The journey from filmmaker to teacher

Bassford (left) celebrates with documentary subject Teshya Alo at the premiere of “Winning Girl” at the 2014 Hawai‘i International Film Festival - Courtesy of Kimberly Bassford
Bassford (left) celebrates with documentary subject Teshya Alo at the premiere of “Winning Girl” at the 2014 Hawai‘i International Film Festival – Courtesy of Kimberlee Bassford

For WCCʻs new journalism instructor and Ka ‘Ohana faculty adviser Kimberlee Bassford, the journey to becoming a storyteller began with a single film, a short documentary about Hawaiian history called “Then There Were None.”

Bassford saw the film as an undergraduate at Harvard University, a time when she was looking for ways to feel connected to Hawai’i.

But the film took her by surprise. Not because she didn’t know the history being relayed, but because, for the first time, she felt the power of the documentary form—and of storytelling.

Soon after college, Bassford decided to pursue filmmaking. “I wanted to do something creative, visual and meaningful—something with a social impact,” said Bassford. “Film, and specifically documentary, seemed like the ideal fit.”

Bassford studied documentary at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. It was there that she truly had her first taste reporting and writing stories.

“In journalism, you don’t need a lot of experience to get started,” said Bassford. “You learn by doing.”

It was also at Berkeley where she found a role model: Jon Else, a renowned cinematographer and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, who was also the head of the documentary program.

Bassford credits him with providing her with a solid background in journalistic ethics and filmmaking techniques. He also taught her that the very essence of journalism and documentary is storytelling—a notion she holds close to her heart.

Life as a Filmmaker

Bassford has made several documentaries over her career. She had her directorial debut with “Cheerleader” (2003), a short documentary that follows a California cheerleading squad of young girls on its pursuit of the national cheerleading championships. The documentary won a Student Academy Award and aired on HBO Family.

She worked on two national PBS documentary series: “The Meaning of Food” (2005), in which she told cultural stories about food, and “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” (2008), in which she produced a story about health issues in the Marshall Islands.

In 2008, Bassford produced, directed, wrote and co-edited “Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority,” about Hawai‘iʻs late Patsy Mink, the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress and co-author of the landmark gender equity legislation Title IX. The film won the audience award at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival and aired nationally on PBS.

Empowering Others

While Bassford plans to continue making films, her focus is now on WCC and taking its journalism program into the 21st century by incorporating multimedia reporting and techniques.

She is also teaching a new course Journalism 150: Media and Society, which aims to make students active and critical consumers of media. Students learn how to discern between fact and opinion, be aware of media bias and evaluate information so that they are not passive receivers of news. Drawing on her documentary background, Bassford shows documentaries about the media and uses documentaries as teaching tools.

As adviser to Ka ‘Ohana, Bassford wants to incorporate more photojournalism and social media. The online version of the newspaper will eventually include videos and supplementary content such as follow-up stories.

The stories themselves will remain student-driven. “Whatever the students are passionate about usually make for the best stories,” said Bassford.

Ultimately, Bassford hopes to inspire confidence in her students so that they feel empowered to tell their own stories. “Students have so many stories to tell,” she said. “Sometimes they just need validation to know their stories are worthwhile and help focusing and articulating their ideas. Thatʻs what Iʻm here to do.”

Bassfordʻs most recent documentary “Winning Girl” (2014) about a local teenage judo and wrestling phenomenon can be seen on OC16 this month. Go to or for airdates and times.

by Taykin Ideta, Special to Ka ‘Ohana