A Sure Form with an Unsure Content

As of a month ago, I was fairly certain of the project I would do for my capstone course. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, my opinion on this project reversed, and now I am back at the drawling board. Though I have ideas, I have no sure project in mind, which brings me both anxiety and curiosity.

The one thing I am sure of is the form in which I want to explore a topic. Over the past year, I’ve become familiar with documentary production. Last semester, I became familiar with essay documentary more specifically. It’s my favorite art form because it is an excellent device for an author to show their perspective both visually and verbally, allowing for a dialectic between the word and image. In it, the author of the documentary usually plays a role from behind or even in front of the camera (or both), and uses his voice over to comment on the events that visually unfold. An example of an interesting essay doc is John Bresland’s The Seinfeld Analog. You can also check out a recent essay doc I did (it’s a semi rough version uploaded for class that I haven’t started publicizing–we’re still polishing it in post prod). It’s called Screens and Stages. I also really enjoy work by Ross McElwee, in which he explores his own personal relationships in order to make metaphysical statements often very reflexive of film.

A more radical thing for me to do would be to make a fiction essay doc (meaning script something that the audience would perceive as a non-fiction documentary if they went into it without warning). I love non-fiction filmmaking because of it’s ability to make me go out into the real world, but I’ve always been curious about blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction through documentary.

So, I have a mode down with several examples in mind (though I could always take more recommendations for inspiration!), but I’m not totally sure on the content. I have several things in mind:

1. An essay doc regarding my family or my home town. I think as a VERY small town raised boy, I have an interesting story on what it’s like to examine your roots before you graduate and finally make a large departure from them.

2. Possibly do a relationship oriented piece–explore the question of how much our emotions for someone is in our control or is determined by timing, place, and physiology.

3. Any interesting doc that can deal with identity in new ways.


I’m still very much in the brainstorming process. But I can tell you that I’m most inspired to do work that reflects on identity, relationships, sex, and that act of storytelling itself (especially if I can tie all of these things together). Let me know if you have any advice for finding my muse!

12 thoughts to “A Sure Form with an Unsure Content”

  1. Hi Levi! I’m glad you’re doing a documentary because then I’ll get to watch it. I’ve never heard of documentary essays before, but it sounds pretty cool. It seems like your first and second ideas could blend together well, since the first one is about the place you grew up and the second includes a reference to the dependence relationships have on place. I personally think the second one sounds awesome and interesting, because I’m always thinking about that kind of thing — am I friends with people because of some inherent commonality, or because they were just around at the right time? I think that topic, combined with your hometown, could make something really interesting.

  2. Your ideas sound awesome! I started thinking about different things you could do and had a really weird idea. Bear with me, this might get meta, but I think it would be interesting to make a documentary about the difference between fiction and nonfiction documentaries. What I mean is that you could look at a specific topic, such as your hometown and explore the truth, but also what you would change to make the documentary more compelling. What are those changes? Why are they more compelling? How does the relationship with the viewer get affected ie trust lost/gained? Accountability? I know this is rambly haha but it just popped into my head.

  3. Levi,
    As someone rather unfamiliar with the world of film, I think your project would be incredibly intriguing. Also, considering I’m much more certain about my content than my form, I am impressed. My suggestions, therefore, are more focused on helping you come up with subject matter for your essay documentary. I’m wondering if you’ve taken a creative writing class or even a poetry class that would have given you even just the bare outlines of something to focus on. If not, maybe consider sitting down and writing a short poem or story or something that you can then adapt to film. That would give you the chance to reflect on and possibly even write about the process of adapting text to film. There would be an interesting connection between writing (this minor) and film (your passion), that you could explore in a lot of different ways.
    Sounds like you’re off to an excellent start so keep it up!


  4. Levi,

    Thank you for sharing your ideas and links to your work and the work of others. It was really helpful to have those references when envisioning what you have in mind for your project. I am really intrigued by your idea of an essay doc that would explore your family or home town. I think this project topic would allow you explore an area that is deeply personal, but also can give you room to extrapolate ideas to a bigger picture. For example, you can explore questions such as what does this mean in the greater context of your identity? How have your roots shaped your mindset or overall college experience? How is your experience related to those that you currently surround yourself with? I am really excited to see where you take this idea and look forward to seeing your idea take form throughout the semester!


  5. Hi Levi,

    I really like the idea of trying to blur fiction and non-fiction. I also love trying to focus on your hometown. And in the spirit of blurring I’m interested in potentially combining Sam and Andrew’s ideas together. If you’ve written about your hometown either nonfiction or fictionalized I think that’d be great to add to a nonfiction documentary. In addition, are you familiar with fiction about small towns? Are there familiar tropes that you could play with in a nonfiction documentary? How is your experience different than those stories? How is it the same? Then part of your story becomes how much of your identity is shaped by place and how much that place is shaped by tropes. I’m super interested in this, and cannot wait to see what it becomes.

  6. It sounds like you are not the right track and just need to narrow in a little bit. Maybe something to consider when decided on a topic is not what you’d like to do most but what story needs to be told the most? What story does the community need to hear the most?

    Also, I like the idea of including the act of storytelling as a part of your topic. A documentary of a documentary production? Something meta like that could be cool

  7. Definitely awesome that you are undertaking a documentary for the capstone project! I agree with most of the comments already made, but one thing that crossed my mind is if you do choose to go down the path of a project focused on relationships, I think one super fascinating topic the presence and ease of online for both serious matchmaking and casual hookups like Tinder. I know you might intend to take the project a completely different direction, but if you did decide to choose this topic I think talking to people about their views and long term satisfaction of these kinds of instant matchmaking from people using said programs. I personally wrote off these photo based matchmakers until I had heard genuine success stories from friends, so it is definitely something I am now curious about. Just a thought….good luck!

  8. Hi Levi,

    I really like your idea for the second one! I recently had a discussion with my friend about our previous relationships and narrowed down the time and place and other circumstances for the reasons we we fell for that person. Then, just a few days ago I read this article about how a psychologist manipulated two people to fall in love in one day, and they are still married. It brings up the interesting question of how a connection with someone develops. I think it could be really awesome to create a documentary where you manipulate the circumstances to copy something like this. Just an idea!

    Here’s the link to the article.

  9. Hey Levi,
    I think going the documentary route is a great idea and I found your idea about blurring the lines of fiction and nonfiction really interesting. To achieve that blurring, maybe what you could do is do interviews and research about the topic you choose, and then write this fictional documentary script based on that nonfiction research. If you go the relationships route, one idea may be to chart the experiences of multiple people in various phases of a relationship, from casual to hook-up to long-term dating. By conveying the different attitudes of each character, you may be able to answer your question of “how much our emotions for someone is in our control or is determined by timing, place, and physiology.” Anyway having such a concrete form of storytelling is a good start, and I’m sure you’ll come up with something intriguing.

  10. Hey Levi!

    I like where your head is! I think you have some awesome options to work with. And the documentary idea sounds cool, so I’m excited to see it if it works out. Is there a way that these three ideas intertwine? Could you do a documentary about identity and relationships or identity and where you come from? Or identity and how its affected by where we come from and the relationships (both plutonic and intimate) we make. It could be like a three part documentary that braid into each other (if that makes any sense at all).

    I can picture the documentary in my head and your topics sound compelling. I guess you could also pick the one that poses the most challenge!

  11. Hey Levi,

    I think the idea you mention about exploring your family and small town roots could be really interesting. You could combine this with your idea about relationships by looking at how your relationships with your family members were formed and how they changed when you graduated and left town. Possibly taking a trip back (depending on if that’s feasible) could make for a really fascinating visual complement to your story. I realize this doesn’t necessarily incorporate fictional elements, but maybe you can write a fictional story based on your real family and home town? Just some thoughts. Excited to see how this turns out!

  12. Hi Levi,

    From my perspective, your first idea about exploring your small-town roots is more developed and specific than your second one, though I remember a quote from a past professor (who was quoting someone else, I think) that relates to both ideas: “You love or hate a place based on whether or not you loved or hated yourself in that place.” First of all, I think that the idea from that quote applies to past relationships too, where you might love someone based on the side of you they brought out at that time, or maybe you grow to hate a place because you associate it with a terrible ex. Maybe you could keep that quote in mind as you move forward?

    But back to your project: because the first idea seems more narrow and focused than the first, I think it seems more promising to me. I’m curious about whether or not you think your small-town upbringing was an overall good or bad thing, or how it influenced your college experience. Also, I think that it’s interesting how past experiences seem to change when we look at them in retrospect, especially those from childhood. For example, I now look back on stuff I was told by some of my more…let’s call them “traditional” teachers in elementary school and realize just how messed up and strange it was. How does your time at UM affect the way in which you view your past? How do the two influence one another?

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