In honor of the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Brown University, which is being celebrated this weekend in Providence, Rhode Island, I want to throw down the gauntlet and ask: Has any other university produced more great doc-destined undergrads?
This notion has struck me many times during my years of covering documentary film, especially because there were three sterling examples right in my face: Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy and Margaret Brown, all of whom attended Brown while I was there. Brown’s Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt and The Order of Myths have proven her to be one of the few directors able to achieve a perfect balance of style and substance. Garbus and Kennedy, who formed their Moxie Firecracker Films production company and have been closely associated with HBO, have cranked out an impressive list of socially relevant (and Oscar-worthy) films. And Garbus took a great leap forward, cinematically, with 2011’s Bobby Fischer Against the World, an assured film about the nutty chess champ.
What is it about this school that has led to nonfiction greatness? I think it starts with the students, many of whom are pop culture savants who want to make a difference in the world. And Brown has a unique cauldron of privilege, pedigree, people moved by social justice and a stellar Modern Culture & Media department, that together make Brown a breeding ground for some of the best documentary filmmakers working today.
The most notable ones predate me. Ross McElwee, who graduated in 1971, is one of the elder statesmen of the form, and his Sherman’s March is one of the best docs ever made. Also on the A-list is Davis Guggenheim, who shook the world with his An Inconvenient Truth. There are many others. Amir Bar-Lev (the hot doc director of The Tillman Story whom I first met when he was crashing parties), Ellen Kuras (who usually works in fiction features but took 20 years to direct the incredible doc The Betrayal), Oren Jacoby (Constantine’s Sword), Lynn True (Summer Pasture, Lumo), Kenneth A. Carlson (Go Tigers!), Stefan Forbes (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story) and Philip (son of Albert) Maysles. And there are certainly more.
Of course, I am well aware that many of the graduates of other schools, such as Harvard and Yale, reach for loftier heights, and therefore become the subjects of documentaries. (Hello, Al Gore!) But I have to say my normally slumbering alumnae spirit (and guilt over not attending Campus Dance this weekend) is stirred when I consider all of this great nonfiction output.
Can any other school claim such an impressive list of documentary filmmakers? Hampshire College is a contender, with Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball), Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) on its roster. But Brown still has it beat. Anyone else?