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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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In Movies & TV

Chip Duncan with a young girl from Ollantaytambo, Peru

Milwaukee Talks: Filmmaker Chip Duncan


Just like most of us do, Chip Duncan started at the bottom. He went from painting studio floors and sets at the NBC affiliate in Madison to being an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, lecturer and president of The Duncan Group, Inc., based in Milwaukee.

It was his early appeal to politics that led him to undertake topics including the environment, spiritual places of the world, racial issues, religious perspectives on a woman's right to choose contraception and abortion, security versus civil liberties and other crucial worldly controversies.

And his frustration of working with short time spans in the news convinced him that producing documentaries would be the most optimum operative to get the dying word out on these issues.

"Three minutes wasn't enough, one minute wasn't enough, 45 seconds wasn't enough," Duncan says of news formats. "And it kept getting cut back and back and back, and major stories were being handled in such a short form that nobody every really gets substance."

So, in 1984 Duncan moved to Milwaukee and began to focus on long form.

Since then he's a produced/directed all projects through the Duncan-Landaas Limited Partnership including the Emmy award-winning children's series "Astrodudes" as well as 11 travel documentaries broadcast on The Discovery Channel between 1991-1994. "Is Anyone Listening?" is an educational series for teenagers used in classrooms all the time.

"Tatshenshini: A Journey to the Ice Age," "Alaska's Bald Eagle: New Threats To Survival," "Positive Thinking: The Norman Vincent Peale Story," "The Cost of Freedom -- Civil Liberties, Security and the USA Patriot Act," "Beyond the Gridiron - The Life & Times of Woody Hayes," "The Magic Never Ends -- The Life & Work of C.S. Lewis" and "Row Your Boat" are just a handful of the films Duncan's produced.

We sat down with him to talk about where his career is headed, his company and how Milwaukee plays a role in his work.

OMC: Do you think, with your documentaries, you'll start to reflect more of what you believe and less balanced two-sided stories?

Chip Duncan: I know I hit a point when I was doing "Mystic Lands" where I was in Burma and Haiti and Peru, all of these amazing places and at a certain point it felt like I was watching it all on TV because I do my own photography and I'd be filming a Rah-Rah in Haiti -- which is this huge musical parade, kind of like a Mardi Gras event -- and there was a point when I had to say, "I'm documenting this as well as I know how."

Does your participating in it then impact the way you document it? It's interesting because you're making a choice. You're saying, "I want to live in this moment and experience these things," versus just standing on the outside and just filming. And I've got a sense that if there's a transition for me that happens in the next 20-25 years professionally, that it would be to be more personally engaged in the work I'm doing as a participant than just on the outside filming.

OMC: What's the heart, the basis, of the Duncan Group?

CD: I guess, in a sense, we're an unusual company in that we're trying to stay independent of all the major networks. The conglomeration of media, I think, is a threat to democracy. It gets to the point where it almost doesn't matter which channel you're watching. You look around on the local news, in the first seven minutes they're all covering the exact same stories, it's just a question of in what order.

There's a certain kind of integrity to staying independent that's important.

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