Learning by Ear

August 1, 2006

Oral historian and audio artist Judith Sloan, along with her husband and collaborator, Warren Lehrer, embarked on a documentary project in Queens, New York, in 1999, that spanned four years and several media. The award-winning project, Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America, explored the lives of immigrants and refugees living in Queens through storytelling workshops, extended interviews, and photographs.

During a recent presentation at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, Sloan shared voices, stories, and images from the project. But she was not on campus simply to demonstrate her own work. She was also there to teach and converse with amateur documentary makers. As a guest lecturer with Hearing is Believing, CDS's summer audio institute, she led a session on the topic of interviewing.

The audio institute, now in its fourth year, teaches participants technical skills in audio documentary--for example, recording and editing techniques--but also presents to them, according to CDS's learning outreach director, Dawn Dreyer, "the holistic experience of collaborating with communities and the kind of relationships that are necessary to do documentary work."

It does that by giving students experience immersing themselves in the community. For the past two years, the institute, led by John Biewen, a correspondent-producer for American RadioWorks and an award-winning documentary maker himself, has teamed with Duke's community affairs office and the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project to come up with documentary story ideas so that students, who are only there for one week, can jump into their work immediately. The Quality of Life Project, supported by Duke, brings together residents, nonprofits, and businesses to address community issues. The documentary focus this year was on community issues as seen through the eyes of local businesses and nonprofits.

Participants included anthropology instructors, a library archivist, a medical doctor, local community organizers, and, says Dreyer, young people "who have heard [Public Radio International's] This American Life." The program kicked off with a bus tour of Southwest Central Durham and an information session about Durham and the Quality of Life Project. Aspiring documentary makers were assigned subjects that included a local hair salon, a woman who performs homeopathic medicine, and a woman living in a retirement community. The product was a series of short audio documentaries, many from first-time producers.

Participants benefited from formal sessions and presentations, as well as informal front-porch chats, with Sloan and Chris Brookes, an independent radio producer and experienced documentary maker. According to Dreyer, Sloan was so excited by the project that she stayed for three days even though her presentation took only one. Producers like Sloan find "it is refreshing that we take audio so seriously," Dreyer says. "A lot of people, when they think of documentary work, think of video.

"There is a lot of audio work out there that is complex enough, multi-layered enough, that it really deserves to have people sit and listen to it rather than catching it in the background while caught in traffic."