A documentary directed by Missouri School of Journalism graduate student Yuting Jiang won the Best Short Documentary award at the QFest NJ LGBT Film & Digital Media Festival in April. The film, Mazy, is about a transgender girl in the St. Louis area struggling to understand herself and fit in to the world around her.
The opening of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism marked the first time that journalism students are able to study in the new Documentary Journalism interest area and receive specific training to work making and supporting documentaries and other non-fiction work.
The inaugural Murray Center class is made up of 18 undergraduates and three graduate students, all of whom gained admission to the class through a competitive application process that is like no other in the School of Journalism. The students—11 women and ten men—are from as nearby as Columbia and as far away as Germany and China. All express a strong desire to tell important and interesting stories in the documentary format, relying on the solid foundation of a Missouri Journalism education to build a set of creative filmmaking skills.
The program employs six new courses for its core instruction, four of which were taught for the very first time in 2015-16. Murray Center assistant professor and filmmaker-in-chief Robert Greene teaches two courses that give students their most important instruction in the art of nonfiction and documentary filmmaking. In the fall, students took the new Editing for Documentaries course that breaks down nonfiction filmmaking into its component parts, allowing students to see why documentary and narrative fiction filmmakers do what they do with their films and how those parts work as a whole to deliver the messages of the film. In the spring, students enrolled in the new Documentary Theory and Development course with Greene to bring those component parts back together and start to build their own plan for their first significant documentary project to be produced during their final year in the program.
While Greene is teaching these important theory courses on the art of the documentary, associate professor and center director Stacey Woelfel focuses on the science. In the fall semester, he taught a new section of the Micro-Documentary Photojournalism and Videography course to get students out in the field and making their very first short documentaries. He followed that course in the spring with the new Documentary Business and the Public Sphere course that continues to put students to work making short documentaries, all while exposing them to the business side of the documentary world, distribution of their work and employment.
All of this work was done with a brand new classroom and laboratory and with new equipment, all dedicated for the sole use of the students in Documentary Journalism. The classroom and laboratory, located in historic Walter Williams Hall, is the home for all the Documentary Journalism students during their time in the program. The center acts not only as a classroom but also a screening room for film showings and visiting guest presentations. The students have 24-hour access to the lab facilities in the center, allowing them to access the new Apple iMac 5K desktops loaded with Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer. Students use these workstations to complete their classwork and master the necessary editing skills to move them forward in the industry.
In the field, students in 2015-16 had their own dedicated gear consisting of Canon DSLR cameras and Sony professional camcorders. With complete sets of gear that mimic what they would use on any documentary shoot, students were fully equipped go to wherever their assignments took them to capture footage, do interviews and record all they needed for their documentary work.
An important part of the approach at the Murray Center is to supplement its two faculty members with a series of visiting artists from the documentary world. During 2015-16, the center invited twelve visiting artists to come to campus specifically to spend time with Murray Center students, not only lecturing and showing their documentaries, but working closely with students—sometimes one on one—to guide them through their own projects.
Perhaps the most well-known visiting artist of the year was actor/director Spike Lee, whose documentary work has covered diverse topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to Kobe Bryant. Lee came to the center in April to screen his latest documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, and to speak to students about his career. On an earlier visit, Lee also interviewed Murray Center students about their coverage of the Concerned Student 1950 activism on campus for his documentary 2 Fists Up for ESPN.
Aside from Lee, the following visiting artists all came to campus in 2015-16 to work with Murray Center students:
- Chris Boeckmann, True/False Film Fest programmer
- Rachel Boynton (Our Brand is Crisis, Big Men)
- Lawrence Everson (The Dean Scream, Speaking is Difficult)
- Chad Freidrichs, Jamie Freidrichs (The Pruitt Igoe Myth, First Impersonator)
- Judith Helfand, Chicken & Egg Pictures
- Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association
- Bill Ross IV (Western, Tchoupitoulas)
- Mo Scarpelli (Frame by Frame)
- Douglas Tirola (National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Hey Bartender)
- Amanda Rose Wilder (Approaching the Elephant)
In addition to these in-person visiting artist exposures, students had two-way video conferences with other important artists including Art Holliday (Before They Fall Off the Cliff, Johnnie Be Good), Stu Maddux (Reel in the Closet, Gen Silent), Elizabeth Mims (Only the Young), Dan Nuxoll (Rooftop Films program director), Michelle Smawley (Carrier) and Jason Tippet (Only the Young).
The program at the Murray Center is intensely hands-on, putting students through the paces of producing documentary content from the very first day. It employs the Missouri Method of experiential learning, which includes a component of public consumption of the students’ journalistic work. While the first year of the program is not focused on a large volume of productions for public distribution, Murray Center students still produced content that reached audiences worldwide. The most significant among those productions is the short documentary Concerned Student 1950, directed and produced by juniors Varun Bajaj, Adam Dietrich and Kellan Marvin. The 32-minute film documents the inside workings of activism and protests on the University of Missouri campus in the fall of 2015. The film premiered at the prestigious True/False Film Fest in March, also playing at the Seattle International Film Festival, the Unknown Pleasures Film Festival in Berlin and the Middle Coast Film Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. It also screened for a week at the IFC Film Center in New York City. The film also plays to a worldwide audience on the Field of Vision web site (fieldofvision.org), a place for important issue-based documentaries to reach diverse audiences. It was chosen as a Vimeo Staff Pick and has been viewed online more than 42 thousand times.
To help distribute both the documentary work of our students as well as their writing on documentaries and other subjects, the center launched its industry-focused web site this year, DocJournalism.com. The site is first and foremost a place to share with the public the documentary work of the Murray Center students. Those videos appear right at the top of the page, inviting visitors to sample the work of our student journalists. Below that, the site shares student writing on important subjects like documentary reviews, equipment and interviews with important filmmakers. Prospective students can also use the site to find out more about the program, the curriculum and the faculty.
Key to much of the center’s success is work by the faculty to be intensely connected and relevant to the documentary community. Nowhere is that demonstrated better than through the work of Murray Center Filmmaker-in-Chief Robert Greene. Greene is a noted documentary filmmaker in his own right and the year marked a high point in his career as he premiered his latest documentary, Kate Plays Christine, at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing. Since Sundance, the film has played at film festivals all over the world, including festivals in Berlin, Paris, Sydney, South Korea and more. Greene is a fellow in the Sundance Institute’s Art of Nonfiction initiative. He is also a regular contributor to Sight and Sound magazine, where he writes about documentaries. Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel, who celebrates 30 years on the faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism in 2016, is connected to the industry through the festival circuit, serving as an officer on the board of the Kansas City Film Fest, a jury member for the St. Louis International Film Festival and a screener for the True/False Film Fest.
The Center reached beyond its own students in 2015-16 to help present documentary programs for students in other disciplines, as well as for the general public. It is a major sponsor of the True/False Film Fest, considered one of the top film festivals in the world. The center, along with True/False, presented a special community screening of the documentary Killing Them Safely at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia in November 2015, looking at the use of TASER weapons by police forces. The center also presented screenings of classic and important documentaries for the campus community including The Endless Summer (1966), Roger and Me (1989), Billy the Kid (2007), Pandora’s Promise (2013) and Frame by Frame (2015), as well as the fiction film Spotlight (2015). The center is an ongoing sponsor of the Cinema Eye Honors in New York City, an annual event to honor the best in documentary film.
Murray Center students study not only on campus, but at festivals and other events where they can see documentaries, interact with filmmakers and grow in their careers. Students are all deeply involved in the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, acting as volunteers and participating in exclusive meetings with filmmakers and other events solely for Murray Center students. Students had exclusive access to Khalik Allah (Field Niggas), Craig Atkinson (Do Not Resist), Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths), Field of Vision’s Charlotte Cook, Sundance Institute’s Tabitha Jackson, Elizabeth Lo (Hotel 22), Chelsea McMullan (Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John), Brian Oakes (Jim: The James Foley Story), Sergio Oksman (O Futbol), Oscar winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Sheldon Renan (The Killing of America) and Mizzou alum and director A.J. Schnack (Caucus).
Even before the True/False Film Fest began, the students were immersed with documentary filmmakers and other journalists at the annual Based on a True Story conference, a collaboration of the Murray Center and the School of Journalism, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, MU’s Film Studies Program, MU’s Department of German and Russian Studies, The Mizzou Advantage and the True/False Film Fest. Students attended all three days of the conference, meeting and speaking with guests such as film write and critic Sam Adams, film editor Joe Bini (Grizzly Man), Frontline producer Carla Borras, Sundance Institute’s John Cardellino, Whitney Dow (Two Towns of Jasper), StoryUp founder Sarah Hill, film writer Eric Hynes, Frontline digital team leader Sarah Moughty, Omar Mullick (These Birds Walk), Bassam Tariq (These Birds Walk) and Marco Williams (Two Towns of Jasper).
One special highlight of True/False week was the chance for the students to meet and spend time with Jonathan Murray himself, who made a $6.7 million gift to the school to enable the founding of the center. Murray attended a student pizza party and discussed his professional path after he graduated from the School of Journalism, the rise of his company Bunim-Murray and its immense success in the reality television field and his passion for documentaries and storytelling.
Two students were also able to travel to the Sundance Film Festival in January thanks to the general support of The Mizzou Advantage. While there, the students were able to attend multiple documentary screenings and take part in a reception to honor Prof. Robert Greene for his film’s premiere. Another group of students accompanied Prof. Stacey Woelfel to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival where they talked with filmmakers and saw more than a dozen films.
As the 2015-16 school year closed, the inaugural class of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism was poised to move into its second year in the program—a year in which each student will produce a documentary as a final project. Those films were successfully pitched to a panel of industry professionals in April, a step required for them to complete before they could begin work on their final projects. All the students passed the initial or follow-up pitches, meaning each was ready at the end of the school year to begin work on the major documentary project of the program. Those short documentaries will screen for the public on May 10, 2017 at Jesse Auditorium to mark the beginning of graduation ceremonies for these initial students in the program.
Until they return for their final year in the program, the students are spending their summers in productive pursuits of the documentary craft. Some are already in production on their senior documentaries, while others are interning or working in the industry. Some examples of their summer work are:
- Marisa Anz is working as a production assistant at Herizon Productions in Kansas City and doing pre-production on her senior documentary
- Varun Bajaj is an intern at Mustache, a New York production company. He is involved location scouting, set work and gripping.
- Adam Dietrich is an intern at Mizzou’s Wellness Resource Center. He is spending his free time working on a family relationship documentary for his senior project.
- Steve Gieseke is combing through archive video for two different documentaries—one on Thomas Edison and one on his own childhood.
- Jordan Inman is an intern for the Sundance Institute, working to improve the institute and film festival archive.
- Morgan Lieberman is in Southern California shooting her documentary about the housekeepers who clean the homes of the well-to-do residents of a gated community.
- Shannon Little is a production assistant at Quiet Island Films in St. Paul, Minnesota where she is responsible for scheduling, crowdfunding and corporate relationships.
- Charlie Lonergan is tramping through the wilds of Missouri, working with a master wildlife photographer.
- Sebastian Martinez has traveled across North and South America shooting prairies for his senior documentary, as well as other nonfiction content.
- Kellan Marvin is spending the summer shooting her senior documentary in central Illinois.
- Lindsey Miller began the summer in New Mexico working on her senior documentary. She is now an intern at Corporate Accountability International in Boston where she is responsible for video production.
- Marc Nemcik is an editorial intern at Filmmaker magazine in New York where he has been able to author content for both the print and online versions of the magazine.
- Joe Petersen is an intern at 4th Row Films in New York City editing branded content for social media and working on film pitches. He is also in pre-production on his senior documentary about the intersections of families in the aftermath of an Iowa tragedy.
- Derek Poore is working on a commercial documentary shoot at a thoroughbred breeding farm in Kentucky while he does pre-production on his final documentary project.
- Kyle Pyatt is an intern at 4th Row Films in New York City, working on documentary and fiction content.
- Aaron Rudman has shot two short documentaries over the summer and is working to produce content at Mizzou’s MU Film Crew.
- Katie Schnell is spending the summer crisscrossing Missouri as she follows her senior documentary subject down the Missouri River in a kayak.
- Daniel Shapiro is an intern at NowThis in New York City, finding, writing and producing stories for social media.
- Meg Vatterott is working on a short film called Drive U for Burnt Bridge Films.
- Alexandra Watkins is working as a sound recordist and camera assistant intern at Visual Contact in Seattle. She is also shooting her senior documentary about competitive rowing.
- Zhongbo Wen traveled abroad to profile the residents of a small arts community in the rural China.
- Majiyebo Yacim is spending the summer following her senior documentary subject, a costumed performer at renaissance fairs who goes by the name of Black Lips Bonny.
As they return for the 2016-2017 school year, the inaugural students back for their final year will find new advanced-level equipment for their exclusive use on the final projects, allowing them to shoot and edit in 4K resolution for maximum quality. Joining them in the program will be a new class of 17 undergraduates and four graduate students, aiming to be the second graduating class from the program in May 2018.
I want to preface this article by saying that I know accolades and recognitions are not the end all be all. They are not why films are made and they don’t add to or deduct from the value of a piece of art. Still, they do acknowledge films that break boundaries and execute new ideas at a high level, so when a filmmaker deserves to be recognized then he or she should be.
With two stunning feature documentaries under his directorial belt, Joshua Oppenheimer has solidified himself as one of the best and most influential filmmakers currently working in nonfiction. His films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are two of the most celebrated documentaries made in the last ten years.
Last fall, as classes were quickly approaching and the excitement of the inaugural class at the Murray Center settled in, the 20 or so students chosen to be a part of the program were asked to participate in several “kick off” events leading up to the first day of class.
We first got to go to the True/False Film Fest “Boone Dawdle,” an annual summer documentary screening and party held at the Les Bourgeois Vineyards on the blufftops near Rocheport, Missouri. This opening event was followed by a few days of guest lectures from documentary directors such as Nick Berardini (Killing Them Safely) and Rachel Boynton (Big Men). It was at these events that my uniquely forward-thinking sense of nostalgia kicked in, and I began keeping a journal filled with little words of wisdom, short one-liners, and tiny pieces of advice. I kept this journal with me every day in class and carried it along to every screening, Q&A, and guest lecture that I was able to attend.
Murray Center Filmmaker-in-Chief Robert Greene says something few other filmmakers would say: nodding off during a movie isn’t a bad thing. He argues that films should be a dreamlike experience, and, coupled with his other theories of run-times coinciding with sleep cycles, they are successful if they can fully ease you into the story.
Seeking to push the bounds of immersion through mind-alerting new methods, some journalists are turning to virtual reality to enhance their storytelling. In certain instances, virtual reality can work and give viewers an exciting experience. Nonfiction filmmaking, however, is not one of those instances—for three major reasons.
On April 29, Criticwire discontinued its blog and services as Indiewire moves towards its more curated “Criticwire network.” Criticwire began its film and critical curation and blogging in July 2013, when Sam Adams was hired as the blog’s editor-in-chief. By July 2013, I had made my decision to attend the Missouri School of Journalism and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I began reading about my eventual career path: documentary film. Quickly, Adams and his team at Criticwire became daily reading. A few years later, as I began my adventure with the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Film, Criticwire became my film school away from film school.
Criticwire was the best educator available online for budding filmmakers. This started when Adams, Indiewire Deputy Editor Eric Kohn, and Indiewire Editor-in-chief Dana Harris hatched the idea for the blog: a place where film criticism could be curated. This curation allowed Adams to include colleagues so his readers learned from a diverse, varying collective of critics. Adams, through his curation and “Criticwire Surveys,” introduced me to many film scholars, allowing me to build an arsenal of great writers/teachers for my personal online film school. My favorite Criticwire survey is “Documentary Sequels We’d Love to See,” published last July. In each of these Criticwire surveys, Adams posed a topical question about film and usually over two dozen critics pitched in their answer. Each week, I would explore the writings of dozens of people who think about and see film in a way that challenges my thought process. Each week, just like in class, I would grow as a filmmaker.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the film, please do not read this article. I know you really want to continue reading but finishing this article will ruin the best part of the film. Consider yourself warned.
I didn’t quite understand the complexity of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell until my second viewing. Its beauty is obvious and undeniable, but the many visual and storytelling layers that work in tandem to create this wonderful portrait of a family became even richer on multiple viewings.
Fireworks are one of the deeply-rooted symbols of fiction cinema, being used to depict a variety of meanings in films such as Blow Out (1981), To Catch a Thief (1955), and the opening of every Disney film. While the wide spectrum of symbolic interpretation dilutes the significance of fireworks in fiction, recent nonfiction films have been able to use fireworks to create ambiguous and evocative images.
In Columbia to premiere his hour-long look at the Concerned Student 1950 protest on the University of Missouri campus, filmmaker Spike Lee presented his latest Michael Jackson documentary, spoke in personal terms about his own life and career and gave advice to young journalists and filmmakers.
Lee’s visit took place in a special master class for the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism. The students in that program’s inaugural class were on hand in Smith Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, along with another 130 or so students at the Missouri School of Journalism for the screening and lecture on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
Lee began the class with the Jackson film, entitled Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Screening for the first 90 minutes of the class, the film is the second documentary Lee has done focused on the career of the pop legend—all while steering clear of the singer’s troubled personal life and tragic early death. While Lee watched from near the screen, the assembled student saw images of Jackson most had not seen before, with laughter and tears from the audience sprinkled throughout the screening.
White men still largely dominate the film industry and the societal implications of inaccurate representation are huge, meaning filmmaking itself is a radical act for women and people of color. But those groups are moving forward to make documentaries and take on an industry that has largely excluded them.
It should come as no surprise that the film industry is embattled over a lack of diversity and the gender gap. This year has been full of efforts to address the disparities in Hollywood and filmmaking in general. We have seen #OscarsSoWhite boycotts and recently, federal officials decided to take a look at reasons behind the gender gap.