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MIT blogger Kidist A. '22

What I made in my documentary class by Kidist A. '22

three videos and many, many lessons

This semester I took 21W.790[J] Short Attention Span Documentary, taught by Professor Vivek Bald. Learning to make videos was a goal of mine for 2022. I love photography and writing, and video is a nice marriage of visuals and storytelling. But, once the summer came along, and I was no closer to achieving it, I realized that I would need some external motivation,01 deadlines and grades  so I signed up for the course this fall. I also wanted to take this class because, though I will always love and continue to practice photography, in the age of TikToks and Reels, video is increasingly becoming the primary mode of capturing attention. And I wanted to keep up with that. I also took this class so I could learn how to adapt the photography gear I already had for video. Lastly, I wanted to learn the basics of Premiere Pro. 

The class is structured as a workshop where the majority of the semester is dedicated to viewing and critiquing students’ videos. We were assigned to one of five screening groups at the beginning of the semester and presented our videos on the assigned date. There were three assignments: a portrait of a person or place, a video on an issue, problem, or opinion, and a final project that combined both elements.

First Assignment: Portrait of a Person or a Place

In this first assignment, your goal will be to convey to your audience in a 90-120 second segment of video, a clear and compelling sense of a person or a place. Your main constraint, beside the time limit, is that, while you may use audio from interviews, you may not include “talking head” interview footage.

When I first read the assignment description, I wanted to do the assignment on my aunt who lives in Boston. A couple of weeks prior she had shared a part of her life story, one about music and immigration and young dreams. But she left to visit Ethiopia for about a month, so I couldn’t record her before the video’s due date. My next thought was to focus on a place, the MIT chapel. During my freshman year, I overheard a tour guide talk about how services of all religions were conducted in the church, which I found inspiring and wanted to center my video on that. But after some digging, I learned that the church was just non-denominational, which is still interesting but not as uniting as I had originally thought. Plus there were these large white tents on the Kresge lawn that obstructed a clear shot of the chapel from afar. 

At this point, I had maybe two weeks until the video was due, and still didn’t have a subject. I was ranting about it to my friends, and then it hit me. I could do a portrait of one of my friends, and thankfully Bukunmi was happy to do it. I had a preliminary meeting with her to get her overall life story and see what themes and narratives jump out. From that, I compiled a list of interview questions and met with her again. This time I brought out my mic and recorder, and we had a 45-minute long interview.  

Bukunmi made everything so easy. Her voice is both firm and soothing. She answered my every question clearly and thoroughly. Of course, cutting down 45 minutes to 2 minutes was difficult but it wasn’t hard because she hit all the points I was hoping she’d say. The harder part was filming the b-roll so that it aligned with what she was saying. Bukunmi and her friends were very patient with me as I followed her around recording them. And the result~     

Making this video was a first for many things: using my camera for video, using a mic and a recorder, recording in log, figuring out color grading, finding background music that matches the tone of the video, using premiere pro, and so much more. But, whatever fear kept me from starting videos, maybe fear of failure or struggle, was ripped off during the process. Just looking at all the features of Premiere Pro used to scare me, but starting with this small project allowed me to become familiar with it and shed my fear. 

Second Assignment: Issue, Problem, Opinion

This assignment is a bit more wide open, but potentially more complex. Your goal will be either: a )to introduce your audience in 3-5 minutes to the multiple sides of an issue or problem, i.e.: to lay an issue out for your audience members in a straightforward or neutral way, as short news items ostensibly do; or b) to introduce your audience in 3-5 minutes to an issue or problem and take a clear stance on that issue, i.e.: to produce an activist or advocacy video. 


While I was working on the first video, my friend and next-door neighbor Abby shared a statistical figure that took me by surprise. 19 Black women graduated from MIT in 2020. 


20 Black women graduated from MIT in 2022. I spend a lot of my time surrounded by Black women at MIT, and I guess it deluded me into believing there were more of us than there actually were. Seeing how little that number was, and seeing how I could name every single person was beyond shocking. I didn’t have a story or an idea, but I told Abby that I wanted to make my next video for this class investigating those numbers. 

A few weeks go by and I try to get ready to start working on this assignment. I meet with Abby again to discuss what direction to take this video. Instead, Abby shared a conversation she had with her advisor after she told him the numbers. He told her that a lot of students and even professors of color feel laden with the responsibility to drive DEI initiatives in their organizations or offices. Though this work to ensure equity and inclusion is paramount for everyone, people of color especially feel a sense of ‘if I don’t do it, who will?’ At the same time, Abby’s advisor brought up a corollary that neither Abby nor I had previously considered. The time that people of color pour into these initiatives isn’t free. It doesn’t help with tests. It doesn’t advance careers. It certainly doesn’t add opportunities to rest and recuperate, limited as they are. And those who aren’t invested in leading and working towards these initiatives have this time to dedicate to studying for tests, advancing careers, resting. And the already existing gap widens even further. 

After this conversation, I knew I had the perfect topic. As for my subject, I asked Nicole, the current political action co-chair of the Black Student Union, whose room is conveniently right across mine. Like with my first project, I had a preliminary call with Nicole and Myles, the other BSU co-chair. They shared in great detail the pressure of being chair, the legacy of the BSU, and the struggles of working with the administration. That call helped me realize that I had stumbled upon a wealth of stories, pain points, and narratives. It also made it harder to pick one narrative. In the end, I focused on Nicole’s relentless work, very much unlike the administration’s fickle stance, and the impact it has on her and Black students. 

The making of this video was significantly harder than the last. There was so much important information to include from my hour-long interview. Cutting it to five minutes seemed impossible. Moreover, unlike the first video, this interview included both audio and video, which I recorded separately with my mic and camera respectively. I did this to enhance the quality of the audio as the one the camera comes with isn’t great, but that meant I had two things to keep track of as I was also interviewing. There was also the case of setting up lighting and positioning for an interview. Also, what does b-roll for a topic on racism look like? Balancing all of this proved to be difficult, but I’m ultimately proud of the end result.  

Third Assignment: Final Video

In your final video, you will be expected to produce a slightly longer piece, roughly 5-7 minutes, that combines aspects of both the previous assignments, eg: a piece that both creates a portrait of a place and explores an issue related to that place; a portrait of a person that also puts forward a point of view on an issue; etc.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do my video on for a long time. I knew that I didn’t want to do it on something MIT-related and that I wanted it to be pretty. I thought I’d find a dancer or an artist to profile, but what would the ‘issue’ be? I deliberated for long–too long–until suddenly it was less than a week and a half before the rough draft was due. I decided that it’d be easy if I was the subject. I would do a video on balancing creativity and expression in a technical institute. But even though doing a video on myself would give me absolute control over when to record and what I would say, it would’ve been harder to record the b-roll and other footage, and I wanted a video that was pretty at the very least. Then I thought of other people I could talk to on the topic of expression and creativity, and Sienna was first in mind. 

Still, I didn’t have an idea what the ‘issue’ would be, so I asked Sienna to get dinner with me and talk about what the central issue could be. Many themes came up: being a stud, wearing masculine and feminine clothing, being misgendered. I learned so much during that dinner and decided then my final project would be about her. I interviewed her a week later and the day after that presented a seven-minute rough cut of our fifty-minute interview. I wasn’t proud of it though. My rough cut was primarily focused on her relationship with her clothes and their relation to her interests, gender, and sexuality. It was no doubt interesting and meaty, but what I really wanted to explore was the breadth of Sienna’s expression. She is unabashedly herself in everything she does, be it her room, clothes, hair, tattoos, and jewelry. It is what I most admire about her, what makes her different from so many people on this campus and beyond. But expression as an ‘issue’ felt like it couldn’t compare to something like queer identity, a subject that is immediately treated with gravity. I shared my frustration with the class and was surprisingly met with encouragement to pursue this other topic. And so I did. 

Final Thoughts

In the end, this class helped me achieve my goals. I made videos and started to learn how to use my photography equipment for video as well as edit through Premiere Pro. Besides screening a few short documentaries towards the beginning of the semester and a few lectures on shooting video and editing, this class was mostly focused on learning by doing, and I learned a lot, to say the least.  

Above all, it made me realize that making videos has so many components. I never thought it was easy but damn. I totally understand why movie credits are ten minutes long. I was lucky to be filming friends, so I could be unprofessional and make mistakes as I balanced my roles as an interviewer, camerawoman, audio mixer, editor, and more. I also struggled a lot with the b-roll and trying to figure out whether to be literal or symbolic. In watching videos now, I definitely notice the variety of angles used to sustain the audience’s attention. If the range of angles and b-roll are the backbone of video content, the unsung hero is background music. I took for granted how large a role it plays in setting the mood for any scene or video. Finding background music that aligned with the tone of my videos was a truly difficult task.        

Given all that, I’m happy with the videos I’ve made given that they were the first three videos I’ve ever intentionally worked hard to produce. I’m grateful to this class for giving me the opportunity to learn and create as well as receive thoughtful feedback from my peers. I know I have so much more to learn before I one day make videos that are seen by many others. I hope that this is only the start.

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