Shooting historians

Thebe Mabanga

The South African documentary-making establishment has received a boost from Wits University’s launch last year of its master’s degree in history and documentary film.

The degree “fills a gap”, says course coordinator Professor Philip Bonner, head of Wits’s history department.

“There is no place on the Reef offering training that combines conceptual, intellectual, research and technical components,” he says.

Offered jointly by Wits’s School of the Arts, the history department and Wits TV, the degree can be taken over one year full-time or two years part-time.

The conceptual, intellectual and research training comes through three modules of coursework. Students are taught a history module that acquaints them with cutting-edge research on 20th-century South Africa and Europe. This teaches students to access research material. They can then combine this with a module of their choice from the School of Social Sciences to enable them to research current social issues as well as cultural, social and political history.

The TV school contributes theory of documentary-making, in which students analyse the making of a documentary. The technical aspect is in the form of a six-week crash course on camera work and editing. The course has a rigorous, hands-on emphasis.

“As early as the end of the first semester, students produce a five-minute film,” says Bonner. The students research, script, shoot, edit and produce the documentary.

Bonner believes that the course is more than just about history.

“It is history going back to archaeology and brought up to the present. South Africa has a riveting, fascinating and rich history. There are several [international] documentary-makers coming here to document our history.”

The course currently has 10 students, all part-time.

Martha Molete, a former history teacher doing the course, says: “The thing that attracted me to the course was that it provided a way to popularise history through film and television.”

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