In This Issue

Documentary film is the creative nonfiction genre in the cinematic arts. Since its early form as newsreel, it has morphed into a ubiquitous expressive and artistic medium, with examples abounding in television networks, classrooms, popular movie theaters and art film houses. Documentary films have earned their inclusion in the Academy Awards.

Yet, except for such stars as Michael Moore and Ken Burns, the makers of documentary films tend to be invisible, partly because of the seemingly functional nature of the films and partly because of the collaboration required to produce them. If a film is made by a team of people that includes producer, director, videographer, editor, writer and narrator, who gets the credit for the final product?

The purpose of this issue of the CMW Jounal is to bring to public attention the persons and films of five Mennonite makers of documentaries, all of whom have made important contributions to both Mennonite and national—even international—culture. They include Burton Buller, David (and Toni) Dueck, Paul (and Julie) Hunt, Dirk Eitzen, and Jay Ruth. In that sense, this issue is a parallel counterpart to the November, 2010, issue of the CMW Journal, which featured five different Mennonite script-writers for feature films.

In content, documentary films differ from feature films in offering nonfiction instead of fiction. In regard to writing, the main concern of the CMW website, they are also radically different. The feature film issue focused on writers of film scripts. Granted, the scripts were often radically revised by producers, directors and editors. But the feature film has its origin in a literary genre, the filmscript.

What is the script of a documentary film? Who creates it? Surely, the editor of raw filming is more important than any writer. Any writing, or narration, comes virtually last in the process, as with the narrative voice-overs by John Ruth in the Buller-Ruth films, The Amish and The Hutterites. As Paul Hunt told me, “I find the story in other people’s words, and don’t have to write much.” Of course, some documentaries even lack words, and deliberately so. The essays found here describe wordless films that show students piling into a barrel (Dueck), the Penny Power project of the Mennonite Central Committee (Hunt), children building functional chairs out of cardboard and glue (Hunt), and the life of a verbally handicapped man (Ruth).

An article by Tom Roston in the August 26, 2012, issue of the New York Times (Arts, 13) points out the dilemma faced by documentarians due to the requirement by the Writers Guild, the union of television and film writers, that any film must include a “written by” credit. That poses a dilemma for documentarians who do not use an author-composed narration with their depictions of “reality.”

To cope with that objection, a Guild executive says: “Writing story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That’s writing. . . . Writing stuff to structure stories is writing.”

The directing team of Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri accept that definition. “They count the questions that they write before an interview, how they guide the discussion and how they organize all of that material in the editing room as forms of writing.” However, according to director Marshall Curry, the pitfall to crediting every documentary with a “written by” is that audiences may then assume that words spoken by subjects in the film were actually composed by someone else and the film is therefore not “genuine.” Even so, Lowell Peterson of the Writers Guild says that “it is good for audiences to know that a documentary is not just stuff that happens. The filmmakers structured a narrative and tried to tell a story.”

For us, it is good to know more about the documentary filmmakers among us. Both Burton Buller and David Dueck were inspired to become filmmakers at a time in Mennonite culture when the very medium of film was condemned for its presumed moral problems. Yet the early films of Buller, Hunt and Dueck were sponsored by agencies and groups within their Mennonite churches—Buller’s and Hunt’s by the Mennonite Central Committee, and Dueck’s by a consortium of Mennonite sponsors in Western Canada. Indeed, most of the films described here serve the needs and agendas of Mennonite and other socially conscious non-profit groups.

Working with John Ruth (father of Jay Ruth) and others, Burton Buller has created two major, classic films that present Anabaptist groups in the U.S. to non-Mennonite constituencies—The Amish: A People of Preservation (1975) and The Hutterites: To Care and Not to Care (1984). Both won the CINE Golden Eagle Award and have been widely distributed and shown on national networks. The same impact, on both Mennonite and non-Mennonite audiences, has been the case with David Dueck’s film And When They Shall Ask (1983), which depicts and documents the Mennonite exodus from Ukraine and immigration to western Canada in the difficult years following the Russian Revolution.

The earliest Mennonite filmmaker, Burton Buller, chronicles his experience with the rapidly evolving technology of cameras and editing equipment. In the early years, when a film was finished, it was finished and could not be altered. As Paul Hunt points out, nowadays with advanced filming and editing equipment, a “finished” film may nevertheless be subject to scrutiny by its sponsors, who may successfully negotiate changes in the film to meet the sponsors’ needs and preferences, thus adding yet one more person to the collaborating team.

Although Buller, Dueck and Hunt have continued to make films, and have found a way to earn a living through them, Dirk Eitzen points out that documentary filmmaking, especially within a faith community, is a dicey way to earn a living. That fact, along with his academic credentials, has led him to the university classroom, where he can also consider film theory and contribute to scholarly writings on it.

All documentarians represented here marvel at the opportunity that filmmaking has given them to get intimately acquainted with unusual people in unusual settings, including foreign cultures and countries. That includes Buller in the Killing Fields of Cambodia; Dueck in Ukraine and eastern Asia; Hunt in post-Katrina Louisiana and among autistic children; and Eitzen in post-tsunami South India and round-barn culture in Iowa. As a college student, Jay Ruth made his first film in Belize; it still stimulates political controversy in its YouTube posting.

At the end of each essay the author gives a filmography of his work. The filmographies vary in length and fullness of description. Many clips from these documentaries can be found on YouTube.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.