Collaborative Documentary

In the Collaborative Documentary Social Impact Studio (VM 331x20 / SI 300), students learn the fundamentals of collaborative design and documentary production skills, and are challenged to apply their art and craft in direct collaboration with members of the community.


Course Information

Visual & Media Arts

Theodore "Regge" Life, Eric Gordon

PARTNER ORGANIZATIONSLouis D. Brown Peace Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital Gun Violence Prevention Center

Shaulita Francis, LeeAnn Taylor, Carla Sheffield, Anna Porter

While gun violence impacts many people in the Boston region, it has a disproportionate impact on communities of color, where families can be broken and lives and livelihoods destroyed. This course, part of the Engagement Lab’s initiative on Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence, was held in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Gun Violence Prevention Center and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute to create alternative narratives using media of the impact of gun violence on communities of color in Boston. Students learned the fundamentals of collaborative design and applied their knowledge of production skills to create a documentary with, not just about, those most impacted by the problem.

Two masked individuals, one of which is adjusting a filming light

A Look Inside the Co-Creation Process

"It doesn’t feel like a class. I feel like I’m having an opportunity to do what I want to do with my life and I am so, so grateful for it."

Olivia Goldberg, Student

In spring 2022, the very first semester of the Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence initiative, we offered a Social Impact Studio in Collaborative Documentary. The studio participants included two mothers whose sons had been murdered, a woman on staff at Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (LDBPI), and a woman who worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital Gun Violence Prevention Center, working alongside Emerson students and faculty over the course of the semester.


On the classroom level, the space was designed for apophatic listening – that is, allowing unstructured dialogue to “shape” questions from within the group, as opposed to only engaging with existing questions prepared by the professors. For the first six weeks of the 15-week class, the group focused exclusively on building trust and exploring mechanisms of storytelling. They listened to one another’s stories and those of others through shared engagement with outside speakers and sources, learned about one another’s strengths and hopes, and developed a shared sense of mission. 

The listening process worked against expectations of forward momentum in the classroom, especially for the students. Students were anxious at first because production was slow to begin, and the focus on listening seemed separate to the stated goal of learning how to make a documentary film.

But as the semester continued, it became clear that without the structured listening process built into the course, the mothers in the studio would not have felt comfortable speaking on camera, the students would not have felt comfortable in their role as collaborators and allies


As we moved into production, everyone had a role, but the mothers took the lead on identifying and setting up interviews with other survivors within their network. They shaped what would eventually become a powerful 20 minute documentary, Quiet Rooms, about the experience of loss and the journey toward healing in community with others, despite systemic barriers. 

"Violence, trauma and mental health go hand in hand and should be treated as such. We have to get to the root cause of the violence in order to prevent the trauma that leads to mental health issues.  The changing the narrative project will give folks a chance to see another side of the story, another side of the trauma and maybe get a better understanding of why we need to, and how we can, make it better."

Carla Sheffield, Community Learning Partner

Spring 2022 - Documentary Studio Participants

Studio Contact

Are you an Emerson student interested in enrolling in this course in the future? Please contact to learn more!

Spring 2022 - Documentary Partners