student documentary filmmaking

How a Film Project Brought a School’s Mission Statement to Life

By Luella Wagner, Teacher St. Labre Indian Mission School

We often think of film as entertainment on the weekends or a late night past time, but it can also serve as a very effective methodology in the classroom. While the art of story-telling has been around for ages, telling a story through film is relatively new and the opportunities for film projects in the classroom are boundless. Many teachers have already delved into this art form and have used film to video tape student projects, theatre performances, art shows, poetry festivals, and sports events.

A few years ago, I found myself teaching on an Indian reservation in the middle of nowhere – no buses, no theatres, no shopping malls, no Starbucks. But it was the perfect setting and situation for documentary filmmaking. I was teaching at St. Labre Indian Mission School in Ashland, Montana and with the support of my principal and the collaboration of my students, I set out to produce and direct a film about the school’s mission statement.

Overcoming Budgetary and Resource Odds

I did have some obstacles to overcome. The school didn’t have a studio, software equipment, not even a camera! Plus, I was working on a zero budget. With the help of the librarian I was able to get my hands on a camera and start shooting. Coming from Los Angeles where students love to pan for the camera, the reaction was quite the opposite on the reservation. There was a history of exploitation that I had to overcome, but once I gained the students’ trust production took off. We covered each one of the tenets of the school’s mission statement: Tradition, Academics, Integrity, Stewardship, Spirituality, and Social Justice.

Student Documentary Filmmaking

The students highlighted the school’s traditions with special appearances from Miss Northern Cheyenne and Miss St. Labre, who were students at St. Labre. They wore their beautifully adorned regalia and discussed the importance of maintaining customs and culture at the school. With the cooperation of the faculty, students filmed various classes that emphasized different teaching methods being utilized in the classroom. Students engaged in a lively conversation with the founder of the Beadwork Institute who explained the art of beadwork, an integral part of St. Labre’s curriculum. Students also interviewed teachers of the Crow and Cheyenne languages.

Because basketball is huge on the reservation, the students interviewed the school’s star basketball player. He spoke of the importance of sportsmanship and teamwork, but also the integrity of the sports program. The students filmed the afterschool program, which was an excellent example of stewardship.

Students from the upper school supervised, coached, and assisted with events for the elementary school. The academic counselor described the efforts being made as high school students transitioned from the reservation to college life as part of the on-going social justice program at the school. The students also filmed one of the many Native American masses that were held on campus that demonstrated both Catholic tradition and Native American spirituality.

The School’s Mission Statement

The film project gave students the opportunity to work with a different medium. It also gave them the opportunity to see the highlights of the school and what distinguished their school from other schools. We finished the project just in time for the last day of school, so the entire student body could watch the film.

The outcomes:
  • Students had a clear understanding of the school’s mission statement.
  • Students worked collaboratively on various aspects of film production.
  • Students wrote the narration for the film.
  • Students wrote interview questions for faculty, staff, and students.
  • Students conducted on-camera interviews.
  • Students learned various camera angles and lighting techniques.
  • Students edited the footage down to a 26-minute film.
  • Students selected the music for the video.

The film, We Shall Survive, won at the Oxnard Student Film Festival and was featured at the Loyola Marymount University Film Showcase.  It is my hope that other schools will bring their mission statement to life through film. The film can be placed on the school’s website, used at open houses for friends and family and it can also be used as a recruitment tool for students and teachers. As the years go by, new films will be produced to meet the growing needs and demands of the school while the earlier films can be placed in the school’s archives.

Want more teaching strategies? Explore similar posts on our blog!

Luella Wagner lived and worked on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Ashland, Montana. She taught at St. Labre Indian School where she produced and directed a documentary about the school entitled “We Shall Survive”. She has presented at several national conferences, including the National Indian Education Association Conference, the Tekakwitha Conference, the National Catholic Education Association Conference as well as numerous workshops and seminars at the state and local levels. She has also been featured on LA Talk Radio with Dr. Cheryl Lubin.

student documentary filmmaking

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