Jack Silberman is an old hand at making documentaries.
Over his career, dating back almost three decades, he has directed, produced and/or written more than 45 nonfiction films and won many awards.
“Back in the ’80s, when we would go off to India to make a documentary, we would have 150 kilos of equipment,” Silberman recalled in an interview with the Straight. “Just the camera, tripod, and accessories would cost us $150,000.
"And today, you can…actually make a great documentary with the cellphone you have in your pocket.”
While the barriers to entry have diminished, filmmakers still need sufficient research and technical skills—and a sense of characters and locations—to create compelling documentaries.
That’s what Silberman and other faculty members in Capilano University’s School of Motion Picture Arts are instilling in its documentary certificate program.
“It’s an intensive eight-month immersion in the art and production of documentary cinema,” Silberman explained. “And during those eight months, students develop the storytelling skills needed to produce, write, direct, shoot, edit, and promote their nonfiction content at what we call an ‘emerging professional’ level.”
There are courses covering cinematography, location sound recording, writing, producing, directing, editing, and business writing. The program runs from September to April.
“We’re dealing with truth and reality—with real people and real lives,” Silberman said. “There are a lot of ethical considerations that go into making a documentary, because we are representing truth. We are telling true stories. We have to be concerned about these things and act in a way that’s ethical and honest.”
Technological innovations may have made it easier to capture images, but that’s not the only consideration, according to Silberman. “We teach professional practice.”
During the eight months, students will make up to 18 short films, including two capstone projects. In the first term, they create a five-minute documentary.
“They research it, they direct it, they write it, and they edit it themselves,” Silberman said. “They bring all those skills together, and another student serves as the cinematographer or the sound recordist.”
By the end of the second term, in April, students are required to complete a 10-minute documentary.
According to Silberman, they can go anywhere in the world to shoot it. These final projects are screened at Capilano University’s Nat and Flora Bosa Centre for Film and Animation.
One of the program’s first graduates was Dianne Whelan (Basecamp: 40 Days on Everest and This Land). She’s travelling the world’s longest trail solo as she creates her new feature-length documentary, 500 Days in the Wild.
A more recent grad, Nick Quenville, is a cinematographer and filmmaker and was director of photography on the third season of Wild Bear Rescue.
It’s a show on the Animal Planet channel about the rehabilitation of orphaned wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, at a centre in Smithers, B.C.
Another grad, Markus Pukonen, is travelling the world for five years with no motorized transport, documenting this on his Routes of Change vlog.
He has already surpassed 35,000 kilometres via walking, cycling, paddling, sailing, pogo-sticking, and any other way to move that doesn’t involve the production of greenhouse gases.
Silberman is one of several working independent filmmakers who teach in the documentary certificate program. This means that instructors are familiar with current film-funding sources because they’re dealing with this issue with their own films.
Over the years, many students have come from Metro Vancouver and across Canada. But as the program’s reputation has grown, it has also attracted international students from a long list of countries, as well as mature students hoping to create films.
“We’ve had doctors, lawyers, and the former head of an RCMP SWAT team,” Silberman revealed.
He added that this diversity of students creates an ideal environment for future filmmakers because documentaries are about real life.
“If you have a classroom, 20 students with a whole range of different cultural and life experiences, it just enriches that learning experience,” Silberman said.
On September 19, the CapU documentary certificate program and the DOXA Documentary Film Festival are copresenting a Best of the Fest short program in the Bosa Centre theatre.
This will mark the launch of a monthly series of documentary screenings.