Lesson Plans

Placing Identity: Planning a Documentary Filmmaking Project

Students from R.J. Reynolds High School research and plan a segment of the film, "Placing Identity." Screenshot from "Placing Identity." United States, 2018.


This plan outlines a documentary filmmaking project facilitated over three weeks by artist-educator Diana Greene at R.J. Reynolds High School. Greene developed and facilitated the project with Wake Forest University documentary filmmaking students Stan Wright and Miles McKeller-Smith. The project was supported by the Winston-Salem Foundation and the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund. 

Project Summary:

"Placing Identity" is a documentary film workshop developed for R.J. Reynolds High School journalism students at part of Pulitzer Center's NewsArts initiative. Funded through a grant from the Pulitzer Center, Winston-Salem multimedia artist Diana Greene taught visual storytelling using the lens of the local community. Students produced a film composed of research, interviews, and personal reflections to create a documentary about place and identity. Click here to view the final film.

Project Inspiration:

"Placing Identity" begins with two questions: Does where we live affect the person we become? What creates our identity?

Specifically, students examined Forsyth County’s poverty rate and the forces inhibiting a person’s economic mobility. According to Stanford University economist Raj Chetty's research, which was highlighted in The New York Times, Forsyth County, NC ranks third from the bottom in terms of people who are born poor moving out of poverty. There are many reasons, including poor schools, lack of two parent households, housing options, and low levels of social connectivity. Why is this county one of the nation’s worst when it comes to poor people moving up the economic ladder?

Through field trips, interviews, and classroom workshop experiences, students will experiment with what it means to document people, to portray identity, and to build a story informed by context that expands understanding.

What does “placing identity” mean?

This project was inspired by the work of  award-winning photojournalist Daniella Zalcman. Zalcman has spent years creating "Signs of Your Identity," a photography project that documents Indigenous North Americans who, as children, were taken from their reservation to attend boarding schools. Click on the link below to hear her describe what the phrase “placing identity” means to her.

Planning a Documentary Film Project for your Class:

Step 1: Introduce the project to students

After you have decided on the topic for your documentary film, build a set of questions to spark the first day’s discussion with your students. Here is a link to first day Q&A slideshow for "Placing Identity" to help spark ideas for yours:

Step 2: Decide on segments for your film. Placing Identity’s storyboard looked like this:

  1. Portraiture (studying Daniella Zalcman)
  2. Economic Mobility (two experts visit classroom)
  3. Food Insecurity (field trip)
  4. Homelessness: The Salvation Army Shelter (field trip)
  5. LEAD Girls of NC
  6. Placing Identity - intro, conclusion, interwoven “interstitial” student reflection

Step 3: Divide students into crews, each focusing on one specific segment. Every person must be given a specific role. "Placing Identity" consisted of six crews, with each composed of five crew members. For a full description of each role, click on the PDF below.

  1. Lead Researcher/Producer: You will be the one to oversee the elements of the group video piece and ensure it is completed. 
  2. Editor: You will be responsible for all the footage and audio recording for your crew's segment. You are the one who is ultimately responsible for making your segment visually creative while getting the message across.
  3. Scriptwriter (two students): Your ultimate responsibility is to pen the written version of your story that we will eventually see on the screen. 
  4. Cinematographer: You will be responsible for preparing the shot list (a list of what images to capture from any field trip or visitor coming into the classroom), finding archival footage to match with script, film all relevant materials related to establishing shots, medium shots, close ups, (details – machines, text information – i.e., people places, things, signs). You will also be accountable for getting the footage to the editors.

Step 4: Create curated folders with research materials for each crew. Ours looked like these:

This screenshot captures folders used by two film crews as part of the "Placing Identity" project to archive research. United States, 2018.

I compiled resources for each of the folders to get the crews started. The crews also added their own resources to the folders.

Step 5: Research and share key foundational knowledge that all crews need.

For "Placing Identity," all students researched economic mobility. This created a common reference point for understanding policies and historical realities affecting our local marginalized communities. Students also examined photojournalist Daniella Zalcman’s series “Signs of Your Identity.” Zalcman’s process offered an artistic and ethical approach to documenting people who are underrepresented in the media.

Finally, we exposed students to several other researchers and theorists to help develop knowledge on the subject of poverty and social mobility. For example, students all viewed and discussed the following video from Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Dr. Raj Chetty:

After viewing the video, students were presented with the following questions:

  1. What does the map reveal about the regional breakdown of economic mobility?
  2. What does Chetty say about mobility for kids who grow up in rural areas?
  3. Name one of the predictors Dr. Chetty finds that can inhibit a person’s ability to achieve greater social and economic mobility?
  4. What do you think is the biggest factor in your community when you consider the chances of a person who is born poor moving up and out of poverty?

Here is another strong distillation on social mobility, from Brookings Institution Fellow Richard Reeves:

Step 6: Connect students to experts in their topics

Decide who is a compelling expert to shed light onto your film. Invite them to speak to your class and field questions and answers. Each crew researches the visitors prior to their arrivals and prepares questions based on their segments of the film. If a crew is covering homelessness, for example, they devise questions addressing facts and issues central to their script.

Step 7: Teach basic filmmaking skills

After topics and crews have been assigned, it’s time to educate students on a few technical aspects of documentary filmmaking. Using smartphones is a great way to get started. However, it’s important to be trained to understand how to compose a strong shot, use a tripod (and you’ll need that tool), and capture sound. 

Here is a link to a short tutorial on basic film composition.

Sound recording from a smartphone is weak, and not advisable for making a documentary film. A separate microphone, cable wire, and recorder is used to produce audio.

Step 8: Filmmaking and Editing
While crews are responsible for developing the scripts for their segments, I worked with students to edit the segments into a final film. For "Placing Identity," we edited using Adobe PremierePro. Our music came from a copyright-free site, Free Music Archive, and the credit roll song was purchased on SoundCloud. Here is the final film. Click below to see a sample from the student-produced scripts.

Educator Notes: 

This plan outlines a project facilitated over three weeks by artist-educator Diana Greene at R.J. Reynolds High School. Greene developed and facilitated the project with Wake Forest University documentary filmmaking students Stan Wright and Miles McKeller-Smith. The project was supported by the Winston-Salem Foundation and the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund.

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