Paul Meyers' 'Penultimate' screened with other work from Stanford's MFA students this week.

Stanford's MFA Doc Program Teaches Cardinal Rules, and How to Break Them

Sara Dosa December 9, 2010

Eight first-year students in the Stanford MFA in Documentary Film program screened their works to a packed house Tuesday at the University’s Annenberg Auditorium, and the films, each between three and four minutes, could not have been more diverse in theme. American football, a beached blue whale, an old-time American diner, a boxer-turned-poet, an elderly man wrestling with Parkinson’s Disease, an inventive artist and pen collector became the subjects of cinematic meditation and scrutiny. Though distinct, they were stitched together with a formal thread: They were required to be shot on 16mm black-and-white film with non-sync sound—an impressive and refreshing feat in the current era’s wash of digital storytelling. Equipped with a spring-wound Bolex and five rolls of Kodak film, the students had barely ten weeks to plan, shoot and edit their films. Each documentary showed considerable ingenuity given these technical constraints.

“There’s a kind of magic to the first Fall Screening here at Stanford,” Assistant Professor Jamie Meltzer told me. “It’s here that you begin to see their voices emerge. ” “The students start to find themselves as filmmakers. There’s both a passion and an innocence to it all.” Indeed, Meltzer accurately articulated the emotion in Annenberg Auditorium that night. With palpable anticipation, the students –and nearly 300 in the audience— watched their first MFA films come to life on screen.

Sara Mott’s film Life Size, for instance, illustrates an imaginative approach to her subject matter. Life Size opens with a tour of impeccably decorated rooms within a meticulous, well furnished home. Then, through a window frame, a human eye appears. We realize we’re inside a dollhouse. “I play with reality in the opening” Mott explained, “So you don’t know if you’re in a real house or in a fake one.” Through this lens, she tells the story of Shellie, the owner of a local dollhouse store, who finds comfort in “playing God;” Shellie craves the order of living out her life in her dollhouse world. “I think that people who have dollhouses are natural storytellers,” Mott mused. “They create narratives about their lives and their dollhouse lives; every object has to have a story behind it.” Only four minutes long, Life Size is a small film with an expansive theme.

Laura Green’s film, Lady Razorbacks, too, glimpsed into a quotidian circumstance—a women’s rugby team practice—and revealed layers of stories with macrocosmic implications. Through an ensemble of voice over, we learn of the meaning rugby takes on in the women’s lives: it is an activity of empowerment, and the field, a sanctuary. The mostly Polynesian women express find acceptance, express aggression and develop spirituality, sisterhood and self-respect through the game.

Green, who was raised on video, acknowledged both her anxiety and excitement to work with film. “It’s a bit intimidating,” she said. “Especially when you have low light and a low depth of field the way I did shooting an evening team practice. You don’t know what you’re going to get.” Green got beautiful nighttime shots, high in contrast, with pools of light backgrounding the women as they ran. It’s precisely this aesthetic—a textured, analog feel—that makes the production challenges of working in 16mm worth it. It’s a look only achieved through the sculptural craft of working in film.

The three principal faculty members—Meltzer, Kris Samuelson, and director of the program Jan Krawitz—believe their students’ first 16mm films help them form an essential artistic orientation. “We like them to work in the film because of the discipline it confers,” Krawitz explained. “It forces them to think before they shoot because of a limited shooting ratio, to be very careful with lighting and to privilege sound as an independent element divorced from the visual component.” On this celluloid foundation, students build quite the portfolio: MFA students complete four films in two arduous years. Up next is an HD video that two students will co-direct, then a 16mm color short, followed by an in-depth thesis film of 20 minutes in their final year. On top of their production, students take theory classes on a variety of subjects, from documentary ethics to critical analysis. Despite the hefty load, “The students rise to the education and produce exceptional work each quarter in the first years,” according to Krawitz.

Even with tight technical requirements and course credits to fulfill, the program emphasizes experimentation. Professor Meltzer encourages a sense of aesthetic and intellectual curiosity in his students. “I almost want my students to fail!” Meltzer said. “I want them to succeed, of course, but I want to make sure that they are really trying things out here in film school—they can do that kind of work here. I want them to push the limits. It’s with this kind of experimentation that they’ll find their artistic voice.”

Krawitz is of a similar mind. “We define documentary quite broadly and encourage them to create work that is uniquely filmic.” Indeed, she stressed there is no “stamp” that characterizes Stanford students’ work. “There's an urban legend around town about the "Stanford look" of the films that come out of our program. We do not privilege a particular approach or style,” she explained. Krawitz, Meltzer and Samuelson hail from various documentary traditions themselves, each with accolades to their names. Further, the program is housed in the Art and Art History Department, unlike counterpart programs elsewhere. Meltzer said, “Students treat documentary as art, not just as journalism. It allows for an expansion of the craft.”

With this emphasis on art and craft, it’s no surprise that Stanford students and alums are met with success. Second year MFA students, Kevin Gordon (class of 2011) and Rebekah Meredith (’11) have already amassed considerable praise for, Dreams Awake their HD video project completed at the end of their first year in. The film—a poignant portrait of Doroteo Garcia, an immigrant worker discovered his artistic and political voice in the United States—won a prestigious bronze medal at this year’s Student Academy Awards and is currently making the festival rounds. Gordon, recently came back from Telluride where he got to meet his “heroes,” he said. “I met Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. And there was a mini community of other student filmmakers that I bonded with, too.” In a way, the festival circuit serves as an unofficial part of the MFA curriculum.

Both professors and students acknowledge that this success is largely due to the spirit of collaboration instilled throughout the program, aside from the academics. Students work closely with each other, crewing on respective projects and delivering feedback on their peers’ work. “They completely feed off each other,” Meltzer commented. “It’s such a community. They are all thinking, eating and breathing doc film together. It’s a lifelong bond.” Indeed alumni frequently crew for each other long after graduation. Award-winning filmmakers Bonni Cohen ’93, Jon Shenk ’94 and Richard Berge ’94 continue to work together through their company, San Francisco-based Actual Films, and have produced a number of projects together. Their joint filmography includes The Rape of Europa (along with other Stanford Alum, Nicole Newnham, ’94) and Wonders Are Many (directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jon Else, ’76, who happened to also be their professor in school). Following in these footsteps, four of the eight graduates from the class of 2010 recently rented a studio to share together in San Francisco. “It’s clear to me that they value the support they give each other,” Krawitz said, referring to the recent grads. “They want to preserve that kind of community that extends beyond their time at Stanford.”

The Stanford MFA Documentary Film and Video Program holds screenings of student work once a quarter. The next one screening will feature HD video documentaries produced during the winter quarter and is scheduled for Wednesday, March 16, 7:30 pm in Annenberg Auditorium. For more information on the filmmakers and films from Tuesday’s screening, please visit Stanford's events listing, and for general information on the faculty and program, please view Stanford's MFA program site

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