Skip to main content

Documentary students tackle 21st-century issues in ‘Facing the Façade’ workshop with alumnus

May 22, 2024

Following a screening of their documentaries, student filmmakers in the Advanced Documentary Workshop pose with several of their mentors ... Following a screening of their documentaries, student filmmakers in the Advanced Documentary Workshop pose with several of their mentors from the class, including award-winning filmmaker and IU alumnus Jerald Harkness, who produced and directed the film "Facing the Façade" in 1994; Susanne Schwibs, senior lecturer in The Media School; and Rachael Stoeltje, director of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Thousands of students flock to Indiana University Bloomington each year to explore what it takes to work in industries like art, fashion, music, film and television. With world-class resources and encouragement from experienced instructors, students in The Media School recently explored the world of documentary filmmaking. While telling stories through the eyes of others, they discovered more about themselves along the way.

The opportunity came about thanks to Jerald Harkness, an award-winning filmmaker and IU alumnus, and his 1994 documentary highlighting the experiences of eight African American students on the Bloomington campus. A film ahead of its time, “Facing the Façade” received critical acclaim for its revealing portrayal of Black students’ college experience in a largely white environment.

Thirty years later, Harkness was invited to return to his alma mater by former classmate Rachael Stoeltje, who is now director of IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. Together, they partnered with current faculty to guide students through “Facing the Façade in the 21st Century,” the focus of The Media School’s Advanced Documentary Workshop course during the spring semester. The course offered students an opportunity to learn the art and business of documentary filmmaking while bringing attention to often overlooked perspectives.

Susanne Schwibs, award-winning filmmaker and senior lecturer in The Media School, taught the course while Harkness met with students weekly to offer personalized feedback. Together, they offered students an insider perspective from the industry.

It was a full-circle moment to collaborate with Schwibs, since Harkness was a student of hers in the early ’90s, taking the 16mm film class that she still teaches to this day.

Jerald Harkness and Susanne Schwibs meet with students to review their documentaries and offer guidance as part of the Advanced Documenta... Jerald Harkness and Susanne Schwibs meet with students to review their documentaries and offer guidance as part of the Advanced Documentary Workshop course inspired by Harkness' film “Facing the Façade.” Photo by Alex Kumar, Indiana University

“I still see Susanne as my professor,” Harkness said with a smile. “When you’re a film student, you’re facing this big void of the unknown because you really don’t know how to make a film. We’re trying to empower them and help them find their own voices.”

Stoeltje, who secured funding for the workshop from the IU Black Philanthropy Circle and an anonymous donor, also served on a faculty panel that included Media School senior lecturer Bear Brown, lecturer Robin Robinson and senior lecturer Jim Krause, who is also director of Media Arts & Production. Faculty shared insights with workshop students about pitching projects, fundraising, casting, and conducting research and interviews, while offering real-time feedback on the short documentaries students created throughout the semester.

After pitching to the faculty panel, four students were chosen to direct their short film concepts. Student production teams filled the roles of audio engineer, cinematographer and editor. Several of the films that were made focused on the Black student experience at IU, a landscape that Harkness said has changed drastically over the course of three decades.

“In the early ’90s, there wasn’t an internet, social media or YouTube,” Harkness said, which made finding a community of belonging more difficult. “It was a fantastic experience to be a student, but as a Black student there were moments when you wondered where you fit in. With ‘Facing the Façade,’ I wanted to explore that and make peace with it as well.

“Now, I think students are facing the same things that I did, but it’s more nuanced and isn’t as much about race. Each of these students are trying to figure out who they are, where they fit into this whole film production world, and how they can craft their skill sets and interests and translate those into a career.”

Indiana University graduate student Ashley Hayes answers questions about her team's film Because We Are during a screenin... Indiana University graduate student Ashley Hayes answers questions about her team's film “Because We Are” during a screening of the documentary shorts produced during the semester. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Third-year Ph.D. student Ashley Hayes directed “Because We Are” for the class, shining a spotlight on the 50th season of the IU African American Dance Company, of which she is a former member. Hayes, who is studying African American and African Diaspora studies in the College of Arts and Sciences with a minor in media arts and sciences, created her film around the dance company’s practice of “ubuntu.”

“Ubuntu is a word from the Bantu language that describes this idea of ‘I am, because we are,’ based on the fact that I cannot be all that I am unless I rely on the environment I’m part of,” Hayes said. “All these different facets of reality tie into my own, so I can be all I am because of everything else that is around me. The African American Dance Company is the essence of that.”

Hayes said she chose the concept of “ubuntu” because she found a sense of community through the dance company.

“People in the dance company are students but also community members and faculty,” Hayes said. “It is very much a space that teaches people how to embody different principles of Africanist traditions.”

Hayes aspires to work as a cultural consultant on film and television sets that deal with Black culture after she graduates. She said that making “Because We Are” places her one step closer to reaching her goal.

“It’s been such a pleasurable experience,” Hayes said. “I think a large part of that is due to Jerald being so available and so willing to help us believe in ourselves and have access to the people, the places and the opportunities that are available.”

Indiana University student Louise Kern-Kensler, left, introduces her team's film The Brass Ceiling during a screening of ... Indiana University student Louise Kern-Kensler, left, introduces her team's film “The Brass Ceiling” during a screening of the Advanced Documentary Workshop students' documentary shorts. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Louise Kern-Kensler, a fifth-year student double majoring in trombone performance at the Jacobs School of Music and media studies at The Media School, created “The Brass Ceiling.” Her short film shows the perspectives of women who are brass musicians and the discrimination they often face when competing for professional roles in an environment dominated by men.

“Jerald made ‘Facing the Façade’ as a way to analyze his experience as a Black student at IU, and I’m making my film as a way to analyze my experience in music as a woman,” Kern-Kensler said.

She said she first thought of the concept while she was in high school; the title of her college essay was “The Brass Ceiling.” During the production process, she and her team members traveled to New York and Texas, interviewing student musicians from the Jacobs School of Music and The Juilliard School, as well as professional trombonist Kirsten Warfield. The interviews weave together similar stories of women pursuing their passion in spite of the hardships they face due to their gender.

During a final screening for the class, Kern-Kensler said her goal was to use film as a conduit to drive change and understand her own experience as a woman who plays a brass instrument. She expressed gratitude to the course instructors for creating the workshop that made her film possible. She plans to submit the documentary to film festivals.

“I took the class as an opportunity to work with talented crew and to acquire resources to make a film and to learn from people like Susanne and Jerald,” Kern-Kensler said. “They’re my two biggest mentors at the school.”

Hayes echoed the same sentiment. She said the mentorship she received from the class gave her confidence that she can achieve her career goals.

“I’ve realized there is a place for what I want to do,” Hayes said. “It can happen, and I can make films.”

Three out of the four final short documentaries made by students can be viewed on the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive website. Harkness’ award-winning film collection, including “Facing the Façade,” can be found at IU’s Black Film Center & Archive.

Author

IU Newsroom

Julia Hodson

Storyteller

More stories