2 - The filmmaker who always wears an orange jacket and wants to be a unicorn.

When I was a child, my mother used to take my brother and I to art museums. She was a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, meaning that she knew more than the average Joe and a lot more than the average eight-year-old. As we walked through museums, she would sit down and explain–in eight-year-old-speak– the methodology and the history behind the paintings. We talked about more than just the color and the artist’s birthplace. She broke paintings down. She helped us analyze them. She talked about how the metronome echoed itself visually throughout Matisse’s Piano Lesson. About how the Annunciations of the Renaissance were organized as diptychs. She allowed us to guess the artist’s meaning behind each piece, and pointed us towards more complete answers. 

Art Institute of Chicago (source: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Art Institute of Chicago (source: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)


What these museum visits introduced me to was the beauty and appreciation that comes from being able to look at something and understand it. In my documentary work, I value and respect documentarians who go out of there way to explain and foster understanding. Like my mom in the museum, they don’t assume that their audience brings to the table years of background knowledge. Many of them are also are weary of short attention spans and tight timelines. What these documentarians do is explain a distant world in a manner that is meaningful, clear, and engaging.

My favorite docu-splainer is a filmmaker named Johnny Harris.  Johnny makes short films about big issues for an online audience. He takes abstract concepts and academic research and makes it tangible and accessible for causal viewers. I like Johnny’s work for a number of reasons: it’s dynamic, it’s beautiful, and I can find time to fit a fifteen-minute online documentary into a busy schedule day. 


Johnny focusses on microcosms, finding visual examples of global issues. He also relies heavily on animations, and uses them to contextualize the personal stories he shares to broader geopolitical themes. Much of his filmmaking style is run and gun, as he makes a point of being on the ground and sharing the “human stories behind the map.” 


Johnny’s work–and the docu-splainer methodology in general–is far from perfect. Johnny works at the pace of a journalist rather than a documentarian, meaning he only visits a town or place for a few days. He’s also a white American guy, and although is projects are incredibly thoroughly researched, he will always be limited to an outsider’s perspective. 

In many ways, I think that Johnny represents an emerging breed of documentarians. He notes that he is working to become a “unicorn,” someone who is capable of writing, researching, editing, filming, interviewing. As many news organizations and documentarians shift focus towards online short documentaries, “unicorns” are becoming increasingly valued. This is an aspiration that I share, and in my time at CDS, I have intentionally worked on and developing my skills in as many forms of media and steps of the process as possible.

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