Storytellers in a Digital Age

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipients Mira Kohl and Christina Leblanc participated in an 8-day intensive filmmaking institute at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies in June 2018. Mira and Christina are both PhD candidates in Tulane’s History Department. 

The proliferation of digital media and lightning fast access to world news has radically changed the world in which we live. And, within a context of rapidly changing mediascapes, we so often are fearful that we cannot keep pace, that we are becoming forever outdated. Too often we resign ourselves to the position of consumers, rather than producers, in the digital marketplace of knowledge. Living in an era of “alternative facts,” we do not have the luxury to become passive in our consumption of media. And, as educators, we are compelled to hone the critical-thinking and visual literacy of our students while embracing the new tools that enable us to remain effective producers of knowledge in a digital world.

Mira Kohl shoots footage on location in an artist’s studio in Durham, NC

At the Duke Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), we had the amazing opportunity to dive head first into the world of documentary filmmaking. As two Phd candidates in History whose academic careers have paralleled one another for the past five years, we have undertaken numerous challenges together. This one was by far the most fun.

Over eight days, each of us worked with another student to create a short documentary film- planning, shooting, storyboarding, and editing to produce the final product. In teams of four, we worked with experienced instructors each with their own set of specialties. Time seemed to fly over the one short week we were in Durham as we worked ten, twelve, sometimes even sixteen hour days, but CDS made the work easy, providing us with delicious and healthy home-cooked lunches, a jam-packed but efficient schedule, and constant support from our team of instructors. The speed of the program meant that we were learning by doing, trying out different lighting and settings, familiarizing ourselves with the camera, and discussing the ethics of documentary filmmaking. In contrast to a graduate education that focuses ever more narrowly on specific topics of research, this workshop was an exhilarating breath of fresh air as we acquired a whole new skillset at neck-breaking speed.

Christina and her partner edit their documentary short at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies

Each pair of filmmakers worked with a community participant to tell their story through film. This year, CDS decided to focus on documenting stories from the historically black neighborhood of Hayti in Durham. Often known as black wall street, the neighborhood rose to prominence as a free and independent black community soon after the Civil War. By the 1960s, however, Hayti was struggling due to policies for urban renewal that displaced residents, an economic downturn as the tobacco industry declined, and the building of a new freeway through the middle of the neighborhood. Different films highlighted stories of those working in the community including a dance teacher, an owner of a chicken restaurant, a couple who owned a strip mall, a world’s strongest man competitor, and a blind karate teacher.

Tulane graduate students Mira Kohl and Christina Leblanc attend the public screening of their short documentary films at the Full Frame Theater in Durham, NC

Mira worked with artist Vandorn Hinnant who employs sacred geometry in his art as a visual bridge that can connect his audience to a much deeper, spiritual world. Christina’s participant, Miss Etheldreda Guion, was a former schoolteacher embracing the freedom that retirement provided her by cheering in a senior cheer group, the Durham Divas & Dude. Working with and in the community allowed us to not only learn the technicalities of filmmaking, but to also think critically about how to tell a story – how to participate with your interviewee, rather than impose your artistic viewpoint upon another person’s life story. CDS emphasized that as filmmakers, we should strive for collaboration and transparency, rather than emphasizing expertise or hierarchy.

The Taylor Changemaker Award allowed us to pursue documentary filmmaking as a tool to communicate a diverse array of perspectives to a wide audience. As digital humanities and digital scholarship continue to grow in prominence and influence, we all are challenged to try something new and approach our individual scholarship through different lenses. Being a historian is about telling people’s stories, and about treating these stories with dignity and empathy. Our time at CDS both gave us the technical skills to use video and film as a medium, and to think about how to use this medium to thoughtfully collaborate with others, shining light onto lives less seen.



To see our creations, please check out the videos below!

[vimeo 278526209 w=640 h=360]

<p><a href=”″>Sacred Lines</a> from <a href=””>Center for Documentary Studies</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a>.</p>

[vimeo 278528751 w=640 h=360]

<p><a href=”″>More to Come</a> from <a href=””>Center for Documentary Studies</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a>.</p>