Documentary Institute is carving a niche in the film world
as a producer of fine documentaries about forgotten civil
Kimberly R. Taylor
life of a documentary filmmaker isn’t about Versace
gowns and Armani tuxes, small gold statues or nine-figure
For the artists in the University of Florida’s Documentary
Institute, filmmaking is telling a story about people who
have made a difference in the world.
“We’re really drawn to stories about underdogs
who have this tremendous amount of courage,” says Sandra
Dickson, co-director of the Documentary Institute.
Institute student Sean Lewis
is working on a film about alligator wrestlers.
Dickson and her colleagues tell stories of social justice
and human rights, stories that leave a strong impression on
viewers. They tell stories about people like Harry T. Moore,
a pioneering civil rights advocate from central Florida.
passionate about making a difference and telling the
stories that they think need to be told.”
— Sandra Dickson
Their recent production, Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of
Harry T. Moore, aired nationally on PBS to impressive reviews.
“The life and death of Harry T. Moore have been largely
forgotten, upstaged by later assassinations and agendas,”
wrote Barbara Phillips in the Wall Street Journal. “This
insightful documentary works to right that wrong.”
“A powerful PBS documentary pulls activist Harry T.
Moore from the shadows of history and gives him his due,”
adds Hal Bodeker of the Orlando Sentinel.
Freedom Never Dies won the Erik Barnouw award for Outstanding
Historical Documentary, an award previously won by Ken Burns,
famed for his historical documentaries on the Civil War and
Institute faculty Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts, Cindy
Hill and Cara Pilson have been creating films like Freedom
Never Dies for more than 15 years, each lending their distinctive
talents to the finished product.
“We will spend six months doing research on a topic
before we commit to it, in some instances only to abandon
it,” Dickson says. “As a writer, there may not
be enough visuals there or it just doesn’t have the
drama to hold up for 56 minutes.”
After an idea passes muster, the team does another two to
two and a half years of research.
“We set out to gather as much archival material as we
can,” says Hill, the principal photographer. “Sometimes
it’s photography, it might be film or audio recordings,
or some letters that people have written.”
daughter Evangeline (left) looks on at a New York recording
studio as actor Ossie Davis provides the voice of Harry
Moore and Ruby Dee serves as the narrator for the Documentary
Institute’s film Freedom Never Dies.
As the team’s primary researcher, Pilson does much of
the legwork. Sometimes this means trying to track down 80-year-old
people who have dusty documents hiding in their attics. For
the Harry Moore documentary, the team relied heavily on his
eldest daughter, Evangeline.
“Evangeline was just wonderful and really spent time
in her attic pulling out all the photos she had of her father,
her mother, her sister, of her as a girl — basically
she made the complete family album available to us.”
Other times it means scouring major sources like the Library
of Congress, the state archives or the FBI. The end result
is typically thousands of pages of documents.
“It’s a paper trail that’s unbelievable,”
The next step is to distill the stacks of documents into chronologies,
character sketches and other elements that will help tell
“Basically, we try to take in as much data as we can
and then go through the sorting process,” Hill says.
“Then we start shooting the interviews.”
The visual elements and the research help shape the film’s
structure and script, which Dickson generates through her
“raw meat” model of writing.
“No one disturbs me when I write, other than to throw
piece of raw meat into the room and then quickly beat a path
elsewhere,” she says.
All joking aside, script-writing is an intensive process that
can take months. Given all the work that goes into the script,
it is crucial to find the right voice to bring it to life.
Freedom Never Dies was narrated by actors Ossie Davis and
Ruby Dee, with music by Toshi Reagon and Sweet Honey in the
“I think when you’re doing historical documentary
you have to have people who can do more than just read the
script,” Hill says. “They really have to provide
the emotional tone of the script.”
Davis and Dee were obvious choices to narrate the film because
they had a personal connection, having previously produced
a tribute to Moore at an NAACP convention. And the music was
a natural, too.
Institute graduate students Sarah Prior and Monica Bigler
shooting a subject on location in Tucson, Ariz., for their
master’s thesis project Buried in the Backyard —
documentary scheduled for release in May 2004 about individuals
who currently build and maintain bomb shelters.
Honey, that’s really their forte,” Hill says.
“They had done a lot of music for previous historical
documentaries so we knew they had a track record.”
The institute’s formula has resulted in unprecedented
success. Although the Public Broadcasting Service accepts
less than five percent of documentary submissions for its
national broadcast schedule, four of the six Documentary Institute
productions — Giving up the Canal, Campaign for Cuba,
Last Days of the Revolution and Freedom Never Dies —
have been selected for national distribution.
It was the prospect of that kind of success that prompted
College of Journalism and Communications Dean Terry Hynes
to recruit the four faculty members to UF in 1998. The team
had been working together at the University of West Florida
since the 1980s.
“They were doing first-class work there, and West Florida
simply didn’t have the resources to support what they
doing at the time,” says Hynes.
UF offered the tools and facilities the foursome needed
and, in turn, they helped the college fill a critical void.
“We had every other kind of component,” Hynes
referring to the college’s programs in newspaper and
magazine writing, both short and long form, and programs in
television broadcast and production. “It was the major
piece in terms
journalism that we were missing in the college.”
Several dozen students have gone through the program since
its inaugural year, many of them producing their own award-
“We get people who are just passionate about storytelling
and about their social responsibility,” Dickson says.
passionate about making a difference and telling the stories
that they think need to be told.”
Donna Pazdera, who earned her master’s degree in Spring
2003, is a good example. Pazdera worked with John Jack and
Todd Southern to produce Sid Vision, a short-format documentary
about educational filmmaker Sid Davis.
Davis produced dozens of so-called “mental hygiene”
films in the 1940s and ‘50s on such subjects as sexuality,
hygiene, driver safety and social etiquette. One of his more
memorable was Live and Learn, which features Davis’
daughter, Jill, tripping on a carpet and impaling her herself
on a pair of scissors.
While the faculty productions may be low budget by Hollywood
standards, the student productions are really low budget at
about $5,000. In the case of Sid Vision, the students had
to come up with many creative ways to stretch that budget,
because much of the raw material was in southern California.
But it now seems that the sacrifices and hard work are
The film has been screened in New York City, been invited
to the Palm Beach International Film Festival, been named
best short documentary at the Long Beach Film Festival and
won the 2003 Angelus Awards Student Film Festival.
“We really got lucky,” Pazdera says. “It
wasn’t like we sat there and said, ‘I wonder what
will be trendy at that point.’
It just worked out.”
Rubbing elbows at film festivals can help budding documentary
filmmakers learn more about the field. Recognizing this, the
college also brings noteworthy filmmakers to campus, where
they talk with the students and offer advice about how to
produce their own films.
Pazdera remembers meeting director D.A. Pennebaker,
producer of The War Room, a film about Bill Clinton’s
1992 presidential campaign, as well as the Bob Dylan film
Don’t Look Back and dozens of other films.
Perspectives from veteran filmmakers help students see how
they can take what they learn and put it into action. Although
faculty members are there to provide students with a strong
foundation, Dickson says, “Our job is to give them some
tools and then get out of the way, let them exercise their
own creativity. We try to give them maximum room to do that.
And yes, they’re doing incredibly.”
In addition to teaching students the mechanical and
creative elements of filmmaking, Dickson and her colleagues
encourage the same idealism that resonates in their own
“Everything they do is infused with this wonderful sense
of social responsibility, which from my perspective was compelling,”
says journalism Dean Hynes. “Journalism and communications
function in this society with a great deal of freedom and
autonomy and part of what comes with that is a responsibility
to do what we do in ways that contribute to the good of society.”
The team’s earlier films, which include Giving up the
Canal, Campaign for Cuba, Last Days of the Revolution and
Deciding Who Dies, focused on political affairs issues. But
their last two documentaries, Freedom Never Dies and Negroes
with Guns, marked a shift in direction.
“One of the things I think we’d been unhappy with
for some time in the political affairs documentaries is that
we felt like we couldn’t do them justice because we
really needed to be in a position where at a moment’s
notice you fly to Cuba or Panama so you’re there when
some event takes place,” Dickson says. “Well,
our first and primary job is as educators so we can’t
leave in the middle of the semester to go spend a month elsewhere.”
So the team switched to historical documentaries with an emphasis
on civil rights. Dickson describes Negroes with Guns as the
raw and unsanitized story of Robert F. Williams, a civil rights
leader who became a symbol for black men humiliated in the
Jim Crow South in the 1950s.
“Williams dared to give public expression to the private
philosophy of many African Americans that armed self-defense
was not only a matter of survival but an honorable position,”
Williams, the forefather of the Black Power movement, was
born and raised in the small town of Monroe, N.C., just outside
of Charlotte. Not surprisingly, Monroe was a much different
town in the 1950s than it is now.
To show how Wiliams’ efforts helped the town evolve,
the documentary contrasts vintage black-and-white footage
of segregated lunch counters and swimming pools with contemporary
“We wanted to give our viewers an idea of what Monroe
looked like,” Hill says. “We tried to give people
a sense that Monroe is integrated now and give people an idea
of Rob’s legacy.”
One of the public places that Williams fought hardest to integrate
was the municipal swimming pool. Negroes With Guns shows that,
many years later, Williams’ dream was realized. The
film closes with a shot of black and white children swimming
in the pool together, likely unaware of the story behind it
The team returned to North Carolina in February, screening
Negroes With Guns in Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural
“The place was packed,” Roberts says. “They
were worried that the fire marshal might come in.”
When the movie was screened in Monroe’s public library,
it set off a moving response from the capacity crowd, Roberts
“To have people get up afterwards and say they were
so happy that they brought their son or daughter with them
to see this film ... wow,” Roberts says, his voice trailing
The Documentary Institute strives to bring the legacies and
forgotten stories of activists like Rob Williams and Harry
Moore back into the public spotlight.
“We like the idea of taking somebody like this who might
be a forgotten hero and giving them the due they deserve,”
Dickson says. “We like the idea of being able to restore
some of these people, to bring them to the attention of the
because they were lost over time.”
Professor, Department of Telecommunication
Associate in Department of Telecommunication
Associate in Department of Telecommunication
Professor, Department of Telecommunication