the eve of his university graduation; a story about a Mexican-American who is trying to come to terms with his ethnic heritage by comparing the side of his family who immigrated to the States with those who decided to stay in their mother country; and an upcoming story about a filmmaker who is telling the story of her sister, an autistic high school graduate who is trying to navigate their way into a college experience, and how this impacts the trajectory of her entire family.
“These would be extremely ambitious projects even for experienced professionals,” Kim noted, “so we can be really proud that this upcoming generation is so willing to tackle such major themes.”
Nina Vallado is one of Kim’s students. Vallado, currently a sophomore in Documentary Film, has taken her learning outside of the classroom by becoming assistant director of AUFilms, a student-led collective that created promotional content for the Andrews Student Association and original content for student entertainment.
“I caught a small glimpse of what is in store for me in the future. This job has kept me busier than my schoolwork. It has given me so much real life production knowledge,”Vallado said.
Asked why she had chosen this major Vallado explained, “I knew I loved documentary film and its purpose. [Kim] showed me so many possibilities with documentary, and it inspired me all the more. More so than the future possibilities, I had a story I wanted to tell.” Reflecting on her immediate goals, Vallado adds, “Right now my primary goal is to finish my Senior Thesis Documentary about autism.” As for the future she says, “I want to tell stories that make a difference in society. I want to tell stories that contribute to making a better world for those who need their stories to be told.”
The goal for Adventist filmmakers and educators like Kim is to raise a new generation of Adventists who are in tune with the culture of the time, but remain active with the Church’s mission of bringing healing to the world. In Kim’s words, “I think our young talent can use [Documentary Film] as part of being that prophetic voice that Adventism used to be—as is described by the Adventist Peace Fellowship in being ‘concerned with restoring personal and social wholeness through a commitment to justice and peace.’ (from their vision statement).”
This article is part of a series on film programs in Adventist higher education. You can read the first article in the series here: “La Sierra’s Film Prgram Trains the Next Generation of Adventist Storytellers.”
Brenda Delfino is an English major with a writing emphasis at La Sierra University, and a student intern for Spectrum.