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Watson launches documentary initiative

John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative to feature screenings, discussions, master classes

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs launched the John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative for Documentary Film and Social Progress this semester, a program designed to emphasize social issues and inspire students to explore filmmaking with renowned media practitioners.

The initiative, which is in memory of John F. Kennedy Jr. ’83, was founded collaboratively with University alumni and filmmakers Randall Poster ’84, Rory Kennedy ’91, Davis Guggenheim ’86 and Gary Ginsberg ’84. They proposed the initiative and served as the program curators to honor Kennedy Jr.’s commitment to conveying the truth through film and narrative in the face of societal issues, according to a Watson news release.

“John had always been very interested in storytelling and images to help people have a greater depth of understanding (of) the world around them,” said Rory Kennedy, an American documentary filmmaker and Kennedy Jr.’s cousin. In his life, Kennedy Jr. co-founded George, a magazine focused on contextualizing politics in popular culture in order to engage the general reader.

“We deeply admired [Kennedy Jr.]’s desire to make news available through different media channels and democratize the provision of news,” said Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld. The proposal for the initiative was also aligned with the Institute’s longstanding interest in filmmaking and screening.

Documentary film is the centerpiece of the initiative as the organizers found this medium effective in conveying both emotion and truth. “It can be emotionally very provocative because the image is so powerful,” Steinfeld said.

In a documentary, music further places the “story in time to either reinforce the emotion, help to capture the energy of the story or character and sometimes to give broader context,” said Poster, a music supervisor for many films and television shows, including “The Irishman” and “Lost.”

Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow in international and public affairs at the Watson Institute, pointed to the ability of documentary to give audiences a holistic background on social and political events, in contrast with mainstream social media. “Coup 53,” the first documentary featured as a part of the initiative, addresses U.S.-Iran relations and shows how film “gives people the background that allows them to understand events as they unfold,” he said.

To present and preserve truth through multiple perspectives, the initiative is supported by various groups on campus, Steinfeld said. These entities include the Brown Arts Initiative, the Department of Modern Culture and Media, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Brazil Initiative and the Department of Africana Studies.

“We plan to continue to include this collaboration as part of a larger momentum to support film across campus,” BAI Faculty Director and Professor of Literary Arts Thalia Field said.

Poster added that “we are hoping to align ourselves with various departments … to make (the initiative) a vibrant and vital program.”

In the future, the initiative will continue to engage the student body and inspire those interested in media, music and journalism, Steinfeld said. Scheduled events for the spring include master classes by renowned filmmakers such as Kennedy and Emily Kassie ’14, documentary screenings and panel discussions and a forum themed “Democracy in Peril.” As the initiative expands, it will likely be incorporated into the curriculum through additional course offerings, Steinfeld added. Fellowships and professorships may also be offered.

“In this stage where people don’t necessarily trust the news, documentaries have the potential to … give a sense and depth of understanding of how other people live,” Kennedy said. “It can enable all of us to open our hearts and minds a little bit more, which I think is exactly what’s needed in our world.”


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