The Next Generation of Documentary Filmmakers Enters College

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This week, freshmen across the country are meeting new roommates, completing orientation and starting their first week of college classes. After we sent out a call over social media, we heard back from many students who are dreaming of becoming documentary filmmakers — and, as we learned, many of them already are! As we continue our back-to-school theme on the blog, we’re profiling three of the students we met to understand more about their career goals, why they’re studying documentary and what they think about their road ahead in a rapidly evolving media landscape.

Have advice for this new generation of filmmakers? Share it in the comments below.

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Joshua Rifkin
Emerson College, Class of 2017
Age: 19
Hometown: Columbia, MD
Major: Documentary Production
Online: Joshua Rifkin on Vimeo

During his senior year of high school, Joshua Rifkin interviewed dozens of alumni, faculty, headmasters and students for his 55-minute documentary From Druid Hill to Brooklandville: The Park School Century, which chronicled a century of the school’s progressive learning practices. After spending nine months attending meetings, writing outlines and scripts and editing, he premiered the film to a theater with 100 people.

“When the lights faded and the documentary began playing, I could hear people crying during certain sections, laughing during others, and mumbling to those sitting next to them, ‘I didn’t know that!’ During those moments, I realized that documentaries are more than just a means of cataloging events, but that they have the power to educate and foster change in others.”

After seeing the film, a parent of a student who also happened to be a documentary filmmaker and alumnus of Emerson College encouraged him to apply. “I wasn’t sure whether or not it was the right college for me or whether or not I wanted to just start making films, until I stepped foot on campus for a prospective student orientation. Then and there, I knew that Emerson was the right college for me. There was a world of valuable learning and experience ahead.”

When Rifkin received his first camera at around age 9, he began to capture everything possible, editing video clips together and he quickly found his passion for making films that drive connections and express a point of view. His desire to become a documentary filmmaker comes from a journalistic impulse to uncover questions about a situation and the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better.

He admires documentary filmmakers who demonstrate a respect for history and commitment to express a point of view that otherwise may be left unseen, such as Errol Morris, Charles Ferguson, Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, David Gelb, Ramona Diaz, Andrea and Sean Fine, and Lauren Greenfield. These filmmakers may advance a point of view, Rifkin notes, but they also respect counterviews and let evidence speak for itself. They are able to keep viewers spellbound through cinematic techniques and, most importantly, bring light to a new perspective that keeps the audience thinking about the issues long after the credits have rolled.

He sees himself creating feature-length documentaries, and many of his questions about the documentary filmmaking industry he realizes are also challenges: How will documentaries be distributed in the future? Will distribution through social media allow more freedom to express positions? Who will be willing to fund documentaries on topics that are not of interest to a large market but are important and relevant? And, will there be gainful employment as a documentary filmmaker?

Rifkin hopes a degree in documentary filmmaking will help him acquire experience, skills and industry connections. “By learning from my experienced professors, collaborating with my fellow peers and interning under the guidance of someone who has already had experience in the field, I hope to gain the knowledge I need to develop as a filmmaker. Furthermore, I hope to expand my horizons, question my world and provoke thought in others and myself. I am hoping to be able to work with a wide variety of people from indie to professional filmmakers and gain the expertise to create documentaries I can be proud of.”

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Kati Perez
SUNY Oswego, Class of 2017
Age: 18
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Major: Cinema and Screen Studies

While growing up in Harlem, Kati Perez attended a youth screening of The Interrupters, the documentary about street violence “interrupters” in Chicago. Sponsored by Operation SNUG, students from six different high schools in the area attended. “We just all sat there watching this documentary,” Perez said. “It wasn’t until the end that I saw how this film affected others. Some of the teens were crying. One teen shared his story of how he wished he knew something like this existed in New York City because his brother might have still been alive.”

It was at this screening that Perez realized the power of documentary film. “There are so many extraordinary people and families that the news never covers. I hear stories from people I know about searching for their father, living in parks because it’s cheaper, being a veteran and homeless. Everyone has a unique story and I feel that it should be showcased in our theaters. Not only fictional stories, but those from real life that people can connect with and remember.”

As an incoming college freshman to SUNY Oswego in upstate New York, Perez has worked on several documentaries, including The Melting Pot, about how her and her co-producer’s families were affected by the culture of their immigrant fathers. The film has been featured at The Maysles Institute’s The Teen Producers’ Academy screening and on the Institute’s Vimeo channel.

Documentary filmmakers that Perez admires are constantly working on their films and represent their characters respectfully and they’ve driven her to want to become a successful female documentary filmmaker herself. Her mentor and idol Lyric R. Cabral, who is now co-directing the feature-length documentary (T)ERROR, said she works on her film in some way everyday, whether on the budget, sample work or rewriting proposals. “She just works on her film because she loves her film. There is not one day where Lyric isn’t out there working on it.”

As she starts the school year, Perez is working on a film called Trinz, which follows a Afghanistan war veteran who has been homeless and struggling with depression after 10 years of service, revealing her efforts to be at peace with herself as well as finding a place to call home. As a filmmaker, Perez is eager to address the need for female empowerment, whether that be in the military, households or the workplace.

Perez hopes a degree in narrative filmmaking will give her the skills to tell her character’s stories. “Will people really connect to the stories I tell? How can I tell an interesting story that will make the audience connect and still tell the character’s story accurately?” She hopes a journalism minor helping give her insight into what stories need to be told.

At the same time she’s working through those questions, Perez also feels a deep sense of responsibility embarking on a college education because she’s done it by herself. Being the daughter of an immigrant, her father did not know much about the American school system or how to fill out the paperwork to apply to college.

“Just being here, I know that I have to really take advantage of the opportunities they have.”

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Eve Studnicka
Columbia College Chicago, Class of 2017
Age: 18
Hometown: Mineral Point, WI
Major: Film and Video with a documentary concentration
Online: Eve Studnicka on YouTube

Even before starting college, Eve Studnicka was thinking about her post-college life as a documentary filmmaker. After clicking through pages of search engine results calling film programs “one of the Top 10 majors you should never ever pursue because you won’t get a job… at all… ever,” Studnicka thought long and hard about the best way to work toward her perfect career.

“Someone told me once that the best way to get a job in any creative field is to have a killer portfolio and to know everyone.” So she was elated when Columbia College Chicago promised “to help you create the best work that you can and to put both you and your portfolio in a position of being able to be shared with the people who matter.”

Like other the freshman we talked to, Studnicka has been busy working on her “portfolio,” in her case a feature-length documentary about the artisans who saved her hometown of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, by restoring buildings and creating new businesses on their own terms after the Great Depression. While growing up in the rural Midwest, movies were her means of escape. Watching a steady diet of Miramax and obscure independent films, she became entranced by the unconventionality and challenging storytelling of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Agnès Varda and Elia Kazan. Initially toting a camera everywhere she went, it wasn’t until she fell into “a torrid love affair” with editing that everything started to click.

“The stories that were happening around me began to take shape in my mind as I cut them together. At some point, it dawned on me that the fulfillment I was getting out of making documentaries didn’t necessarily have to transfer to fictional narrative. Plus, the cold-blooded Wisconsin kid in me didn’t necessarily like the idea of moving to sunny L.A. and being lucky if I got a job fetching coffee for the B-Roll crew.”

With the explosion of digital technology, Studnicka wonders about the future of documentary distribution, whether the best documentaries will only be seen on the web or whether nonfiction can fill a gap if people grow tired of blockbusters.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds. I’m sure that as I have more experiences, my little notebook of doc ideas will grow considerably, but right now I’m interested in the fascinating and unusual stories that aren’t really on people’s radar. For example, there is a shop in an old barn the hills of Southwest Wisconsin where an eccentric elderly woman sells handmade art that she has brought back from her years of travels in Southern Asia. I’d love to make a movie about that. You can’t make this stuff up!”

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Shannon Carroll
Shannon Carroll
Shannon is the Digital Community Associate in POV’s Digital department. Follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter @shannon_carroll.