Strengths and Weaknesses
Description of this documentary by Bill Michener:
In 1980/81 students in the upper level film practicum course series at Iowa State University were tasked with research and writing scripts and treatments for potential industrial or documentary film projects. An important part of that task was to research and drum up funds to bring a film to fruition. Two young women were instrumental in making that happen. Caroll Shippey a codirector of Strengths And Weaknesses and her friend, Joyce Suchsland, who would appear as one of the four student subjects in the film. They approached and gained the funding needed from the Iowa Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities.
This was in an era when cinephile wanna be film makers held in high esteem the opportunity to work with double system 16mm film not unlike a young artist, overjoyed for the first time working in oils on a big canvas and being recognized for achievement. 1981 was the Hey day of Professional 16mm production. Double system had been around since the transition from the silent era. Since the early 1960s recording the sync sound on Nagra quarter inch tape and eventually copying it to magnasync film tape was the method for editing the synchronized sound to the work print, a copy from the developed film master. On an editing bed console, the separate sound and picture were brought together for editing, in sync, thus the name double system film production. This system of film production, audio tape and the corresponding photographic film image was the standard means of production from the early sixties through the next few decades. It was to dominate feature, documentary and industrial film making. In 1981, video camcorders, pro Betacam or amateur and industrial vhs and svhs were in their infancy. Sony’s three quarter inch Umatic tape format had been around since the early seventies and had become popular with affiliate TV news departments for field work. The 16mm format was still superior in picture quality when shooting in and under the same conditions as the video gear of that period.
In tackling this project we knew little in the beginning about learning disabilities, the exception being Ms. Suchsland and Ms. Shippey. What we did know is that we would eschew the “voice of god” narrator still a common feature in industrials and documentaries up to that time. The decision not to use a narrator was no doubt influenced by the mode of story telling, covering real events, film makers such as D. A. Pennebaker were known for. Pennebaker who engineered remote Crystal Sync sound,freeing the camera from being tethered to the sound recorder, and who would direct pivotal documentaries through more than five decades, passed away, August 1st, 2019 just two weeks prior to this writing, at age 94. We would revere the works of Pennebaker, Leacock, the Maysles and others. But unlike those Direct and Verite documentaries of the 60s and 70s, we had to retain control over our subject matter. After all, this was a sponsored film with the preconceived goal of educating the public in general and administrators and educators of higher education in particular. And with the cost of film stock and lab costs, there was not a lot of room for serendipity. But film did evoke strong testimonials from the four students in the film. It illustrated the plight of a population of students who required understanding and assistance. The sponsors got the film they wanted. And the student film crew got the credits and professional film production experience to carry on in television and film production.