Monthly Archives: March 2009

Documentary subjects with disabilites

Josephine Sittenfeld‘s “Ethan & Jennifer” is a documentary about two autistic children and their families.

Jennifer, 11, is from Belchertown and Ethan, 12, is from Amherst. Sittenfeld chronicles the lives of the children and their families, sleeping over their houses and going on vacations with them. The film is supposed to shed new light on what autism is like on a day-to-day basis.

But, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette‘s Mary Carey, “Sittenfeld has noticed that some viewers who were initially unsure of whether to chuckle during some scenes tend to loosen up when they see that the autistic families find some of their children’s offbeat behavior amusing.”

The reaction of the audience and portrayal of the subjects is something I often wonder about when documenting or doing news stories on people with disabilities or disorders.

As a journalist or filmmaker, one should aim for an honest portrayal, but doing so might be difficult. What if an honest story is viewed as “exploitation” of the subjects?

The MTV  documentary new series “How’s Your News” features reporters with disabilities.

Video from How’s Your News on

“Humor is an important part of life with a disability (and life in general!),so we’d like you to know that it’s okay to laugh at some of this material. We’re all laughing right along with you…” according to a statement on the Web site’s homepage.

The show’s reporters state that people don’t find the material offensive, and believe they “provide a positive, empowering view of life with a disability.”

Journalist and P.O.V. blogger Tom Roston wrote, “But when you look at the show in the context in which it’s being marketed, will the audience be laughing with people with disabilities rather than at them? Or maybe it doesn’t matter. I am not sure.”

Video from How’s Your News on

Neither of the films are like Frederick Wiseman‘s “Titicut Follies,” which shows the mistreatment of patients in a Massachusetts institution. “Titicut Follies” was banned at one point, but did cause change in the state institution.

Perhaps “Ethan & Jennifer,” “How’s Your News,” and other pieces featuring people with disabilities can cause change misconceptions, but the public’s view will always vary.

The film “Ethan & Jennifer” will be screened Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Whole Children Center in Hadley.

Free episodes of “How’s Your News” can be view at

Check out a article by James Moore.

Please feel free to express your comments on the matter.

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Interview with filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana

Wednesday I had the opportunity to interview Palestinian-Arab Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Salh Mara’ana.

Mara’ana came to following up the screening of her new  documentary “Lady Kul el-Arab” at the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival.

Most of Mara’ana’s films are documentaries. “Paradise Lost” is a documentary about the small fishing village on the Mediterranean of Paradise, where Mara’ana was born in 1975. “One of the few Arab communities remaining after the 1948 war, Paradise became culturally and politically isolated as Jewish settlements sprung up around it, and today it is a place defined by silence and repression,” according to the Women Make Movies Web site.

Women’s stories and culture are common themes in Mara’ana’s films. 3 Times Divorced” is about a Palestinian woman in Israel whose abused by her Arab-Israeli husband. The woman is left divorced, struggling to get her children back, and battling the state of Israel in court.

“Lady Kul el-Arab” is about a young Druze woman who is a finalist in an Israeli-Arab beauty pageant. She decides to enter an Israeli beauty pageant as well, when her family and life is confronted with a series of events and cultural disputes.

The screening was followed by a question and answer session, and I sat down with Mara’ana to talk about her filmmaking. Mara’ana graduated from the Jewish-Arab academic center of Givat Haviva where she studied cinema.


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Teachers and spy cameras…

Apparently, a few teachers, both from the United Kingdom, have used spy cameras to catch their students misbehaving.

One teacher, Alex Dolan who is now a journalist, shot footage of students for a documentary. Disciplinary actions are being taken.

Another is a supply teacher, Angela Mason, who also filmed students “misbehaving” and aired the footage in a documentary.

Without a doubt, people should know if they are being filmed, told if they have been filmed, and releases should be signed if footage of them is being used.


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UMass Film Festival

A promo for the UMass Film Festival by James Weliver.

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Oh the weather in western Massachusetts

[The following piece is a class assignment for multimedia journalism with Steve Fox.]

By Keith Shannon and Rosie Walunas

Picture and audio slideshow

George Carlin once noted, “The weather will continue to change, on and off, for a long, long time.” Those were the final words of his character, “The Hippy Dippy Weatherman.” In New England, changes happen rapidly and often – and when least expected.   

The blizzard of 1997 dropped almost two feet of snow across the region, staggering numbers for a two-day storm. Residents did not prepare for the snowfall the way they normally would for a storm of this magnitude, many thought it was an elaborate hoax. It became known as the April Fool’s Storm. All of the snow fell between March 31 and April 1, 1997, over a week into spring. Easter fell the day before, with temperatures hitting 63 degrees.

January 6, 2007, the height of winter. Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Tamara Llosa-Sandor spotted 18-year-old Hannah McQuillan outside of Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, dressed in a tank-top and eating an ice cream sundae. She was no glutton for punishment, nor was she practicing to join the Polar Bear Club for their annual swims in frigid water. It was 63 degrees that day, typical late spring to early summer weather for the region. The normal average temperature on that day would be closer to 23 degrees.

More traditional winter weather did not hit the region until February that year, severely hindering the maple syrup production. Sugarers rely on cold temperatures in December and January for trees to produce enough sap to be boiled down into syrup. 

The erratic weather of 2007 had one last surprise. The warmest winter in history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, ended with a storm that dropped 9.5 inches of snow on Amherst overnight between March 16 and 17, just as University of Massachusetts students were preparing to leave for Spring Break.

Snow is not the only winter weather event that New Englanders have to worry about. This past winter began with a massive ice storm in early December, leading to Gov. Deval Patrick declaring a state of emergency across the state. The storm hit hardest in western and central Mass., where over 20,000 homes were without power for days. The storm shattered trees and downed power lines as ice sheeted around them. Goshen residents reported that the ice coating reached over one-inch thick in many cases.

The final storm of the winter fell on March 2, dropping close to a foot of snow in the Pioneer Valley and forcing schools to cancel classes. Some schools in Northern Worcester County had already experienced between eight and ten weather related school cancellations by the second week of January. Because of the state’s strict 180-day requirement for public schools, students must make up for the days that were lost, meaning students will have to attend school at a time when baseball is in full swing and cold days are but a memory.

It did not take long for the storm to be but a memory, either. Warm temperatures in the days following melted most of the winter remnants rapidly. The next weekend, streets of Northampton were crowded with people dressed as Hannah McQuillan was on that January day two years prior.    

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Documentary ethics and surveillance

Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence is using a prosthetic eye to film his next documentary.

A miniature video camera, concealed inside a prosthetic eye is being developed, and will be used by Spence whose eye was damaged in a childhood shooting accident.

This brings up some ethics issues for documentary filmmaking.

Spence is “hoping to secretly record people for a project commenting on the global spread of surveillance cameras,” according to the Associated Press.

The camera will be used to record images similar to those that Spence is seeing. It is believed that the camera will be able to capture natural human behavior, something a large camera might not be able to capture.

The book Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos by Barry Hampe discusses some of the issues with using hidden cameras. There are numerous technical problems that can occur, but ethics are at play.

Society frowns upon recording people without their knowledge. It’s a violation of privacy, and is “deliberate eavesdropping,” according to Hampe.

Releases are always an important part for subjects and filmmakers to agree on. A subject being filmed with a hidden camera should know they are being filmed. The question is, when should they be told they are being filmed? Will they still sign a talent release? What happens if releases aren’t signed?

Hampe who is skeptical of the use of hidden cameras writes, “A very thin line separates the behavioral scientist from the Peeping Tom.”

These are some issues and questions often considered when making documentaries. What’s the best way to capture a subject naturally?

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