Mar 30, 2011

Documentary Production as Education

When I am presenting the Brown Ledge Gap Year program to parents and students, they are often surprised.  They think of gap-year programs as opportunities for exotic travel and adventure, not as traveling around the United States making documentaries.  The question often arises, “Why documentary?”

The answer is that documentary production captures the essence of learning.  True education is neither the assimilation of external facts nor the expression of personal understanding.  It is a dialogue between the individual and the world, a constantly shifting dialectic of observing the world through our own understanding and then articulating our observations and, through that articulation, transforming our initial understanding.  Learning is a dynamic interaction between a person and his or her environment.

This is the essence of the documentary process.  We make documentary work that expresses our own understandings, but we do it with the words of the people we interview.  We cannot merely present what we already believe, we must weave together other people’s beliefs in order to present our own.  Documentary can never be objective; the documentarian displays his or her understanding with every decision about what to keep in and what to omit, how to juxtapose two shots.  At the same time, documentary can never be purely subjective, our interview subjects do not always say what we want them to say.  They aren’t characters in our screenplay who express our preconceptions.  They have their own reality.  It is at the juncture of the documentarian’s personal expression and the stubborn reality of a complicated, external world that the dialogue of learning takes place.

The learning inherent in documentary production takes place in the sphere of human relations, and so it remains a very social kind of education.  Indeed, making documentaries not only exemplifies learning, it exemplifies citizenship.  To develop as a citizen is to continuously hone our understanding of how the world works, how it should work, and what our role is in that working.  But we live in a complex, diverse world, and to understand it fully, we have to step out of our own partial viewpoints and try to see it through the eyes of other citizens with very different backgrounds, experiences and values.  Documentaries are attempts to express the understandings of others, to listen to what other people have to say and make sense of it.  Traveling America and making documentaries in different regions is part of widening our understanding of this big, complicated country.  As individuals, we must each still come to our own vision of what the nation should be and how we should act in it.  But we will come to that vision having wrestled with the perspectives of people very different from us.
So, that is the outline of the answer to the question, “Why Documentary?”  Through making documentaries we get out of our own heads and learn from the world around us, forcing our own understanding of the world to increasingly expand to take in the lives of the people around us.  In doing so, we become wiser people and educated, cosmopolitan citizens.  Plus, making documentaries is fun.  And cool.

Timothy Shuker-Haines
Director, Brown Ledge Gap Year

Jan 27, 2011


I've just posted a few of the projects from this year on youtube.   There is Taylor's video portrait of a neighborhood barbershop (Parental warning: the humor and language is pretty raunchy and is not appropriate for younger children), Alexis' audio slideshow about the animals in the Salt Lake City animal shelter, Teak's audio slideshow about John Brickels, a Burlington clay artist, and Clare's portrait of Doreen Ketchens, who plays clarinet on the streets of New Orleans.  This last one is actually a radio piece, but to import it with the other projects, I made it into a video by putting the audio over a still photo of Doreen.

To get to the videos, you can click on them in the preview screens on the right or you can go to our youtube channel, brownledgegapyear.  Hope you enjoy them.  --Timothy

Dec 16, 2010

im working at the project green which is an organization that helps poeple in the area rebuild there houses. by recyceling older houses and other things. 

alexis also worked with me, and we mostly worked in the lumber yard pulling nails out of old wood and the like. 
we also recycled paint.

all of us are almost done with out documentaries. and have been working on them and cleaning the house all day 

Nov 25, 2010

Road Trip #2

These videos are viewable at . Unfortunately day #6 (our last day) was too long for youtube so Instead i filmed a short tour of the house while cooking thanksgiving dinner. Someday Day #6 might be available but I have to re-edit it before that's possible.
Until then enjoy days 1-5 and a short update from Taylor.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Short little update:

tour of the house:


Nov 17, 2010

A Report on the Trip from Salt Lake City to New Orleans

Day 1.  We got up super early, did a last pass through the house, threw the last things in the truck and got on the road almost on time.  This amazing feat was slightly tarnished by having to go back for a forgotten cell phone (ah well).  Breakfast at the waffle house on the Southern outskirts with the charming/crazy waiter.  I'm not sure which is a weirder breakfast food, waffles with ice cream or chicken fried steak.  Both were consumed.  Then on the road through the Wasatch Valley.  Much beauty outside the van; much sleeping in it.  Got to Zion mid-afternoon and set up camp.  A stunning setting and hard gravelly tent sites.  Took a short hike up to Emerald Pond, which wasn't very emerald, but great views of the valley and cool red-rock formations.  It's a beautiful time of the year in the park; there are aspens all through the valley, which turn a brilliant yellow in the fall.  They make a great contrast with the red rock mountain walls and the evergreens hanging to the cliffs.  There are lots of pictures of Zion on the Smugmug page,  That night we cooked burgers and samores over a fire, saw a great night sky in the clear desert air and retired to our uncomfortable sleeping quarters.

Day Two:  Up early again and a more ambitious hike up the walls of the valley.  Not long in miles, but a lot of altitude.  Went up Walter's Wiggles, a series of tight switchbacks carved into the edge of a cliff.  Every once in a while as we were stopping, gulping for breath, looking out over the edge of the mountain falling in front of us, we would think about the workers who carved out this path.  Amazing what the WPA did.  Most of us stopped at Scout's Lookout (or something like that), admiring the view and the intrepid chipmunks.  Taylor, Christian and J went on up to Angel's Landing, an outcropping jutting into the sky, with a path so steep that you have to clamber up holding onto a chain that is attached to the rock.  It looked a little daunting, but they had a great time.  From Zion, the plan was to race the sun so that we could watch the sunset over the Grand Canyon, but as we drove through the seemingly endless stark beauty of Arizona, it became clear that we were going to lose that race.  Instead, we stopped at Cave Dwellers, Arizona, which was largely deserted except for a lone Native American woman selling jewelry.  There were all these bizarre balancing rocks and a few buildings that were put up by a woman in the 1930's whose car broke down there and she fell in love with the spot.  She used the rock outcroppings as a wall and ceiling and then built more walls to close in the spaces.  There are pictures on Smugmug.  From there we drove on to Flagstaff, had dinner at a shockingly good Indian restaurant in a strip mall (shocking only in that a Flagstaff strip mall would not be my first guess at where to find really good Indian food) and then off to bed.

Day Three: Spent some time in the Flagstaff old town in the morning.  Flagstaff is mostly a huge sprawl of big box stores and motels aimed at Grand-Canyon-tourist traffic, but tucked in the middle are a few blocks of cute old buildings, with quaint cafes and galleries and new-agey stores.  My favorite detail was that the Flagstaff Professional Building had four offices in it: two psychotherapists, a cultural consultant (whatever that is) and the Temple of the Sacred Mother.  Very Professional.  After Flagstaff, it was back in the van for a long day of driving, at first through Arizona mesa, then rolling hills of National Forest that was mostly isolated scrub trees and then into the mountainous pine forests of the New Mexico/Arizona border.  The original plan was to camp in a New Mexico state park , but when the weather forecast said that it was going to be around 35 degrees that night, we opted for a motel in Deming.  First we had dinner in Glenwood, New Mexico at a great local restaurant.  The town is mostly a setting-off point for hunters, and was the first town of any kind we saw for at least fifty miles (by town, I mean anything with a gas station).  The food was a combination of steaky pub food and Mexican, and the clientele was a mix of hunters in full camo, elderly couples with the men wearing Stetsons and a bunch of families with the kids running wild, chasing each other with pool balls from the pool table.  It was a great place.  I highly recommend it, although I don't remember it's name.  It wouldn't be hard to find, since it's the only restaurant in Glendale, and one of about four buildings.  The motel in Deming was also a hoot.  It was run by a very old couple and had huge rooms with dingy carpets and random old peeling furniture.  It was a little like sleeping in your grandmother's basement.  But it was actually pretty comfortable.

Day Four: Drove down to El Paso and had lunch at Rock and Roll Taco, a generic taco joint with pictures of Elvis on the walls.  Then some people crossed the bridge into Juarez.  We'd discussed how to do this safely (during the day, always in a group, only across the border and to the market and back), and a bunch of kids were excited.  Just the experience of crossing the bridge on the border, which 60,000 people a day do, is fascinating.  A group who didn't want to go to Juarez stayed in El Paso, and I was with that group, so I can't really report on Juarez, but I think people found it interesting.  In El Paso we wandered around the shopping district, which feels much more like Mexico than like the U.S.  Then it was off through West Texas to get some miles under our belts.  We had dinner at a good Mexican place somewhere and spent the night in Fort Stockton.

Day Five: Many more hours of West Texas, and then we stopped in Austin.  Wandered around the funky chic shopping district on South Congress and then around the Sixth Street nightclub area before having dinner at a big honky-tonk place with live music.

Day Six: Much more driving.  Wow is Texas big.  The exits on Route 10 are numbered according to mileage, so you get a sense of just how long the journey is (879 miles if you're interested).  Pulled into New Orleans (Yay!) in the evening, unpacked the truck and went for dinner at the Joint, a local dive with incredibly good barbecue and incredibly good macs and cheese and potato salad for the vegetarians.

Day One of Orientation:  Walked to the French Quarter, planning on going to a show about life after Katrina at the Louisiana State Museum, but it was closed for Veterans' Day (a point for good planning).  Then wandered around the French Quarter for a while, which is always fun, ate some beignets (the New Orleans version of fried dough) and took the ferry over to Algiers to go to Mardi Gras World, which it turns out moved from Algiers to New Orleans last year (another point for good planning).  Took the ferry back to New Orleans and went to Mardi Gras World, which is the factory where most of the Mardi Gras floats are made and the warehouse where most of them are kept.  It's fun just wandering around this hangar-like building stuffed with giant heads and floats and watching the artists working on constructing new pieces.  After dinner we went to Zydeco Night at the Rock and Bowl, which was a great scene.  There's a huge dance floor and a live Zydeco band and this weird cross-section of people from young hipsters to old couples dancing together.  And there's bowling.  What more could you want?

Day Two of Orientation.  Had two interviews today, one with a civil rights lawyer who specializes in prison conditions in Louisiana and one with the Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network about conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.  Both cool, knowledgeable women; we learned a lot.  That night, a friend of Timothy's who works for an organization that handles all of the death penalty appeals in Louisiana, and also happens to live around the corner, came over for dinner.  She chatted with us about her work and about the neighborhood.  Later that night a group of people went to see the Dresden Dolls in concert (I didn't go, but I heard good things).

Last Day of Orientation.  Visited two cemeteries in New Orleans, one a classic elegant cemetery with glittering white mausolea above ground in the New Orleans fashion (because the water table is so high, it doesn't work well to bury bodies underground).  Lots of statuary and marble.  Then, for a compare and contrast, went to a paupers' cemetery with lots of handmade headstones (here the bodies are put underground, but only a couple of feet).  Then went to the House of Dance and Feathers, a private museum about Mardi Gras Indians that's in the back yard of Ronald Lewis' house in the Lower Ninth  Ward.  The collection is pretty cool, but the real reason to go to the museum is to hear Ronald Lewis talk about the Lower Ninth and Katrina and his experiences dancing with the Mardi Gras Indians (this is a separate African American Mardi Gras tradition.  Blocked out of the main Mardi Gras Krewes, African Americans developed their own traditions, in which different neighborhood social and pleasure clubs would compete by building and dancing in outrageous costumes covered in beads and feathers).  He's a really charming storyteller and I recommend anyone going to New Orleans include the House of Dance and Feathers on their itinerary.

That's the news from BLGY

Nov 13, 2010

Road Trip #2

The videos from Day 1 to Day 6 of our road trip from Utah to New Orleans are now available on youtube at
If they are not curently all processed they will be within 24hours.
Also, they will all be available on here in awhile.

Oct 24, 2010

(no name)
The past reverberates through our ears,
As we release our collective storm raging visions sears the sky.
Freeing the closed
Breaking the shackles
Releasing the broken
Pen to paper, brush it ink, they will rise from the streets, corners….. alleys underground, rising, rising screaming the rebellion not though violence but through, their passion , illusions and thought.
Resistance turning an obsessive panic
Turn to dust
Turn to Dust
You’re every needs….
Thoughts and will….
To be taken cared for in the
 Governing collective
 Desperate to pacify the rising raging storm of irregularity and creativity
Come don’t listen don’t listen that voice, revolutions in sound lies!
There will be No fear, no pain no need wonder why, when or where.
….. No
 this thought, look inside cut the parasite feel the light