Award-winning filmmaker discusses media-industry convergence and community-based production processe
As an indecisive college student at Harvard, Michele Forman majored in English and visual arts. Decades later, she says an educational background she saw as a weakness at the beginning of her career has put her on the frontline of today’s professional communications industry.
“It really is that mixture of text and image that is driving our job and career changes right now,” said
Forman, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and director of media studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, when she spoke at Alabama Media Professionals’ Aug. 9 meeting. “It's turned out to be something that I draw upon in my teaching, that I view as a resource. Being able to think, ‘How is it that certain kinds information are communicated well using language and other kinds of information are communicated well through imagery? And what are the ways in which each of those fail us?’ I think there are huge implications in that.”
Fields that were siloed and separate in the past have converged, Forman continued. “You find yourself feeling like you’re having to sort of fake it in fields that are really not ones that you were initially trained in. That's one of the things that I see as sort of perpetual anxiety among my students, particularly in our market, where there really is an expectation that you're a sort of one-person band.”
After taking a class taught by film director Spike Lee her senior year in college, Forman began working for Lee, finding projects for him to executive produce. Lee’s interest in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church brought Forman home from New York City to do research and pre-production work on the film that would become “4 Little Girls.”
“That experience of doing all the pre-interviews, that kind of investigative work, that sort of archival historical work, is what really flipped a switch in my mind about what I wanted to do career-wise,” Forman said. “It really ignited that fire in me about what documentary can do.”
In 2003, Forman co-founded the UAB Media Studies Program at UAB with the aim of using new media technologies to connect students with important community issues in the Greater Birmingham area. While Forman is a fan of traditional documentary aesthetics, fairly early on, she and her students began experimenting with an unconventional production process.
“Perhaps unlike a lot of PBS-produced documentaries, or the kind of multimedia that might be
produced in newsrooms, we tend to use a community-based model,” Forman said of films students produce through her classes.
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