William & Mary

'Writing with light' helps English professor clarify passions Zuber has fallen in love with the documentary-film genre

“Writing with light” as an expression to describe filmmaking did not originate with Sharon Zuber. When she first heard the phrase, however, something clicked. The words lent unity to her academic passions. They contributed clarity to her ongoing life journey.

Make no mistake: Zuber’s journey is that of a teacher. For years, however, the visiting assistant professor of English at the College has been aware of curious little ironies: the fact that she is a professor of literature who reads nonfiction for leisure and that she is an instructor of composition who, ever since her creation of the PBS-bound film “They Live in Guinea,” had fallen in love with the film documentary.

“Writing with light—that’s what the motion picture is,” she explains. “You’re using light to compose. There is this idea of writing consisting of black marks on a white page. It doesn’t take much to think about the silver halide on film being the black and the white. For me, that is what made the connection.”

The processes—brainstorming, composing, revising and publishing—are the same, she says. “The logic of editing a film is the logic of rhetoric.”

Zuber is a down-home, approachable—arguably maternal—intructor who is quickly forgiving when allusions to seminal documentarians such as David and Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter,” 1970) or Robert Drew (“Primary,” 1960) are unrecognized and unappreciated. Such men, she quietly explains, were moved by the subject they brought to art.

Discussing her own work, “They Live in Guinea,” completed in 1996, she talks as much about how the piece bonded her to the community in Gloucester County as she does its poignant portrayal of the impacts of issues facing Chesapeake Bay watermen. “As a result of that film, I still serve on the Guinea Jubilee Committee [in Gloucester],” she says. “We meet once a month planning for a yearly festival, and I spend the weekend selling T-shirts.”

T-shirts? Certainly Zuber is not driven by ego. She is consistent in deflecting accolades. Her work—and by extension, the work of her students—celebrates the subject, not the producer. She is quick to laugh off any suggestion that she should become more “Hollywood.”

“I’m not really sure that I even think of myself as an artist,” she says. “I still have trouble calling myself a filmmaker because it sounds so pretentious. I have made some films, and I enjoy working with the video production, but I guess what I would say is that I am a teacher first. Teaching, as you well know, can cover a multitude of things.”

Photo: Zuber sits in the English department’s Writing Resource Center. By David WIlliard.

Each of Zuber’s recent forays into filmmaking has involved students. She tosses an idea to her class that intrigues her. If no students are interested, she comes up with another idea. Recent films co-produced by the assistant professor and her students have looked at an educational toy initiative with the College’s Sharpe Community Scholars Program, at the mental health-care services focusing on Eastern State Hospital and a piece called “Master of the Flame” featuring the glass-blowing work of local artist Emilio Santini.

Zuber’s recent promotional documentary about the College’s Classroom Across the Pacific educational program is illustrative (view the piece on the Faculty Focus page at www.wm.edu). She has had an interest in Asian culture ever since she hosted two Asian graduate students who were working on doctoral degrees at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. After she announced that grant money was available for the project, Kevin Williams (’07), an avid film-studies student, accepted the challenge. He was enrolled in the anthropology course that is taught jointly in Hong Kong and Williamsburg via satellite video-conferencing technology. The challenge for Zuber and Williams was to capture the excitement and the learning exchanges as the two groups of students got together for one week in Hong Kong.

Zuber says, “I didn’t have in mind what the final product would look like. What I had in mind was the excitement of students getting together and what it meant to have cross-cultural experiences.” For Williams, whose previous experience consisted of making short movies, filming in a documentary style was disconcerting at first. He took his camera, and because he trusted Zuber, he followed her advice to “just shoot everything.”

“In a scripted movie, I know the shots. I know the sequences,” Williams says. “I know what I need to have. With a documentary, I knew that I would be looking at 10 hours of footage and trying to cut that down to 10 minutes.”

The footage that Zuber and Williams captured included numerous dining experiences, classroom presentations, recreational opportunities and street scenes, including a dragon dance filmed by the pair as they ran out of a restaurant. By the end of the coverage, they had 13 hours of material. The final product, along with additional videos put together by Williams for class participants, recorded not only the excitement of the face-to-face meetings but also served to break down stereotypes—one of the core functions of the program.

Williams explains, “We were of the opinion that these Chinese kids don’t have fun, that they just work hard-core all the time, but we got over there and realized that they go out and have fun, and they work just about as hard as we do. They, of course, were of the opinion that we were all just big and lazy and that we eat a lot of food. It turned out that they actually ate more than we did.”

As far as putting the videos together, Williams says, “I learned that when doing a documentary, you are not in control. It’s a matter of chance in terms of what you capture and what you don’t. Then once you are done shooting, you have to sit there and look at a lot of footage and figure out what should make it in, what shouldn’t and how you’re going to find the structure for what may seem to be unrelated themes.”

Williams credits Zuber for her “experienced advice,” which was to focus on subthemes and then find a narrative link.

“As far as film professors go, she is one of the best at supporting what students want to do,” Williams says. “Having produced films, she knows the process, but she’s pretty much 100 percent behind you, no matter what you do. She will do whatever she can to help you accomplish your vision.”

It is an exciting time to teach documentary filmmaking. The genre is riding the wave of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Some students want to be the next Michael Moore; others are incensed by him. The evolution of digital video technologies also will enable more and more people to undertake filmmaking in coming years.

“Students are coming in, are signing up,” Zuber says. “They are bringing their own equipment, their own advanced software. They are teaching me.”

Last year, 10 students wanted to set up an advanced editing class. She told them, “I would have to be in the class because I don’t have the training.” Together Zuber and the students looked at relevant software and at what they wanted to learn. Each week one of the students took on a topic. At the end of the course, class members were proficient in manipulating multiple tracks, titling and color correcting, among other tasks. “We all were pushed to another level,” Zuber says.

In class, Zuber acquaints students with filmmakers who have stretched the medium, including the Maysles brothers, Drew and Moore. “Students often come into the course with the naive view that documentaries should be straightforward and objective,” she says. “In some ways, it has never been like that.” During the 1960s, producers of documentaries attempted to create products that Zuber described as being “free of the constraints of television that could compete with feature films.”

Moore, she believes, is continuing that tradition. “He has said that he’s not a documentary filmmaker because he’s trying to distance himself from a genre that most people think should be objective,” she says. “Michael Moore is not trying to be objective. I think he is defining the genre.” Students, of course, must produce film. Their attempts can be fresh, imaginative, probing or just awkward. Zuber only encourages, even if her first reaction to a proposal is that there is “no way” it can be successful because of the limitations related to equipment and time. More often than not, however, it becomes successful.

“They do it,” Zuber says. And, as they do it, she—in a maternal manner, no doubt—celebrates their successes and their discoveries. “They learn to be flexible,” she says. “They learn to solve problems, to use their imaginations, to look at issues from all different directions.” Accomplished cinematographers do that. They shoot from more than one position; they get down on the ground or they find an elevated place, she says.

“They have faith in the process; they let the footage determine where the documentary will go,” Zuber explains. “They compose; they compose with light. It is a journey.”

See Zuber’s promotional documentary on the classroom across the Pacific: Low resolution version / High resolution version.