Sunday, 7 April 2013

Learn to Make Videos

For years I wanted to present my stories in video. Now I am doing it at age 81. My first short project is about my wife Kristina, then about Doukhobors.

I saw an ad for 'script-to-screen video production training for documentary makers and communication professionals.' The course offered 'hands-on' experience in making documentaries. Just what I needed. I enrolled in the first Doc-School held in Ottawa in March — Video Storytelling 101 — a flexible 10-day course.

Peter Biesterfeld
The founder of Doc-School and our teacher, Peter Biesterfeld was born in Soest, Germany. He has 35 years of experience in documentary film-making at Algonquin College, Carleton University, CBC, CTV, and in private business. He recently moved to Toronto where he is working on his current documentary: 'Anarchists and Activists'. I want to learn to do that.

I was pleased to meet three interesting classmates. We all have Eastern European roots. Ken Bilsky Billings began video in 1982; his father's ancestors came from the Crimea, Ukraine. Diana Watt is Manager of Special Programs in Education at the Ottawa University; she was born in Mission, British Columbia where she got to know the Doukhobor speaker/author John Kootnekoff ('Koots') who is a close friend of her father William Ordog (Hungarian). Patricia Palulis (Lithuanian) is Associate Professor of Education on sabbatical from the University of Ottawa.

Left to right: Diane Watt, Peter Biesterfeld (teacher), Koozma J. Tarasoff,
Kristina Kristova (in my video), Ken Billings, and Patricia Palulis
Our first lesson was to study documentaries online. I was most impressed by John Pilger, an independent journalist who speaks about complicity and compliance, censorship and citizen journalism, and the Iraq holocaust. See his Media and the War — Challenging The Consensus as well as the history of 'embedded' and independent reporting in The War You Don't See (2010).

We make videos as a team, and each must produce and edit their own 5-minute project. Ken was already writing and editing 'The Story', a profile promo of an Indian residential school survivor and writer. Diane is making 'WAM — Women, Action and the Media'. Patricia is working on 'Cinema Academica' and its interesting origins at Ottawa University. My project is 'Kristina — A Bulgarian Star in Canada'.

To stage and shoot my segments, everyone came to our residence. We shot Kristina showing how to cook banitsa, a classic Bulgarian pastry dish, and my interview with her. It took us eight hours of team work. Everyone had a chance to use professional cameras and rotate jobs.

We ended the night with home-cooked Russian Doukhobor borshch, Bulgarian banitsa and other dishes, lavished with Slavic hospitality (photo above).

Because this was the first of a series of DocSchools that Peter Biesterfeld plans to organize across Canada, I volunteered to make many photos for publicity. I support this low-cost effort to train citizen documentary filmmakers like us. See my photo album about the 10-day DocSchool Spring 2013.

DocSchool hopes graduates will form a collaborative community of serious documentary video producers. Arrange classes for yourself or a group via the website Master Peter can help you 'change the world' by creating effective documentaries that speak to the condition of the day. With professional coaching, you can learn much on your own.

Here are some of my insights from the 10-day course:
  1. Most important: What story do you want to tell? What is your compelling reason?
  2. Do your research, go to your passion and find your focus.
  3. You cannot tell it all. Choose items that provide an interesting consistent select story with impact. The story should be a very fresh journey with highlights and low points along the way. This visual and auditory canvas should be a unique experience in our lives.
  4. Your documentary is like a feature film. Think big, select effectively, edit ruthlessly and get the quality right.
  5. Your documentary film is a point of view with a purpose — not a consensus. The focus helps the audience open a window to the world. However, with the powerful editing tools that we have today (such as Final Cut Pro X), there is real potential for manipulating the story to some ends. This is because as editors we become kind of master puppeteers doing the job of controlling the action and reaction. As film-makers we want to reveal human emotions and present a mood (instead of just describing an action), yet at the same time we have a responsibility to be fair and honest and tell the truth.
  6. My impression is that governments do not want to tell the whole truth to the public because the truth will stop wars. Serious journalists and documentary makers believe that if they had done their jobs properly, and challenged the military about its charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, we would not have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Propaganda and public relations people sell war by manufacturing fear of a created enemy threatening our democracy. Expose this fear!
  7. Curiosity ought to be our trusted friend. When necessary, challenge the official story, especially if it comes from positions of power. Who benefits? Why don't we seek an alternative to the war solution, for example?
  8. There is no one way to do a documentary. Michael Moore uses the ambush in-your-face approach. John Pilger asks hard questions with lots of visuals and archival footage. Jennifer Baichival employs the character approach. All are valid styles.
  9. I learned that the basics of visual story telling includes some or all of the following: the cutaway, using variety of shots such as medium, close-up and extreme close-ups; holding the shot until the action is complete; doing 10 to 15 seconds on each shot; shooting at eye level because this connects us to the audience; using more 'nose room' in front; focusing on the eyes, before moving out; asking at least four questions for our Focus Statement; getting an Establishing Shot at the beginning to give context; Actuality provides the real power to a story; with Continuity, we need to build, build and build. Finally, give the last word to the main character.
  10. Always try to tell a story through the eyes of a character — someone doing things for some compelling reason.
  11. In a meeting, ask permission at the beginning: 'Do you mind if I shoot it?'
  12. Think outside the box. The main character could be a place.
  13. Transcribe tapes before editing and creating a Shot Log with Time Codes. Use a yellow marker to indicate items you want to use. Every edit cut requires a motivated reason.
In summary, the 10-day course highlighted the need for dedicated citizen videographers to inform others and to ensure that out society survives as a just, clean, caring, friendly and beautiful entity.

For me, the course provided the preliminary skills and confidence to pursue the video projects that Kristina and I began 20 years ago — with my Doukhobors and her Bulgarians. Thank you Peter!

Useful Resources
  1. RSAnimate is a professionally clean animated video for explaining a complicated message.
  2. Storify is a Social network service that lets the user create stories or timelines using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
  3. Highrise in the World is an Emmy-winning, multi-media, collaborate documentary experiment by the National Film Board of Canada that explores vertical living around the world.
  4. Out My Window is an interactive NFB interactive documentary, open-source film, unlike any you have seen before. Katherine Cizek, the director, put it together over the course of years. You choose where and when you want the stories (49 in total) to begin and end.
  5. Transcend Media Service is a valuable free subscription service from the Johan Galtung group in Norway with weekly stories from around the world. Select videos are listed every week.
  6. Videomaker Magazine is a monthly magazine which covers the use of camcorders, desktop video, editing, lighting, and audio production for novice and expert videographers.
  7. Welcome to Pine Point is an interactive web documentation for the NFB Interactive about a northern town that closed in 1988, and was subsequently demolished.
  8. Adobe AuthorWare7 is an interactive training course for e-learning.
  9. Thoughtmaybe website is an excellent online repository of films covering topics challenging modern society, industrialized civilization and globalized culture.
  10. i-Docs is an exceptional online site for people interested in interactive documentaries, where you can learn, reflect and expand your understanding of the field.
  11. Peter Biesterfeld's Doc-School has helpful links to a number of interactive sites for documentary filmmakers: NFB, HotDogs Library, The Documentary Organization of Canada, Mastering documentary interviews, Chronology of Documentary History, and BBC New Technology on changing how a documentary ends.
See my photo album about the first 10-day DocSchool.


  1. I'll be looking forward to seeing your edited product.

  2. Hello Koozma,

    It was a delight to work with you and Kristina. Thank you kindly for your hospitality and enthusiastic collaboration on all the DocSchool projects. Your photographic instincts shine through in your excellent videography work on Cinema Academica and WAM. Looking forward to leveraging a most constructive DocSchool Roadshow #! Ottawa edition by sustaining our new relationships and building a doc media community around activism and education.

    Thank you for sharing this very personal account Koozma. Wishing you and Kristina all the best on your Bulgarian and Doukhobor adventures.


    Peter Biesterfeld
    Founder, instructor

  3. Thank you Koozma. I have been wanting to do this for years and will see how I can, as Jan says above, "fit learning to make films into my life". Thank you for the inspiration. I met a wonderful film/video-maker yesterday and we plan to collaborate as well. As you say Koozma, this is an important tool that we must make better use of in our efforts to make this world a better place. Congratulations!!

  4. How interesting. I "know" Koozma as a fellow conscientious objector and Ken because of the climate justice fast he and others (including Lyn Adamson) did. I'm not sure if I could possibly fit learning to make films into my life now, but I would love to.