On May 9, at the historic Missouri Theatre in downtown Columbia, the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism will hold its second annual Stronger Than Fiction Film Festival, a showcase of the work of the students graduating from the Documentary Journalism interest area. The festival marks the world premiere for these films, many of which will then go on to other film festivals all over the U.S. and beyond.

Twenty Missouri Journalism students will be showing short documentary films over four different blocks, with each block showing completely different films. Highlighting the industry-focused Missouri Method of training, the students’ ideas for these films were approved by an outside panel of documentary professionals last spring.

According to Stacey Woelfel, center director, “The festival is the final step in our Missouri Method approach to teaching our students. Like all our journalism students, their work now goes before the public to inform and engage a real-world audience.” Woelfel says that holding the festival at the Missouri Theatre provides the festival with “an enormous screen and terrific sound system” on which to play the films.

Project screenings are presented in four blocks, at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., with each block lasting approximately two hours. At the end of each block, there will be a Q&A session with the filmmakers. Following the 7 p.m. block, there will also be an awards ceremony recognizing the best student films. Admission to all films is free (no tickets required) and open to the public.

Films playing are:

Block A: 10:00 am

Scene from Chiane from Far Rockaway

Chiane from Far Rockaway

Chiane from Far Rockaway
dir. Cassidy Minarik

As 17-year-old Chiane enters her senior year, she realizes her past is not all she will become. Through the lens of a disposable camera, she delves into an exploration of the places that have shaped her. In this collaborative nonfiction portrait, Chiane uses this new medium to capture who she is in what she sees. The film illustrates how we express our identity in an environment that pressures us to conform

 

Scene from Temporal

Temporal

Temporal
dir. Jackson Bollinger

The linear theory of time is challenged in this nonfiction essay, as a young filmmaker tries to form a meaningful relationship with a deceased relative. Taking the audience through this attempt to bend time and form connections, Temporal uses footage from Los Angeles and New York to analyze how spaces can hold memories, even after people are gone. The film is narrated by an omniscient voice that guides the audience through this ambitious attempt to blur the lines of past and present.

Scene from Moving Houses

Moving Houses

Moving Houses
dir. Will Linhares

An audio-visual portrait of Docktown Marina, a floating community in the heart of the Bay Area’s tech region, the film follows the more than one hundred residents who were forcibly displaced from their homes following a long battle between local city council officials, lawyers and real estate developers. Moving Housesseeks to portray a difference in perspective between the rhythms of a world vanishing and the possibilities of what is to follow.

Scene from In the Dark

In the Dark

In the Dark
dir. Jessie King

Reading isn’t natural, it’s not instinctual and it’s a fairly recent human invention. Reading is a struggle for each of us to master as children.  But those with dyslexia must fight to read their entire lives. Doctors say there is no cure and aim therapy at teaching coping strategies. But Texas therapist Dr. Phyllis Books has been working to reverse dyslexia for more than 30 years. In the Dark follows those struggling with the condition and hoping Books can change their lives—in just five days.

Block B: 1:00 pm

Scene from Here I Will Hanker

Here I Will Hanker

Here I Will Hanker
dir. Sebastián Martínez Valdivia

An abandoned schoolhouse in the Flint Hills of Kansas; highways and development pushing in on an untouched glade in the Ozarks; a class of first-graders carrying the last best hopes of a dying language in Osage County, Oklahoma: this is modern life on the prairie.The American Midwest is a region whose history lies buried under endless fields of soybean, corn and more than a century of popular mythologizing. Here I Will Hanker is a nonfiction adaptation of Carl Sandburg’s poem Prairie that goes looking for that hidden past by exploring the last vestiges of a broken landscape, and the people who call it home.

Scene from Basking Season

Basking Season

Basking Season
dir. Morgan Magid

Basking Seasonjoins the Swamp Apes as they hunt down the invasive Burmese python. The film follows founder Tom Rahill and fellow Swamp Ape Sergeant Major on one of their surveys through the beautiful sea of grass that makes up the Florida Everglades. While road cruising and jungle busting, the Swamp Apes discover plenty along the way – alligators, a water moccasin, a nest of old python eggs. But will they find one of the giants they’re looking for?

Scene from The Locks

The Locks

The Locks
dir. Nicky Cook

Months after a devastating forest fire, this quiet and reflective film returns to Cascade Locks, Oregon—a humbly idyllic tourist town—where residents continue to struggle with the aftermath. Just a few miles from bustling Portland, the city of Cascade Locks now lies on the brink of economic and environmental destruction. Hidden among the cliffs of the strikingly beautiful Columbia River Gorge, a portrait of fear and faith unfolds as two local women recount their tales of resilience in the face of natural disaster and grapple with an uncertain future.

Scene from The Magic of Acting

The Magic of Acting

The Magic of Acting
dir. Jack Tideman

The film captures the techniques of the instructor, Ted Sarantos, who has been teaching acting for 40 years in the Chicago area—teaching some of the same students for almost half that time. Ted’s students are older than most would expect and now exploring the profession of acting after having long careers in other fields. In The Magic of Acting, students try to exhibit their passion against the pressure of mainstream society telling them they can’t do what they want to do.

Scene from Murder Files

Murder Files

Murder Files
dir. Liza Anderson

Betrayal, secrets, murder, and … pizza sauce?  With no witnesses and no leads, will forensic investigators be able to find who killed Ashley Stanley in her own home? This mockumentary film, based on the popular true crime series Forensic Files, will take a look at American audiences’ obsession with crime and especially…MURDER.

 

 

Scene from The best of me.MP4

The best of me.MP4

The best of me.MP4
dir. Michael English

In September 1996, 21-year-old Ricardo López mailed a package to pop singer Björk containing a device rigged to spray sulfuric acid to kill or disfigure her. Upon his return home, he committed suicide, leaving behind nearly twenty hours of video diaries recorded over nine months as evidence of his actions. The diaries not only captured the building of the letter bomb, but also López’s personal thoughts on his life, his family, and his sanity. Twenty years after these diaries were discovered, they shock and fascinate curious viewers in an online world.

Block C: 4:00 pm

Scene from Ironing With My Hands

Ironing With My Hands

Ironing with My Hands
dir. Rachel Tiedemann

Ironing with My Handsrides the line between passion and profession as seen through the eyes of a young improvisational comedian in the starting place of all great comics—Chicago. Attempting to define himself as a comedian and a new careerist in an overwhelmingly large community of young people, our main character explores within and beyond his identity as a comedian to establish a sense of individuality and selfhood.

Scene from Staci and Sadie

Staci and Sadie

Staci and Sadie
dir. Suzy Le Bel

Staci Manella and Sadie Debaun are best friends and business partners. This nonfiction buddy movie charts the determination of teammates to compete for each other, despite the obstacles that get in their way. As their challenges are revealed, the film focuses the importance of not letting any obstacles determine our lifestyles.

Scene from Fools at Heart

Fools at Heart

Fools at Heart
dir. Nate Compton

Setsuna Steele, a Romani man—more commonly known as a Gypsy—grapples with the sudden and unexpected loss of his brother. Chasing down trains and climbing through caves and mountains, Setsuna travels through Colorado Springs with his kin and guild. As outcasts from their own families, the guild members have formed their own bond beyond blood.

 

Scene from Until Arcturus

Until Arcturus

Until Arcturus
dir. Abbey Reznicek

Some believe the stunning red rock formations and the unusually calming atmosphere they create draw people to the seemingly mystical town of Sedona, Arizona. Others believe it is something more–the vortexes found under the city itself. Until Arcturusfeatures a woman who sees the world through the eyes of her alien family while trying to live out her truth among the humans who surround her.

Scene from The Sit Down

The Sit Down

The Sit Down
dir. Laura Harris

Three years later a daughter tries to rid herself of a burden she carries. This intimate nonfiction examination of mental health captures a reveal that leaves a young woman wondering where she stands with her family. Conversations with her mother and father turn confrontational as her biggest secret is revealed.  Supported by loved ones, this family works out real problems in real time. The pain she carries becomes the family’s pain as they try to face the unknown future together.

Block D: 7:00 pm

Scene from Roxana

Roxana

Roxana
dir. Bella Graves

The film follows a young mother’s visit to the juvenile detention center where she was once incarcerated, returning this time as a trained somatic therapist. Through an intimate look into the lives of incarcerated youth, Roxanashows us the consequences of childhood trauma.

Scene from TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DICK

TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DICK

TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DICK
dir. Olga Breslavets

Violence against women is a pernicious force. It is so piercing and yet often ambiguous, a sensation that’s fleeting but a mood that’s enduring. A piece that is both deeply personal and virtually anonymous, TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DICK is an emotionally exploratory work that invites the viewer to become fully submerged in the moment, to sit in the silence, to stare uninterrupted and take in the experience of a night as a woman alone on the street.

Scene from Ulisses

Ulisses

Ulisses
dir. Beatriz Costa Lima

The small beach town of Majorlandia is a place where time passes slowly and adventure comes quietly. Ulissesis a poetic observational documentary that follows the lives of a community of “jangadeiros” — fishermen typical to the dune-lined northeastern coast of Brazil. Although their numbers are dwindling, some jangadeiroscontinue to live off the ocean. The sights and sounds of their lives show more than a century’s worth of history woven into every sail.

Scene from Nai Nai

Nai Nai

奶奶 (Nai Nai)
dir. Wyatt Wu

Nai Nai follows the story of a Chinese immigrant grandmother, Chu-Ming Wu. Known as “Nai Nai,” Chu-Ming has always been a woman of control. But her grasp of reality and the control of her own mind is slipping away. Told through the lens of her grandson, the film focuses on her pain and struggles in the last chapters of her life.

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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Poster from The Departure

The Departure poster

What if individuals were given the chance to experience death before dying? What if the sensation of losing yourself became so profound there was nothing left to feel or love in the world? What would happen if there were a death trial run that had a stronger effect than a near-death experience and had a greater effect than any video stimulation or medical stimulations could? In filmmaker Lana Wilson’s latest documentary, The Departure, she follows Buddhist-priest Ittetsu Nemoto on his career of helping suicidal people find reasons to live. Giving answer to the question that creeps into everyone’s existence: “What is the point of life?” Nemoto’s journey helps others ask: “What makes life worth living?” Guiding suicidal people on the path of finding their will to live, Nemoto is searching for his own answers in life. Everyone in this film is on a journey of trying to understand life and death.

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