When I went to art school for a year, I was tasked to partner up with someone and make a short documentary about her. Armed with no knowledge of how to make a film and a time window of just one fortnight, I got to work on my first real film. After shooting, I sat down to edit approximately 12 hours before the short was due. I had an acute dearth of footage and no direction for the project. In a panic, I hastily stole a deluge of movie clips to mask my ineptitude. Because my subject talked about certain movies, I thought it would be okay to show arbitrary clips of those movies. This comprised an easy 60% of the short. The documentary was horrible, and I squeaked by with a pity A-.

Room 237 is a feature-length version of my terrible project. A barebones YouTube video stretched out to an excruciating 103 minutes, Room 237 compiles extensive interpretations of Kubrick’s The Shining. It features lengthy voiceovers from Shining “scholars” who have studied the film ad nauseum and who offer wildly varying readings of the film, which range from the Holocaust to the moon landing. None of these subjects is ever shown, and the visuals consist of clips from The Shining, several other of Kubrick’s films, and a seemingly arbitrary hodgepodge of other films.

It cannot be overstated how unpolished Room 237 is. Because the visuals are all clips from other movies, a massive emphasis is placed on the voiceovers. While this is an intentional decision, it is one that becomes problematic when the quality of the audio is so low, from both a qualitative and technical standpoint. Large pauses are left in when the subjects stumble through their theories, leaving in every “um” and “uh” and turning each potential revelation into a slow, frustrating odyssey to the end of a sentence.

One of the scholars narrates via a Skype call (accompanied by all of the lovely, watery auditory artifacts that come with a Skype call) with his crying son audible throughout his speech. At some point, he leaves to go attend to his son and this is inexplicably left in the final product. It takes a good ten seconds for him to return to the call, so in this window of time the film turns into silent footage of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of asking the man to begin his explanation again, director Rodney Ascher leaves this intact for truly inscrutable reasons.

As for the interpretations, they exist on the fringes of some spectacular logical acrobatics. Some, like one involving the rape and plunder of Native American land by Europeans and another that invokes the Holocaust, are mildly compelling, but most of these border on self-parody. One scholar sings praises to NASA before diving into a wild theory about how Kubrick directed the moon landing; another engages in some curiously misguided pareidolia, claiming that he found Kubrick’s face in the clouds of the opening shots of the film.

The scene involving this pareidolia might be the film’s nadir. Ascher’s frenetic, YouTube video-style editing displays how little faith he has in his audience. When a commentator describes specific objects in a scene of The Shining, Ascher will actually point to the objects with an arrow. When it comes time for Ascher to find Kubrick’s face in the clouds, however, it appears he can’t do it to save his life. After a painfully slow frame-by-frame display of the opening shots, Ascher simply cuts to the next scene without even suggesting that the face is present. By doing this, Ascher actually displays that he disagrees with his theorist’s voiceover and puts the visuals at odds with the audio.

A full documentary of this would have been fascinating. The reason this scene is the film’s lowest point instead, however, is because there is no other instance in which Ascher attempts to show self-awareness. When his voice of God is discussing, with full sincerity, his belief that footage of the moon landing was fake and that The Shining is an elaborate confession of such deception, Ascher does not make any attempt to do anything remotely clever with this or to speak to how nonsensical some might perceive this theory. The indifference with which this sequence (and the entire film, really) is edited suggests no contest from Ascher, as if he eagerly agrees with each proposed theory. This becomes a colossal issue when some of the theories travel into truly asinine territory in the last third of the film.

This is Room 237’s most notable shortcoming. The insanity in which some of these theorists indulge cannot be replicated here, but Ascher approaches it all with such a straight face. His theorists are blurting out borderline gibberish, trying to piece together incoherent screeds that, by the end of the film, devolve into observations without thesis. Ascher could have compiled a compelling commentary about the quasi-religious fervor with which some cinephiles approach films, bending logic in unfathomable shapes to make sense of ideas they desperately want to understand. He has fantastic audio of someone trying to interpret a room key as an admission that Kubrick faked the moon landing, and yet he does nothing with it. He shows footage of the room key and moves on without comment. It is unspeakably depressing.

It is unclear, then, what purpose Ascher’s film serves. All of these theories have been in existence for some time, and I knew about all of them before I watched the film since they’re all online. Despite serving up some tier one lunacy, there is nothing revelatory about the film; it all feels woefully pedestrian. With barely any original content and absolutely no editorializing, Room 237 feels like a subpar YouTube video stretched out to feature length, like something a bored Shining enthusiast would throw together in a week and put online for free. The difference here, though, is that this costs real money and I am now four precious dollars in the red. In shockingly unfocused fashion, Room 237 takes inherently enthralling subject matter, kills it with its bare hands, and presents the cold corpse back to the audience.

The third annual Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival is a showcase of the work of the students graduating from the Documentary Journalism interest area. Fourteen students will be showing short documentary films over three different blocks—with each block showing completely different films.  The students’ ideas for these films were approved by an outside panel of documentary professionals last spring and they have spent the last year making these films. This will be their world premiere before they go off for submission to film festivals all over the country and beyond.

The screenings take place at the historic Missouri Theatre, giving us an enormous screen and terrific sound system on which to play the films. The blocks of films start at 2 pm, 4 pm and 7 pm.  Each last around 90 minutes, with films and a Q&A with filmmakers at the end of the block. Following the 7 pm block there will be an awards ceremony recognizing the best student films as judged by a New York-based jury of filmmakers and critics. The entire list of films in each block is listed below.

Admission to all films is free.  There are no tickets.  Just walk right in, sit down and watch.

Please share with your students, friends and family.  We’d love to see as many people as possible come out and see the students’ work. 

Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival 2019
May 15, 2019
Missouri Theatre
Free and open to the public

Block A: 2:00 pm

All These Marks
Directed by Grace Noteboom

All These Marks is about choices, unexpected regret and grappling with an identity that no longer fits. In a tiny tattoo shop in Springfield, Missouri, men with hate tattoos confront the choices of their pasts as they attempt to make a better life for themselves and the people they love. The film is a look at the uncomfortable—but honest—question of who gets a hate tattoo and why they want it gone now.

Grandes Decisiones
Directed by Larissa Babiak

In an impoverished region of southwest Guatemala, caring, enthusiastic educator Nimsy Ramos leads an innovative high school sex education program. Set against a backdrop of high teen pregnancy rates in the community, Nimsy teaches lessons focusing on goals and dreams, relationships and romance, abstinence, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. With an observational, emotional and character-focused style, Grandes Decisiones presents the program as a hopeful step toward empowering teens in the community to address their futures.

That One Time I Went Hunting with Dad
Directed by Connor Laughlin

Telling a story of fatherhood, a young college student seeks to grow closer with his father while they both deal with personal loss. He follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers to learn what has kept duck hunting in their family for more than 50 years. The two grow closer as they spend a month hunting together, revealing what it means for them to be father and son.

The Lost Cause
Directed by Devine Utley

As one of the 11 states to secede from the Union during the Civil War, North Carolina is still grappling with its problematic history. With more than 100 monuments to the Confederacy across the state, lawmakers in Raleigh are forced to reckon with their own Confederate memorials on the State Capitol grounds. The Lost Cause follows the debate regarding the decision to relocate the monuments while exploring historic Raleigh and its ties to the war.

Jack (and Joe)
Directed by Jane Arnot

Jack (and Joe) is an intimate look at the life of Jack through the lens of his twin brother. Jack and Joe are 25. Jack has a non-verbal form of autism. Joe moved away, graduated from college and left Jack behind.  As Joe watches the footage of his twin, he reflects on their relationship. How can Jack grow as a person while being stuck at home and what does it feel like to have a twin with whom you can never actually converse? These are thoughts that prompt Joe to narrate the observational footage and provide clarity for the image of his brother.

Block B: 4:00 pm

Mothers & Brothers
Directed by Emily Dunn

A young filmmaker undergoes the process of genetic carrier testing for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease carried by women that only manifests itself in their male children. For carriers, there is a 50 percent chance a son will develop the disease, and a 50 percent chance a daughter will also be a carrier. From attempting to make sense of a family’s past, to tackling the future as a young woman, this intimate film delves deep into the promises and threats of motherhood as shaped by genetic disease. 

Two Petty Criminals, Not Worth Naming
Directed by Davis McCondichie

This film intends to show the audience who writes our history. By exploring images and stories of the town of Fayetteville, Georgia, the filmmaker attempts to intercede in the past and find what aspects of this small southern town go undiscussed. By focusing the narrative on the historic courthouse firebombing of 1982, the film finds a way to create its own authorship on the past—and possibly the future. The film explores themes of heritage, gatekeeping and above all else, who gets to tell the stories we hold onto for the years to come. 

Native and American
Directed by Taylor Hensel

The prosperity of America has been the antithesis of Native American progress. As the philosophical and cultural rift between indigenous and American ways of life widen, individuals who are both Native and American face a jarring juxtaposition. Native and American follows Holly Spaude as she confronts her mixed heritage and seeks to define her identity within her tribal community. While navigating her tribe’s blood quantum standard and working to help preserve the endangered Potawatomi language, Holly has come to know her purpose.

Saved One
Directed by Yuxuan Jia

While giant pandas play in front of the live webcams to the delight of many around the world, other animals are facing a survival crisis with no one watching. Humans have a bias toward cute, fluffy and charismatic animals, but Earth has a living population made up of more than just cute faces. This documentary addresses how humans can help endangered animals and what we can learn from the giant panda’s successful PR campaign.

Holy Fire
Directed by Sam Roth

When George Scott, a military veteran and Lutheran pastor in rural central Pennsylvania, took a leave of absence from his congregation to run a competitive race for U.S. Congress in 2018, he energized the Democratic base while creating an uncertain future for his congregation. Including everything from a controversial gun ad to a sudden spike in national attention, Holy Fire roots us firmly at the center of the campaign drama as the outcomes of George’s decision manifest on Election Day.

Block C: 7:00 pm

Directed by Matt Swing

A few weeks after finishing parole, Antonio Brison returns to the spot that changed his life forever. Now an actor and performer, he transfers the skills that he uses on stage to tell a story that hits closer to home: his own. Pairing Antonio’s natural storytelling ability with emotionally provocative cinematography, this film leaves no room for the viewer to draw conclusions from anything else other than the words and emotions that Antonio presents. 

Directed by Olivia Jacobson

Courtney Sims has always had a soft spot for troubled horses, so working at a horse rescue ranch is a dream come true. Courtney spends her days retraining abused and abandoned horses to find them their forever homes. Her job is incredibly demanding and when her career is threatened, Courtney will have to make a serious choice: stay in the world she loves or move on and find a new dream.

Directed by Bailey Synclaire

An archival documentary about the multigenerational relationship between three women—including the one who raised the filmmaker. Dorothy was a single mother to Lori back in the ‘70s. When Lori was little, she raised herself as her mother struggled with alcoholism. To keep her life on track, Dorothy moves in her daughter and begins the process of rehabilitation. Dorothy helps raise her grandchildren until her death. To keep the memories of the family alive, Dorothy recorded everything while the children’s mother was at work. With a video camera always in hand, she narrates the filmmaker’s entire childhood. 

Qualm & Quietus
Directed by Phoebe Mussman

Part character study, part essay film, Qualm & Quietus challenges the anxiety with which we view death. The documentary follows Kerry Lynn, a woman who just stepped down from leading a pagan sanctuary. Death has followed Kerry Lynn throughout life, leading her to form a relationship with Hekate: the Titan goddess of the underworld and all things in transition. In facing her mortality with grace and candor, Kerry Lynn allows viewers to see the perfection of impermanence for themselves.

Nobody Speak

Scene from Nobody Speak film

It seems fitting that perhaps one of the most important First Amendment cases of our time revolves around the publication of a sex tape featuring renowned former WWF superstar Hulk Hogan sharing a bed with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. That’s the kind of stuff of which good First Amendment cases are always made. In his enthralling new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, director Brian Knappenberger paints an unsettling picture of the changes taking place in our media landscape, the increased levels of distrust in journalists and scrutiny of the press and how the long arm of capitalism may inevitably step in to quash what it does not deem financially worthy.

As anyone with a passing interest in journalism and press rights knows by now, Gawker Media and its founder Nick Denton were sued (and subsequently bankrupted) by Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) and his legal team for publishing portions of the sex tape that had been making the rounds of the upper echelons of various tabloid publications for years. Though the case was initially rejected by a Florida federal court, the judge there ruling that blocking the publication of the video would constitute a First Amendment violation, Bollea found himself more successful in Florida state court in St. Petersburg, where the Hulk Hogan character is a local treasure and most people have never even heard of Gawker, let alone had much sympathy for its corrosive style and brash attitude about exposing the dirtiest details of people’s lives. The extent of the damages awarded to Bollea was particularly disturbing, $140 million in total, exceeding by several multiples the typical payout for even the most egregious wrongful-death suits. Despite its lurid nature, the case has raised important questions about privacy in an age of immediate public broadcast, about when private relations become public matters and, most importantly, about how far an independent publisher can go without the support of a millionaire behind the scenes.

The story behind the story here though is the funding of this litigious assault by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a man who has had a personal score to settle with Gawker Media for years. Gawker published a piece discussing Thiel’s sexuality back when doing so in Silicon Valley was decidedly unfashionable, along with publishing several scathing reports about the financial state of his various companies. Though often harsh, Gawker dogged Thiel the way it dogged any Silicon Valley resident claiming to be forming some sort of Libertarian technology utopia. As Gawker itself puts it in a piece titled “This Is Why Billionaire Peter Thiel Wants to End Gawker,” it was “creating a counter-narrative to the mythos of the free-market, death-destroying, Randian Übermensch that Thiel and his friends were peddling.” While Thiel is fully within his legal rights to put his full financial support behind any lawsuit he pleases, it is an undeniably chilling reminder that the free press only works when the people in control of the money want it to work.

Nobody Speak ad

Netflix ad for Nobody Speak

Knappenberger juxtaposes the story of this case and Gawker’s demise against that of the secret 2015 acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by wealthy, uber-conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, undertaken arguably to control the paper’s coverage of him and his various enterprises based there in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was largely considered a standard-bearer among Nevada’s news media, often publishing things Adelson and his family found unsavory about them and their business practices. Adelson had previously sued the paper’s star columnist, John L. Smith, for $15 million for libel over several relatively benign passages Smith had written about Adelson in a book about the history of Las Vegas and its historical figures and hotels in the development of the Vegas casino industry. Adelson even offered Smith a six figure sum large enough to cover the medical bills of his child fighting brain cancer at that time, as long as Smith acknowledged that he had intentionally defamed Sheldon Adelson with his publication. Smith refused, and Adelson ultimately relented and withdrew his suit.

The identity of the paper’s new owner was initially kept secret from its reporters, forcing them to turn their investigative skills inward to find out whose interests they were truly serving, and forcing the paper the break the details behind its own mysterious buyout. Once the Adelsons finally admitted that they were behind the purchase, existence in the newsroom grew grim. Smith was ordered to cease writing about Sheldon Adelson, his family or its businesses. Smith subsequently resigned. Following him was a large chunk of the newsroom, including all three journalists who had helped uncover the hidden identity of the paper’s new owners. The purchase demonstrably took between 20 and 100 people out of the newsroom who might have revealed something Sheldon Adelson didn’t want in the public eye.

Nobody Speak is a warning, a grab by the shoulders and a stern shake. We have entered one of the most intense periods of media distrust and scrutiny in recent memory. What becomes of reporting that uncovers the misdeeds and the abuses of power by the elite and wealthy when the powerful become powerful enough to bend the coverage of them and their world to their will? The state of strong adversarial journalism is a precarious one; it’s fragile and it can disappear before we know it.



Picture of Gerald and Gay

Gerald Foos (l) and Gay Talese (r) in Voyeur

When Myles Kane and Josh Koury were looking to distribute their film Voyeur, they had a lot of interest in the documentary. The pair had spent three and a half years working independently on the film, and wanted to make sure to find the right place for it.

Enter Netflix.

While the directors had offers from traditional distributors who were offering big theatrical runs and all the chances of success and glory that comes with that sort of distribution, ultimately they decided that Netflix was the right fit for the film.

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Picture of Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

Arguably one of the best-known documentaries of the last 20 years is March of the Penguins, the beloved nature documentary. Anyone who has watched it can remember the scene when the baby penguin is taking its first steps. Layered on with Morgan Freeman’s sagely voice, audiences can hear the light steps on the snow and feel like they are in the moment. But what if what you’re hearing is just merely the sounds of household items?

The film was a commercial and critical success, bringing the world the thrilling journey of emperor penguins. Nature documentaries are one of the most common types of documentaries in the world, and rightly so because nature documentaries are very popular.

The thrilling content about Antarctica’s natural environment is tremendously heightened by the film’s sound effects. The documentary relies heavily on what is being heard to truly give an immersive experience to a viewer.

Unknown to many viewers, a substantial amount of the sound effects heard in the film were added later in post-production. Many of the sounds are recorded by Foley artists. Foley artists are the people who provide any necessary effects for the sound of movements and other actions in a film. Typically, they are used in fictional projects but often assist in nature documentaries.

“Producers use sound effects to mimic the noises made by real animals,” said Robert Mendick and Edward Malnack of the London Telegraph. The two mentioned methods including, “adding custard powder to a woman’s stocking, which is then squeezed to sound like polar bears skidding on ice.”

Many of those very subtle sounds such as a koala chewing on leaves or a monkey rustling branches were all created by Foley artists.

Picture of a Foley artist

Foley artist

This is a common practice in wildlife documentaries, but there is a controversy surrounding the use of “enhanced” sounds. BBC’s natural history unit has faced a backlash recently for broadcasting scenes that had fabricated sound, a practice that is not uncommon in the nature documentary world. Sir David Attenborough, one of the most renowned nature documentary filmmakers, has admitted that he has altered footage for his films.

Though many people find the use of enhanced sounds in wildlife nonfiction films an ethical gray area, there are good reasons for doing so. One of the reasons cited is the increased demand with the advances in technology.

“The soundtracks accompanying the BBC’s natural history films…have been enhanced in recent years to meet the demands of cinema-style home viewing systems,” wrote Adam Sherwin in the Independent.

Obtaining clear and crisp audio in an open outdoor area is immensely difficult. Even though it is easy to use a camera with an extremely long lens to get tight shots, it does not directly translate to audio. There are very few audio recording devices that can individually record a specific sound that can be later audio engineered. Those that can do so are very expensive and are not always a guarantee.

“Good audio requires a microphone close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult and dangerous,” wrote Emmett FitzGerald on the podcast 99% Invisible. There are many situations where ascertaining good audio would require disturbing the wildlife subjects and potentially put the crew in danger.

Using Foley artists is not an uncommon practice amongst nature nonfiction filmmakers because of the constraints of budget, resources and safety. By leaving most of the audio to post-production, there is more creative and cinematic freedom to produce stellar content.  In other words, this is the most practical and logical route despite the possible inauthenticity.

This practice of Foleying in sound for nonfiction wildlife films is not going to stop despite its controversy. It is necessary to create the kinds of cinematic tension or drama for an enjoyable experience for the viewers. So even though the sounds of horses galloping may just be two coconuts being clicked together, it is essential to create that full immersive experience of enjoying the beauty of nature brought to you on the big screen.

Confession Tapes poster

Poster for The Confession Tapes

Streaming giant Netflix has cemented its position as a leading documentary platform in 2017, releases nearly 30 original documentaries docu-series. One of the most recent docu-series to hit the Netflix site is The Confession TapesThe Confession Tapes is a seven-episode documentary series about murders throughout the United States that resulted in convictions based on taped confessions. These confessions are usually secured by investigators after grueling interrogations of the suspects, and are often coupled with little to no physical evidence to support the suspect’s guilt. Each episode has a similar structure: a murder happens, chaos within the town ensues, the easiest/first suspects are apprehended and then interrogated for hours until they break and confess to the crime. The Confession Tapes is another crime-related documentary series being produced and released with a modern, yet eerily retro “Forensic Files” feeling.

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Picture of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

He arrived via Department of Defense and Highway Patrol escort, to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas to do a Q&A after his film Grizzly Man and teach a two-hour master class. However, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog almost immediately undercut the idea of the master class, pointing out that he could not teach us anything except how to forge documents and cut through barbed wire fencing, explaining with his often-told story of forging a document to get through Peru and film Fitzcarraldo. This led him to speak about creativity and how the biggest threat to it is bureaucracy and the only way to beat bureaucracy is to feed it paper so as to distract it.

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A sign that says Psychic

Psychic sign

“The aliens are always with me.”

What was your first thought when you read that line above? Typically, when working with subjects that have unique lifestyles or beliefs, an audience’s first reaction is to write them off or laugh at them. Unless you are making a film that’s sole purpose is to make fun of someone — which I highly suggest you don’t do– then you are going to want your subject to be respected. The more bizarre the beliefs, that harder this becomes. Here are some ways to battle this during production and post production.

First, give your subject any due credibility. If your subject has big claims, people may start to write off most of what she/he says. Putting any credit where it is due will ground the subject in reality for the viewers. Research is going to be vital. Look into what your subject says, go to the places of which they speak and show as much as you can to support your subject’s views. Of course, not everything is worthy of “proving,” but if you think it will ground your character, it is worth a shot.

Next, If your subject has “out there” beliefs and loves to talk, remember to give your subject breathing room in the edit. Documentary filmmaker Lana WIlson suggests showing your subject doing typical everyday things after the audience hears one of these big claims such as running errands or interacting at work. This reminds the audience that, despite your subjects views, she/he is still a person worthy of respect.

If you are following a person who says some outwardly shocking things, you are bound to get laughs. The decision here is, do you want them? If you want to cut down on inappropriate laughter, documentary filmmaker Eric Hynes suggests holding your shots longer after the statement. Many times, subjects will humanize themselves if you give them the room. Something as simple as a thoughtful look, an uncomfortable laugh or a remark about what was just said could make all of the difference.

Until Arcturus scene

Scene from Until Arcturus

Sometimes your subject may need a little more help after her/his statement is made. If you feel holding the shot did not do quite enough, director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Stacey Woelfel suggests addressing the potential for judgement with your subject on camera. Many times, subjects are aware of how other people view them. Having them attest to this can give the audience more sympathy or respect. Your subject will become more relatable to the viewer.

Audio can do a lot for your subject. Documentary sound designer Lawrence Everson says that building an audio environment will bring your viewer into the situation instead of them being a disconnected spectator. It is something very subtle with a huge impact. Building an audio environment consists of getting room/environmental tone and adding in specific sounds from things the viewer is seeing like finger tapping, water splashing in a fountain or a cat purring. If the audience is within the environment, it is easier to understand where the subject is coming from.

Through all of these options, never forget to allow your subject to be funny. Overprotecting your subject can cause just as many problems as you are trying to solve. The whole point in the end is to allow your subject space to be themselves. Just because someone’s mind may work a little bit differently does not mean that person cannot be funny like anyone else. In the end, filming a subject who is vulnerable to crude judgement is a balancing act of personality and respect.

Editor’s note: Author Abbey Reznicek is working with a subject on her current film, Until Arcturus, who believes she is an alien living on earth in human form.

Poster of One of Us

One of Us poster

“Wikipedia is a gift from God.”

These are the words of Ari Hershkowitz, an ex-Hasidic Jew who has decided to break away from the only way of life he’s known. He says these words with a smile, leaning up against the brick of his drug rehabilitation center as he takes another pull from his e-cig. While he is trying to be funny, his words still carry a lot of weight. Wikipedia is a gift in his eyes.

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slate graphicWith films from the first graduating class of the Murray Center starting to enter the public sphere and be accepted into film festivals, the center and its alumni have officialy entered the distribution and festival circuit.

Though I’m a current Murray Center student myself, I’ve been working for a distribution company for more than a year now and interned at a company that hosts three film festivals a year on top of weekly screenings. These professional experiences have allowed me to learn a little bit of insight on film marketing, distribution and the nuts and bolts of programming.

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