Fast talk and high stakes at DDI

by Richard Lazarus | 8/8/03 5:00am

From Steven Kung's description, the world of high school debate, currently manifesting itself in the Choates Cluster in the form of the highly prestigious summer Dartmouth Debate Institute, seems pretty surreal.

It has drama, certainly, but also those high school issues of cliques, high emotions and status, mixed in with a seemingly brutal academic process of gathering evidence and preparing arguments. Plus, it seems that everyone is speaking over 200 words a minute. In other words, it is great documentary material.

Kung, a second"year graduate film student at the University of Southern California, is directing that documentary.

He is filming the DDI's three-week program with his crew and following the stories of several of the participants, all climaxing in the blow-out final tournament and its final elimination rounds on Monday and Tuesday.

The DDI is one of the most elite debating institutes in the country. It is highly selective -- this year it boasts the winners of both the National Forensics League tournament and the Tournament of Champions -- and competitive.

Kung has wanted to film this documentary since coming to the DDI for three consecutive high school summers.

His first summer here, Kung lost all eight of his qualifying matches for the final tournament. The next year he had significantly improved, drawing large audiences of fellow debaters who watched his underdog victories.

"I gained a sense of acceptance within the debate community," Kung explained. "So that's basically my angle on the DDI, how there's this social hierarchy at the camp.

"It's interesting because when the people at this camp are back at home, they might be thrown in to the geeks and the dorks and the smart people, but when they come here, they re-form these hierarchies."

Not everything has gone according to plan. One of his subjects, a debater so strong he was expected to win the tournament, dropped out of DDI four days ago -- just prior to the start of the final tournament -- burnt out and exhausted.

But this did not throw the film significantly off track. "We actually tied it in to the story," he said "This person's leaving is a manifestation of the angst and burnout that's happening here."

Like all documentary-makers, Kung has noticed he does not have full control over his film's story.

"Documentaries are boring if everything goes correctly. The fun comes when there's conflict. And we're definitely getting more conflict than we anticipated before the tournament."

But Kung has been gradually gaining the trust of his subjects as the DDI has gone on.

Eventually, Kung's documentary will be 20 minutes long. Even though he has much more material, USC's grant stipulates that students films must be short-subject.

The qualifying rounds of the tournament have been held mostly in dorm rooms, but the final days of the tournament next week will showcase the final eight two-person teams in the lounges in Bissell and Brown.

The debates are open, but it make take an experienced ear to understand exactly what's happening. For one thing, everyone is talking at incredible speeds, which Kung said can reach over 300 a minute.

He demonstrates his own now rather rusty skills over the phone, reading off a review of "Seabiscuit" in a rapid sub-30 seconds.

"It's quire amazing," Kung said of debaters' ubiquitous speed. "I highly encourage people just to come in to a debate round and just observe it. These people are analyzing and reading and pontificating at blazing speeds.

"Everyone in the debate community is trained to analyze and process information at that level. It has its own aesthetic and I think it's a beautiful form of communication."

Although he raised concerns about the diversity of the activity -- the gender balance is improving at the DDI, but participants still tend to be white, straight males from rich schools -- Kung maintained that the activity that "brought him out of his shell" has many benefits for those who participate

It is a message he hopes will get across in his work.

"This will hopefully show the general public what I saw in debate, why I think it's an amazing activity and why I think it's important that debate have a prominent place in the school system in America."

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