Cynthia Kahn ~ Documentary Weekend

Cynthia Kahn

Cynthia Kahn

Mark Grimes and Perry Gruber organized the first-ever Documentary Weekend in Portland, OR on September 26 and 27. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, so I signed up to meet some new creative people and to learn something about making a documentary.

I had an amazing weekend! We filmed two documentaries, a two-minute film on Friday night and a five-minute film on Saturday. So, I guess, now I’m a filmmaker.

We were a small group of fifteen participants. We came with different levels of expertise, positive attitudes, iPhone/iPad/professional grade cameras, sound equipment (if we had it), laptops and zero prior planning. No pre-organized teams. No one even knew the topics.

Before we were given our first assignment, Matt Monroe (freelance photographer, soundman and founder of Nasty Clamps) gave us a hands-on lesson about what it’s like to be a soundman and techniques to reduce background noise. Then, we paired into teams of two.

Our first assignment was to pick a quote and create a documentary around it. Quotes are interesting. Everybody knows them, but not everyone feels strongly enough about them to be inspired with great ideas for a film. After discussing multiple ideas, my partner, Joe Aleman, and I decided to go with: “A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It was Friday night and we were across the street from one of the biggest collection of food carts in Portland; the perfect setting to film a documentary about food.

So, Joe pulled out his iPad and I set out to interview different sets of people on the topic. We talked to an older couple, a young couple, a gay couple, a man from Morocco and a single woman. The results were quite comical.

My first filmmaking lessons learned: 1) Two hours is not enough time to plan, film and edit even a short two-minute documentary; and 2) Even though the iPad has a pretty decent camera, the sound quality is not that great. We felt pretty good about the film, but the sound is pretty low. If you want a good laugh, before you watch my first film, turn up the volume and get ready to smile:

The Way to a Man’s Heart

The next day, Mark and Perry mixed it up a bit. We formed film crews by drawing random names out of a hat. I was lucky to be teamed with two guys who had awesome equipment and prior filmmaking experience: Nathan Isaacs and Wayne Wertz. We were also lucky to have Gunnar Rasmussen on our team, a college senior with a strong writing background to increase our creativity quotient.

After we formed teams, each team picked a random word from a hat. We had about six hours to plan, film and edit a 5-7 minute documentary about the word we picked. Our team picked “Books.” Fortunate for us, the Multnomah County Library was celebrating its 150 years anniversary a few blocks away.

The team spent about a half hour coming up with a strategy and planning our film. We divided into pairs and set off to film the people, the event and the books. We interviewed parents, children, adults and Sara from the library. We filmed lots of b-roll material. We returned early, confident we were set and ahead of the game.

Then, we began editing. We found that most of the interviews shot without separate mics could not be used. We lost some great content. But, we found Sara gave such a powerful interview that we decided to build the story around the topics she discussed, and we discarded our original plan. Gunnar and I went out to the iconic Powell’s City of Books to film people shopping, reading and enjoying books.

I’m eternally grateful to Nathan, because he had Adobe Premiere on his laptop and knew how to use it. He spent our final hours working magic, editing the film. I’m super happy about the result.


The other teams filmed “Dogs,” “Bikes” and (of course) “Beer”  ~ all mainstream Portland topics. The films turned out fabulous, a magical end to a magical weekend.

If Mark Grimes and Perry Gruber expand Documentary Weekend to a city near you, I highly recommend you attend and create your own magic. I’ve also included the other three team’s documentaries for you to enjoy.

Cynthia Kahn, Founder of Amused Now    



The 45th Parallel (Beer)