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Oct 26, 2018 at 10:00 am – Oct 28, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Perceptive Practices: Observational Documentary

A three-day course on observational documentary

Once a radical form of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, observational cinema promised the possibility of capturing a subject’s daily life and circumstances and documenting them with an unobtrusive camera.

As pioneers of the form, such as Frederick Wiseman and DA Pennebaker, near the end of their careers, how do contemporary filmmakers continue to work in and evolve this form of documentary storytelling?

Join UnionDocs and filmmaker Adam Sekuler to explore the history, theory and practice of observational filmmaking. Participants in this intensive workshop will engage in conversations about the evolution of the observational mode by viewing works, hands-on exercises and conversations with guest artists Jonathan Olshefski and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon (QUEST), Jennifer Dworkin (LOVE & DIANE), and Stephen Maing (CRIME + PUNISHMENT).

Using a looking and listening technique, we’ll investigate how our eyes and ears connect us to space and to others. We will use elements of personal storytelling, narrative and environmental description to generate images and ideas; and then craft those images into the beginnings of observational documentary projects. The goal will be to present lived human experience in a way that respects the context in which that experience takes place, while still presenting an artistic point of view.

Hands on participation will consist of one day in the field putting these concepts to work by practicing audio and camera work, and one day editing material captured. To keep course costs low, bringing your own camera and laptop is encouraged, though we’ll provide a few materials for those who don’t have equipment of their own.


Open to everyone, though the workshop setting is best suited for filmmakers, film producers, journalists, curators and media artists.

Give us an idea of who you are and why you are coming. When you register you will be asked for a short statement of interest that should briefly describe your experience and a film project (it would be great if you have a project in progress that you would present to the group during the work-in-progress critique sessions), plus a bio. There’s a spot for a link to a work sample (and CV, which would also be nice, but is not required).

$300 early bird registration by October 17th, 2018 at 5PM; $285 for members.

$350 regular registration; $335 for members.

The deposit is non-refundable. Should you need to cancel, you’ll receive half of your registration fee back until October 17th. After October 17th, the fee is non-refundable.

In order to keep costs down, this workshop is a BYOL, i.e. bring your own laptop. Students must be fully proficient using and operating their computers.

To register for a workshop, students must pay in full via card or check. After the early bird registration deadline of October 17th, course fees are not refundable or transferable and any withdrawals or deadlines will result in the full cost of the class being forfeit. There will be no exceptions. To withdraw from a course please email info-at-uniondocs.org.

In the event that a workshop does not receive sufficient enrollment, it may be canceled. Students will be notified at least 48 hours prior to the start of a cancelled workshop and will be refunded within 5 business days. If we reschedule a workshop to another date, students are also entitled to a full refund. UnionDocs reserves the right to change instructors without prior notification, and to change class location and meeting times by up to an hour with 48 hours prior notice.

Please note: Participants are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis.


Friday, Oct 26, – 10:00a- 5:00p

AM: Introductions and Presentation with Adam Sekuler and Stephen Maing

PM: Footage Shooting Exercise

Saturday, Oct 27 – 10:00a - 5:00p

AM: Presentation with Jon Olshefski and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon

PM: Editing Exercise at Abelcine

Sunday, Oct 28 – 10:00a - 5:00p

AM: Presentation with Jennifer Dworkin

PM: Presentation of Projects

Each day follows this general structure, with some minor variations and substitutions:


Warm up, inspiring references, case study, eye training.


Presentation by guest speaker + individual work-in-progress critique




Share / Discussion / Exercise


Lunch (on your own)


Presentation by guest speaker + individual work-in-progress critique




Workshop Exercise + Critique


Wrap Up


Adam Sekuler is a filmmaker, curator, educator and programmer based in New Orleans. Screening in forums and film festivals throughout the US and internationally, his many alternative films strike a delicate balance between stylization and naturalism, creating a poetic and lyrical form of visual storytelling. These include MY LIFE IN GOOGLE, a personal memoir landscape film and live performance, TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS, an evocative feature-length work-in-progress about choosing how and when to die with Alzheimer’s disease, and WORK IN PROGRESS, an observational look at labor and its various choreographies.

He’s produced short works for Barry Jenkins, Lisandro Alonso, Josh and Benny Safdie, Valerie Massadian, Amie Siegel, and Joe Swanberg.  Recently, he edited Robinson Devor’s feature length documentary Pow Wow, which premiered at Locarno Film Festival.

He holds an MFA in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado, Boulder, is Founder and Programmer of Radar: Exchanges in Dance Film Frequencies, Associate Director of Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center and was Program Director for Northwest Film Forum (Seattle) for 8 years. His work has screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives, Walker Art Center, Seattle Art Museum, Northwest Filmmakers Festival, Museum of the Moving Image, and dozens of other venues around the globe.

Jennifer Dworkin has directed and produced Love & Diane which screened at festivals around the world including New York Film Festival, Sundance, IDFA, San Francisco, Full Frame and Locarno. The film was awarded the Golden Leopard at Locarno, Truer Than Fiction Indie Spirit Award, Best Film, One World Festival and other awards. It had a theatrical run in 20 cities, and was broadcast on POV, BBC and ARTE France.

Sabrina Schmidt Gordon is a documentary filmmaker from NYC. Her editing debut won an Emmy for WGBH’s Greater Boston Arts series and she has continued to distinguish herself on award-winning films, web and television programs.

She is the co-producer and editor of DOCUMENTED, the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant. The film had record viewership for its CNN broadcast, and was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary. Her latest film, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, about the renowned poet and activist, won Best Film Directed by a Woman of Color at the African Diaspora International Film Festival. Other producing and editing credits include Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, about manhood and gender politics in Hip-Hop, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was one of the Chicago Tribune’s “Best Documentaries of 2007,” Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, a gripping film about a Malian mother’s fight for asylum to protect her daughter from ritual genital cutting, and America By The Numbers: The New Mad Men, which won the Imagen Award for Best National Informational Program.

Stephen Maing is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, cinematographer and editor based in Brooklyn. His feature documentary, High Tech, Low Life chronicled the story of two of China’s first dissident citizen-journalists fighting state-monitored censorship and was broadcast nationally on PBS’ award-winning series P.O.V. His short film, The Surrender, produced with Academy Award winner Laura Poitras, documented State Department intelligence analyst Stephen Kim’s harsh prosecution under the Espionage Act. It received a 2016 World Press Photo Award for Best Long Form Documentary and was nominated for a 2016 Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Documentary. His most recent feature Crime + Punishment, received a Special Jury Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, was filmed over four years and follows a group of minority whistleblower cops known as the NYPD12, an innocent young man stuck in Rikers and one unforgettable private investigator as they expose harmful policing practices in New York City. Stephen is a fellow of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and recipient of the International Documentary Association’s inaugural Enterprise Investigative Journalism grant as well as a 2016 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow.  He has directed films for the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Nation, The Intercept and Field of Vision. He is co-directing a forthcoming cross-sectional film about American national identity, and teaches a summer course in documentary cinematography at Massachusetts College of Art & Design.

Jonathan Olshefski is an artist and documentary filmmaker. In 2017 he was named as one of 25 New Faces in Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine and mentioned in the New York Times as one of “The 9 New Directors You Need to Watch.” Olshefski strives to tell intimate and nuanced stories that honor his subjects’ complexity by employing a production process that emphasizes collaboration, dialogue, and relationship to amplify their voices and reflect their points of view in an artful way.

His debut feature documentary, QUEST, premiered in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and went on to be selected for over 75 festivals internationally where it won multiple awards including prizes at: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, Camden International Film Festival, Baltimore International Black Film Festival, and the Milwaukee Film Festival. He has an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University and is an Associate Professor at Rowan University where he teaches in the department of Radio, TV, and Film. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two sons.

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Oct 26, 2018 at 10:00 am
Oct 28, 2018 at 5:00 pm
$285.00 – $300.00


352 Onderdonk Avenue
Ridgewood, NY 11385 United States

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