A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
Duke University’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program welcomed its first class in the fall of 2011; founding units included the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and the Arts of the Moving Image Program. Here, founding director Tom Rankin describes the MFA’s animating philosophy and introduces the work of a member of the Class of 2019. That graduating class kicks off its multi-venue thesis exhibition, MFA|EDA 2019, on March 18.
One central focus of our Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts is to foster original documentary expression that interrogates memory, history, and identity through the lens of time, place, and narrative. I like to think of our MFA as fueled not only by the shadows of the past, but equally by the here, the now, and the local. By no means a documentary history program, so much of the work and conversation within the Duke MFA|EDA is concerned with arcs of time, with questions of who gets to tell the essential stories and how the past is rendered. We encourage each other to tell the small stories—those often overlooked dark and light sagas—in hopes that the small will resonate at large, that the particularities of place and time will evoke understandings of things universal and necessary.
The coupling of the experimental with the documentary arts was there from the earliest idea of the program, a counter-intuitive premise that a large documentary toolbox is essential to fuel the rage to tell stories in creative and effective ways. Experimentation, of course, is at the root of all creation, crucial to all artistic inquiry. Documentary artists have regularly been among the most influential experimenters, communicating about overlooked histories through new forms coupled with new media, often aspiring to reach new audiences. The abiding themes of documentary—class and place, race and memory, identity and witness, to name a few—are intermixed by the best of our documentary artists.
Sarah Riazati’s forthcoming MFA thesis film, monumental, so beautifully reckons with the dark pasts of Durham and Chapel Hill, looking squarely at contemporary moments while simultaneously revealing the archival testaments of deeper time. Riazati, a journalist, filmmaker, and photographer, delivers no easy piece on our collective struggle with monuments and the telling of history. Far from a reclamation of the past, monumental is a new reading of the evidence, a fresh shape of the telling that doesn’t rest in a simple narrative arc but rather a set of honest questions around what is known, felt, and deserving of deeper consideration. Her film stands not as an answer to the questions of history, but as a compellingly beautiful telling of stories that are laced with unresolved issues and complications, pointing all of us in the directions of deeper responsibility, inquiry, and recognition.
—Tom Rankin, Duke MFA|EDA founding director
Text and monumental trailer and video stills by Sarah Riazati.
monumental is an experimental documentary about toppled statues, Southern history, the legacy of names, the resilience of bricks, the power of poetry, the definition of patriotism, hidden family trees, and segregated cemeteries. There is no static history. It lives on, layered in the landscape, painted on the brick mills. Through investigating the ripples of the words and deeds of local postbellum industrialist Julian Shakespeare Carr, paradoxically called “the most generous white supremacist,” and reenacting scenes from the childhood of Pauli Murray, an unsung civil and women’s rights activist, the film scratches away at surfaces of stories about Durham, North Carolina. Careful scrutiny of such surfaces may reveal effaced answers to the questions that history leaves us with today regarding racial identity and segregation, industrialization and labor, and gentrification and community. As statues topple and new monuments rise, this film invites consideration of where have we been, where we are now, and where we are going.
“Dispatches from the CDS” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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