May 3, 2018

How a Schoolwide Documentary Changed Everything

I understand that it's no small statement to say that one project 'changed everything', but in my personal experience, that's exactly what happened when I agreed to take on what inadvertently became the longest shoot of my career (thus far anyway). For over a year, from December 2015 to December 2016, I captured months worth of footage while filming an open-ended documentary inside a newly built Canadian school. Here's the story in a nutshell. 

School Documentary Medicine Hat Alberta

It all started in the summer of 2015 when I took a meeting at Dr. Roy Wilson Learning Centre in Medicine Hat, Alberta. We sat down to discuss the idea of collaborating on an original project that would utilize video and photography in some capacity. The concept was loose, but essentially the goal was to document learning, collaboration, and to showcase the emerging culture of a brand new school. The funds had been made available through a private donor to do something just like this, however it was clear from the start that we would all be embarking on a big experiment.

Schoolwide Documentary: Clip #1

What none of us really knew at the time was how a project like this would evolve. While it was clear it would take months to create, I don't think any of us imagined how big it would become or that it would end up stretching over several years. I had a lot of other projects in the works at this time as well, but I still found myself in the school almost weekly throughout 2016 to shoot another classroom, interview, discussion, etc. 

We truly embraced the unknown in those early months of filming. As things progressed a narrative began to emerge about the importance of collaboration, how education had evolved in recent years, and what learning looked like inside a modern Canadian school. 

After filming wrapped at the end of 2016, editing began and continued into the spring. In early June 2017 a rough cut of the documentary was completed, screened, and received with overwhelming positivity and excitement. I'm glossing over what a daunting task editing a project with terabytes / weeks worth of raw footage actually was, but let's just say it was an experience. It seemed we were only a few final tweaks away from having the project go live and released to the public at large. Then we hit a roadblock.

School Documentary Editing Luke
The thing about working on a project with a timeline as long as this one was that there had been some major shifts between when we began shooting to when we finished. Pressures outside of the school, internal politics, the school district - I would love to tell you exactly what happened, but frankly, I still don't fully understand it myself. All I know is that the barriers that kept the documentary from a public release had nothing to do with anyone involved in our project.

Schoolwide Documentary: Clip #2

As frustrating as that setback was, too much had gone into all of this to simply give up. After months of back and forth we finally got the green light to share some of the collaborative clips that had been filmed around the school.

It bears repeating, this project would have never happened in the first place had it not been for the incredible involvement of the teachers, students, and staff at Dr. Roy Wilson Learning Centre who wholeheartedly embraced this wild experiment from the get-go. From class projects to impromptu interviews to candid scenes playing out all over the school, there was no shortage of enthusiasm (particularly with the grade school kids) when the camera came out.

On top of that, to be invited into classrooms, to participate in class projects, and to share some of my own passion for multimedia was a real bonus throughout this entire journey. I owe a lot to the lead team, teachers, and staff who helped to facilitate these experiences and link a lot of the moving pieces together. These few clips just scratch the surface of how much was actually happening. You have to realize, by the very nature of the project, this schoolwide documentary had a cast of hundreds.  

Schoolwide Documentary: Clip #3

While the narrative element of this documentary has been archived, I'm proud to at least be able to share some of the collaboration that really defined what this experience was all about. When I took this on I never could've imagined what a profound impact making this documentary would have on my own creativity, shooting style, and outlook. Whatever small impact I may have had by simply being in the school, I was rewarded tenfold by the humour, ingenuity, and the willingness to share I experienced from the students of WLC week after week. 

There's poetry in the fact that shooting a schoolwide documentary (that was never officially released) ended up becoming an elaborate life lesson. We all grew a bit in the process. We embraced an ambitious challenge and a rare opportunity to do something big. We turned a lot of everyday moments into art. And when it counted, there was no shortage of inspiration, ideas, or creativity to go around. Maybe it was all just a glorified work in progress, but in my humble opinion, that's how a schoolwide documentary changed everything.

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