mario has written 16 articles so far, you can find them below.
Help us kickoff the International Student Documentary Competition 2010 with a screening of past winners!
looking back and moving forward
Friday, March 5th
1104 S. Wabash Ave
Chicago, IL 60605
Reception : 6.00pm, Rm 407
Screening : 6.30pm – 8.00pm, Rm 402
Join us for a discussion with directors and producers from the Kartemquin series, The New Americans. To celebrate the rebroadcasting of the groundbreaking series, They've agreed to share some of their knowledge with us on the Viva Documentary Forums.
The series will air as part of Global Voices on Sundays beginning July 5th and is also available for download on iTunes for $1.99 as part of iTunes' Independence Day promotion. Other select documentaries from “Global Voices” series will be available on iTunes this summer on the PBS Indies Channel.
Looking back, I can find all types of moments that may have foreshadowed my love for documentary but if there was a time that truly made me commit to non-fiction, it was my last year at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The design of the film program at that time was that you make a choice at the thesis level; make a narrative film in 16mm snyc-sound or a documentary in digital video with the Canon XL1. The year that followed stretched me and challenged me in so many ways that I realized that documentary filmmaking makes you eat, sleep and breathe film in the way that my Production 1 teacher, Mike Covell, talked about in my first real film class. At that age all I wanted to do was change the world and documentary gave me to tools to do so.
My thesis film followed a bus full of immigration rights activists for 8 days as they lobbied and rallied in Washington D.C. with thousands of others from around the country. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement that combined the issues of all immigrants instead of just one population. I knew little about all this when I stepped on the bus and I probably never would have if I hadn’t taken a leap into something completely foreign to me but I was college so I took the chance.
In a tiny way, getting on that bus was like the immigrant experience. I left home with a few bags and a camera and I lived among a group of people that I knew very little about. Feelings of displacement, helplessness, pride and acceptance were some that I was able to sample during those 8 days and 9 nights. I was different when I returned but I still didn’t have the language to articulate my new outlook on life. I was a kid with 30 hours of footage and about 10 hours of experience in non-linear, digital editing. Lily Buroskowski helped me manage the footage and look for the story but it was a grueling 4 months of bad edits and do overs.
It was in this venerable state that I first encountered The New Americans. Steve James, a Southern Illinois alum and Academy Award nominated director of Hoop Dreams, was screening his series, The New Americans during The Big Muddy Film Festival. The film was spread out over 3 days which meant that we were able to watch it the way that Kartemquin preferred. The series still hadn’t aired on television and we had the privilege of listening to Steve James, who was there for a Q & A after part 1. I spoke to him briefly about my thesis project and he was very encouraging. The details of the conversation are blurred by my star-struck memory but I’m sure I sounded like a nervous little fanboy so I still appreciate how kind he was.
I couldn’t agree more with Kartemquin’s claim that The New Americans intimately connects viewers to its subjects. This was the first series that I’d seen that was able to follow immigrant families from their home countries to the United States and one of the largest payoffs to this approach comes in the story of Jose and Riccardo, two baseball players that the L.A. Dodgers recruit from the Dominican Republic.The juxtaposition between Riccardo, an unmistakable talent, and Jose, a poor boy who can play, gives us a wide range of information about why families pin in their hopes to something as fickle as a professional baseball career. There are echoes of this relationship when Jose and Riccardo negotiate contracts with management and are happy to have check for $5,000 for a season while their U.S. born counterparts won’t consider playing for under a million dollars.
The Nigerian story of Ogoni Refugees, Israel and Ngozi shows a completely different approach to the story because we are introduced to Israel and Ngozi Nwidor after they’ve lived for a refugee camp for 2 years and are about to make the transition of starting a new life in America. This storyline requires a backstory to explain the circumstances that brought the Nwidor family, and many other Ogonis, to this point.
Isreal’s optimism serves as a reminder of what makes people risk their futures to come to the U.S. A scene where Ngozi and Isreal send a portion of their earnings shows some of the pressure that most immigrant families are under to maintain the image of the American Dream in the eyes of family back at home. Even though they are suffering through hardships, they still have to send money back home and tell everyone that they are doing well.
Watching the Nwidor family experience America for the first time is an amazing thing. When the refugees are first given McDonald’s hamburgers it’s as if they’ve finally arrived in the land of opportunity. It’s a food that I do everything in my power to avoid but watching Isreal eat one makes me appreciate what it would mean to appreciate it without even knowing what’s inside. His excitement to learn what goes on the outside and what is in the middle shows that, like anyone on the brink of change, he doesn’t know what he’s in for.
The last story that’s introduced in the first part of the series is of Naima Saadeh, a Palestinian bride that is determined to leave her small town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she has lived her whole life. We get to know Naima as she goes through a typical commute to school. She needs to take three taxi-vans and cross an Israeli checkpoint to get to school. We get some of the back story of the situation in the West Back through letters that her brother, Jihad, wrote to her while imprisoned for his role in the youth movement during the Intifada. I love the scene for it’s emotional power, the amount of information communicated and because they allow Naima to break the fourth wall by telling Jihad that “They” asked to see the letters.
The relationship between of Naima and her fiance, first-generation Palestinian American Hatem Abudayyeh, is fascinating because of the differences between the way they view Naima’s life. Hatem is offended to see Naima and all of his people have to travel through checkpoints. There’s also a scene where Hatem sheds a tear for the story of one of his father’s tenants. Naima, on the other hand, doesn’t find her story as tragic and seems uncomfortable that her husband is so moved and she isn’t.
The tapestry that’s woven with these 3 stories creates a depth that couldn’t be achieved by focusing on an individual family. However, Kartemquin’s approach doesn’t cheat any of the characters out of their own complexity. That’s why I’ve found it so easy to find parallels between The New Americans and my own life last time I watch it as well as this time. The issues that are bought out of the lives of these families translate to the lives of anyone that is in transition.
The feelings of displacement that I felt when I was on a bus full of strangers is the same as those that Jose and Ricardo felt when they were brought up by the Dodgers. The helplessness that Isreal and Ngozi felt in trying to advance at their jobs is similar to my having a mountain of footage and no knowledge of how to edit it and the feeling that I had as I neared graduation echoed Naima’s experience as she passed her exam and prepared for her new life in America. As the series is rebroadcast, I find myself in a similar transition as I assimilate into the culture of documentary filmmakers and begin a new chapter in my own life. I can’t wait to see what this series holds for me this time around.
The filmmakers behind The New Americans will be visiting the Viva Doc online forum soon. To read more about that, click here.
River Monsters is one of the shows that I look forward to on Sunday. With Amazing Race over and Big Brother not starting yet, I lean on good old Animal Planet for my Sunday night viewing. Please join me at the Viva Doc forum on Sunday Night so we can talk about what crazy Jeremy Wade is up to.
Jeremy Wade is a biologist and extreme angler. Chases down man-eating fish in the Amazon River Basin. The first time I watched Jeremy, he was dangling his toes into a pool that was holding 100 starving red-belly piranhas. All the Animal Planet teasers told me that he was going to get into the pool but the progression of the 3 minute scene is was made me a fan of the show.
Before getting into the pool, Jeremy had to raise the stakes by proving to us that these piranhas are as hungry as he says they are. He does this by pouring blood into the pool to show that the smell of it riles them up. I use the word smell with confidence because Jeremy's voice over puts his biology background to use by explaining how the fish has a sense of smell that evolved from living in murky, cloudy water.
This scientific approach to the scene continues as he dangles a piece of prime steak into the pool using a fishing line. This is the first time in the scene where the pool of fish is portrayed as dangerous. Their efficiency comes from their numbers. The way the piranha tears off one piece of meat, let's everyone know where the food is and leaves so that someone else can take a bite. Each fish takes what it can use and leaves the rest for the next fish, that's community. The scene gave me a respect for the piranha and the footage of them at work gave me a fear of them too.
This fear is what makes the climax of the scene so effective. Jeremy steps into the pool very gingerly and there seems to be a safe buffer around him. However, as his body language relaxes, the fish get closer and become comfortable around him. They let a few shots linger so that you can see the piranhas sniffing his toes, increasing the drama. He claims that this proves that they won't go after live animals but I wonder if he'd be willing to pour some blood in the pool while he is in it… I wouldn't.
Jeremy's “check this out” approach, along with his enthusiasm for the river make his stories of man-eating River Monsters a special treat on television. As a friend of mine said, “Every time I'm channel surfing, I get stuck on this program.” That's the power of a storyteller.
Check out the selection of new courses for the Documentary Program.
24 – 2806 Documentary Research
Comprehensive overview of documentary research and pragmatic documentary writing. Critically analyze and evaluate sources and evidence. Develop research protocols and methodology. Conduct primary research resulting in a working hypothesis and leading to a proposal premise. Apply legal and ethical elements to documentary preproduction and preparation.
24 – 2807 Documentary Storytelling
Begins with an overview of the relationships between story and discourse in narrative storytelling. Includes narrative voice and perspective, temporal and spacial arrangements of events and mutual influences between plot and character. These principles are then applied to documentary film. By studying excerpts from existing works, students develop an understanding of narrative approaches to documentary and apply that knowledge to a personal project they wish to develop.
24 – 3820 Topics in Documentary
This production course for advanced documentary students will study and engage in various subgenres of documentary filmmaking. Such topics have included Visualizing the Documentary, The Nature Film Documentary and Cinema Verite. Students may repeat this course as topics change.
The Family and Home Movie
The following are one credit, two whole day (Friday and Saturday), nuts and bolts classes
24 – 2809 Documentary Production I: Basic Field Production
This intensive workshop gives you a solid grounding in basic documentary field production including a variety of hand-held camera moves and essential three point lighting techniques with minimal equipment. You will develop basic wired and wireless sound recording techniques.
Additional topics include set protocols and crew coordination strategies; checklists and preparation; logging and labeling.
24 – 2815 Documentary Production II
This intensive workshop gives you additional grounding in intermediate documentary field production in a variety of visual strategies, sophisticated three point lighting techniques with advanced equipment.
Additional topics include advanced sound recording techniques, one person crew strategies and production problem solving.
24 – 2811 Producing and Directing the Interview
This intensive course gives you a comprehensive advanced approach to producing and directing interviews in assorted scenarios and venues. You will prepare question banks based on pre-interviews and research. You will practice friendly, adversarial and investigative techniques.
Additional topics include booking, scheduling, visualizing the interview, crew communication, coordination and creative directing for specific styles. Ethics and legal aspects of the interview will be explored.
24 – 2812 The Interview: Lighting, Shooting and Sound Acquisition
This intensive course uses practical hands-on application; you will explore intermediate and advanced approaches to shooting, lighting and acquiring sound for both formal and alternative styles of on-camera interviews
Join us for The Doc Center's 20th Anniversary Bash!
Wednesday, April 29th, 4:00pm – 7:00pm
1104 S Wabash Ave, Rm 407, The Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary
Come celebrate the past, present and future of Columbia's innovative center for documentary filmmaking!
4:00pm: Food, games, friends, and fun!
5:00pm: A Panel Discussion with Michael Rabiger, Russell Porter, Judy Hoffman, Tod Lending, Suree Towfighnia & Arlen Parsa
6:15pm: Shorts screenings of a selection of current and past Columbia short documentaries
Timothy Tamisiea will represent the Viva Doc this Thursday with the only documentary to be accepted into Big Screen 13. Timmy was kind enough to share a rough cut with us at the end of last semester and, just like in real life, everyone there was touched by little Luke Casey. Come show support for this MFA Doc 1 and make sure to cast your vote for the Doc Side!
BOB SEGER ROCKS
Luke Casey appears to be a normal 12 year-old. He loves Curious
George, throwing football with his friends, playing the drums and
listening to his hero, Bob Seger. It's hard to believe that Luke was
born with hydrocephalus, a condition where the fluid gets trapped in
the skull. With his brain being crushed, Luke's parents were told he
wouldn't survive past 6 months. Luke's loving, strong family and an
his incredible courage has helped him beat the odds. Although he has
undergone 23 brain surgeries, suffers hemoplasia (a weakness in the
left side of his body) and is legally blind, Luke still touches the
lives of everyone who meets him.
Big Screen 13, Thursday, April 23 at 7 pm, Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th Floor
My thesis project, Untitled DREAM Act Film, is transitioning from casual pre-production to real pre-production. What does that mean? It means that it’s time to stop playing around and start working on this film. One way that I thought of to do this was to talk to someone who has done or is doing what I’m about to set out to do.
Margarita Reyes is a University of California Los Angeles student studying Chicano Studies. She’s collaborating with UCLA film minor, Andrea Ortega, on An Unfinished Dream, a social justice documentary following the lives of undocumented students in the California university system. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
MC – What drew you to the topic of the DREAM Act?
MR – Last year I met “B”, who, like myself, was a UCLA transfer student.
Several weeks into my first classes with her, I found out “B” was an
undocumented student and was not going to be able to pay for her tuition fees.
“B” did not choose to come to the United States as a 4-year-old. That decision was made for her.
“B” and I have shared our family histories and found that there
were many similarities. The only difference being that I was born in the United
States, and she was not. I don't feel like she should be treated as though
she is invisible because of her immigration status. She is one of the kindest,
most loyal, and hard working people I know. She is an academic overachiever, a volunteer and she is currently organizing other undocumented workers to form unions in her community.
I am proud to call her my friend and she has inspired me to produce this
documentary in order to tell her story.
AO – The DREAM students, as they have come to be called, attend school like other students but have to overcome an extraordinary amount of obstacles to accomplish their higher education. While the CA DREAM Act benefits a student whether he/she is a citizen or undocumented, the undocumented students show their commitment for education as they endure commuting for 2-3 hrs on bus to get to school, working three jobs to pay for college and on top of that not enjoying benefits that other students receive such as studying abroad, doing research or having a paid internship.
As a Mexican-American first generation female of a low-income family, I already struggle to pay for my university, but to see the DREAM students persevere despite not getting that financial aid that I need to pay for college, is an admirable quality when on top of that they are able to find a manner in which to advocate for themselves. Most of them are the valedictorians, class presidents and top students coming from their high schools who have so much potential and talent to offer our society, yet there is currently no outlet, because after all the hard work they place into acquiring their degrees they are still not allowed to give back to the community as they wish to.
I have found inspirations through students that with so much less than me have
made it to the university and are fighting for others who should not have to go
through what they went through. They have strengthened my resolve to
help those less fortunate and shown me how privileged I have been throughout my
MC – Why did you chose documentary to explore the topic?
MR – We chose documentary because we wanted to show the human face of the issue.
These are human beings, like you and I, who are experiencing an apartheid
situation. They should not be treated as second-class citizens. They are
amazing, overachieving, hard-working, upstanding citizens of the world who only
seek to contribute to the country they call home.
AO – A documentary can give a more organic perspective and it humanizes the issue by showing you reality. This documentary is being made with care so that you can see the true identity of undocumented students and recognize them as the neighbors and friends you have always known as opposed to the stereotyped representation you may hear or read about in newspapers and such. There are just so many layers and angles in the lives of these students that only a documentary can capture.
We want the audience to truly understand and see how dedicated these students are to getting their higher education and just how hard they work to accomplish it. Truly it is the students creating the story and the documentary the tool to which the rest of the world is able to engage in that story. That is what is so great about documentaries is their ability to tell reality to a mass audience in an enticing manner.
MC – How have you dealt with any legal obstacles that have risen around the
status of the characters in your film?
MR – Here’s the catch, when a student goes to a California university or college
they sign a legal document, an affidavit, which says they will adjust their
status as soon as they are eligible. Most of our students are in the process of
adjusting their legal status. They are reporting to immigration; they are going
to court and spending thousands to become legal in this country.
AO – We have taken the utmost care with protecting the students as we wanted them to feel comfortable to open up, despite having to be underground or invisible most of the time because of their status.
MC – Did you have difficulty gaining access to the subjects of your film?
MR – Yes, it was a long and sensitive process. We have grown to love them. They
are not just subjects to us. They are a part of our family. Being such a
sensitive issue with serious repercussions for them, I know that they trust us
with their stories. We will not let them down or allow anyone to hurt them in
AO – We are dealing with a delicate issue and I started getting involved in the issue only a little before we started the documentary. The truth is that since they are very aware of their rights and risks we did have to show that we understood the issue and had no intention of misinterpreting the material they gave us. Since then, however, I have become an advocate for their situation myself because through filming this documentary I learned of the importance and significance of this cause.
MC – What is your target audience?
MR – Our target demographic is 14-35 years of age. We realize the importance of
teaching our youth that there are others like themselves who are struggling to
attain higher education. Their obstacles far surpass what the “normal”
American student in high school and college experiences.
We hope to help the momentum of the Federal Dream Act campaign for 2009. So
please go to www.AnUnfinishedDream.com for production updates and/or you can go
to DreamACTivist.org for constant news and events in regard to Dream Act 2009.
In honor of the the end of the NFL season and the beginning of February, I want to share some video that I captured at True/False last year. Some of you may have heard me raving about a film called Bigger, Stronger, Faster, about America’s obsession with steroids. Well, I was going through some footage from my trip to the festival and it turns out that I shot a little bit of the intro and Q & A from the screening.
It was interesting to watch this clip now that a year has passed and I can find the DVD at Blockbuster, the public library or online with Netflix. It was great to see a young guy without a bunch of films under his belt be treated so well because he was willing to share such a personal story with the world. It didn’t hurt that the film made some poignant arguments about the place that steroids holds in American society but I think it was director Chris Bell’s willingness to put his story and his family’s story on the line that made this film so so compelling.
Here is another clip from the Q & A. If you haven’t seen the film yet, it might be nice to check it out before opening this next clip.
One the things that grabs me in this film is the familiarity of the opening. He starts off in a very personal / experimental form of showing us home videos with first person voice over but shifts to archive from our collective American memory to show how he has grown along side us. His commentary over moments in sports history, pop movie icons and recent political scandals puts us into his shoes for events that we witnessed ourselves so that we can see sports and entertainment from the perspective of a wide-eyed kid with dream of being a pro wrestler.
When we meet the present day Chris Bell, it’s understood that he is bitter about the world of professional sports but it’s intriguing that he still has a love for sports. I think that’s the ultimate reason that we’re willing to use him and his family as a mirror for our culture’s relationship with steroids. A father that sets a good example but let’s you live your own life, a mother who loves unconditionally and three brothers with completely different ways of coping with steroids in their lives.
We’re at that point where we need to come to terms with how we really feel about steroid use in the entertainment industry and in professional sports. It’s true that letting athletes use performance enhancing drugs would set a bad example for our youth but shouldn’t we hold actors and models to the same standards? Isn’t setting unrealistic expectations just as dangerous?
It isn’t the athletes as much as it’s the audience. Imagine how many players would make it through an NFL season without taking something for pain or weight loss. Would you pay for season tickets if your favorite player was allowed to sit out because of back pain or arthritis? Our expectations are unnatural so how can we expect them to be achieved naturally?
I, for one, would still buy a ticket knowing that all those things that society deems unethical are just par for the course. It might make me a bad person but know that I won’t be the only one there.