Western fireworks

A scene from Western

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.

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Spike Lee

Filmmaker Spike Lee

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.

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Laura Poitras image

Laura Poitras

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.

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Metal scalesThere are two terms often discussed in the journalism world when any controversial story comes to a head: objectivity and fairness. The news media wrestled with these two terms when global warming became a hot topic during the past couple of decades. Eventually, the issue was treated as science, and simply allowing two sides to the debate was no longer an option for some media outlets. Many sided with science and detractors were presented as a fringe element. The same type of debate erupted over a link between autism and vaccines, a link the vast majority of scientists and studies say does not exist. Many journalists are increasingly moving beyond the idea of objectivity and into the realm of fairness. Their idea is to fairly represented the information, opinions and observations of the world around us.

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Zhao Liang’s Behemoth still

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth

A beautifully photographed hillside stretches across the screen. The stillness of the shot is almost unsettling, and some of that stillness seems to creep into the audience as we search for the first hint of movement in the frame. Collectively, we jump, as the hillside erupts in a deafening explosion. With that shot, any viewer expectations of Zhao Liang’s Behemoth are wiped away with the rocky landscape. The next 90 minutes are dominated by a feeling of suffocation, as Zhao channels the airlessness of both setting and subject matter through a range of visual and auditory cues.

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YouTube is the largest online video platform in the world. This makes it home to great channels that can sometimes get lost in the mix. So I decided to highlight three channels that showcase tools for aspiring filmmakers.

Film Riot

Film Riot is a massive YouTube channel, with more than 688 videos at the time of this article’s writing.

Described as “hybrid of sketch comedy, tutorial, reality TV and a whole lot of non-sense, with the ultimate goal of teaching the art of independent filmmaking”, Film Riot is a catch-all channel that feels simultaneously down to earth while having a high level of professional polish. The channel features tutorials, a mailbag, sketches and reviews of various filmmaking gear.

Best Show: Film Riot’s are extensive, featuring a DIY Filmmaking playlist focusing on building your own rigs, how to shoot on your iPhone and more. The best segment on Film Riot isn’t a playlist, but instead it is the weekly recurring Mondays show, where host Ryan Connolly answers questions every week from fans. Some topics recently touched on are choosing a title for your film, how to get on the festival circuit and how social media has changed filmmaking.

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True False 2016 Concerned Student 1950

(from left) Adam Dietrich, Kellan Marvin, Varun Bajaj and David Wilson

Missouri School of Journalism students Varun Bajaj, Adam Dietrich and Kellan Marvin premiered their short film Concerned Student 1950 in front of an audience of True/False festival-goers in the Missouri Theatre. Original members of Concerned Student 1950 joined the directors on stage before the screening. Filmmaker Spike Lee was also in attendance for the showing.

The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the protests that unfolded on the University of Missouri campus in fall 2015. Very few members of the media were able to record the Concerned Student 1950 journey, giving Bajaj, Dietrich and Marvin the chance follow the movement from its beginning stages, through the national exposure and finally during the emotional moments following the resignation of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe.

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True/False Film Fest

True/False Film Fest box office

In late February or early March of each year, the True/False Film Fest brings to Columbia the most talented filmmakers and industry leaders in the documentary filmmaking field. The reputation of the fest–and of Columbia itself –reach furthest corners of the world year after year. True/False has critically become one of the best festivals  exclusively for documentary films and films blurring the lines of nonfiction cinema.

The only problem attendees often find at the fest  is deciding how to spend their time there. With about 40 feature-length documentaries and 20 or so shorts—all packed into four short days—is it hard to fit in everything during the festival. Many festivalgoers, in an effort to make the most of the weekend, walk the line between having mind-blowing film watching experiences and feeling the utter physical and mental exhaustion.

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Abigail Disney photo

Abigail Disney

It may come as a surprise to some, but there are opportunities in film for individuals to move from one career path to another, all while maintaining an involved role in this industry outside of Hollywood. This has been the case for Abigail Disney, a world-renowned producer who has had executive positions with documentaries such as The Invisible War, Queen of Versailles, and Hot Girls Wanted. Focusing on films with women as main subjects, her documentary timeline reflects her passion for people and for telling stories that have been unexplored and overlooked. Disney has spent years in philanthropy, but only within the last decade has she dived into the world of nonfiction cinema.

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Sundance in 48 hours

Sundance Film Festival marquee

Sundance Film Festival

In January, I had the privilege of attending the Sundance Film Festival, thanks to the generosity of The Mizzou Advantage, a campus initiative here at the University of Missouri designed to increase collaboration and impact of our most significant programs. To say I was ecstatic for this opportunity would be an understatement. To say I was nervous would also be an understatement. It was a huge honor to be chosen to represent our program at Sundance, and I did not want to let anyone down. I also wanted to be sure to maximize this opportunity and take advantage of all the experiences Sundance had to offer, academically, creatively, and professionally. I only had two days in Utah, but those were two days that carried so much potential. And, even more, they would be 48 hours more than the vast majority of students ever get to spend at Sundance. This opportunity was one that was not to go to waste.

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