Doing Justice to the Subject: Dartmouth Film Class Documents a Man of Many Parts

Friday, May 29, 2015
Walt Cunningham, the artistic director of the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir, has the distinction of having been accepted to study as an undergraduate at both Juilliard and West Point, not a combination you see often.

He is also the subject of Introducing ... Walt Cunningham , a 30-minute documentary made by Dartmouth College students that premieres this evening at Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center. There will be screenings at 6:30 and 8:30, which are free-of-charge and open to the public, although it might be best to get a ticket (see below).

Jeffrey Ruoff, a professor in the college’s Department of Film and Media Studies, oversaw the making of the documentary as part of his 10-week-long Film39 class.

Previous films produced in Ruoff’s Film39 class were about Ben Kilham, an author and rehabilitator of injured and orphaned black bears who lives in Lyme, and comedian and writer Cindy Pierce, from Etna. Cunningham, who has been director of the choir since 2005, divides his time between the college and his home in Chicago, Ruoff said.

“Students were very much cast under the spell of Walt,” Ruoff said. The question was, “Can we do a film that does justice to this guy’s amazing story?”

Cunningham, who is also the music director of the popular Dartmouth Idol concerts, has had an extraordinary life: Raised in a close-knit, religious family in a small Iowa town that had very few, if any, African-American residents, an education at West Point, a career in the corporate world, and then immersion in his first love, music.

As both an African-American and a gay man, Cunningham is a “source of immense inspiration to students on campus, particularly students of color and LGBT students,” Ruoff said.

The second object was to introduce the 12 students, some of whom have never made a film before, to the nuts and bolts of film production, from pre-production to shooting and interviewing subjects to post-production. Two of the students were even able to travel to Florida, to shoot a birthday party that Cunningham’s family gave him.

Junior Mykel Nairne, a film major and the producer of the film, had never worked on making a documentary before. It was the kind of collaborative project that was, she said, a welcome break from the solitary work of writing papers and taking exams. “It was something that we were creating, and now we have a finished product and something that we can be proud of.”

“There can’t be a more collaborative medium than film,” Ruoff said, noting that learning to work together toward one goal will benefit the students during and after college. “They learn how to collaborate constructively, and take criticism collaboratively.”

That collaboration among students, said Ruoff, “is fundamental to higher education and shouldn’t only be happening in extracurricular activities.”

In following Cunningham closely over the 10-week period, the filmmakers learned something else of value about his role in educating students. “One of the biggest take-aways is that (Cunningham) has become so much more than what his qualifications say about him — and how much of an impact he’s made,” Nairne said.

Introducing ... Walt Cunningham screens in the Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center this evening at 6:30 and 8:30. Tickets are available by calling at 603-646-2422, through or in person at the the Hopkins Center Box Office. The free tickets are good only until 10 minutes before the show, when ushers will survey the hall and seat walk-up patrons.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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