Since its inception, the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival has made a conscious effort to include student documentaries in its vast and impressive roster, and this year is no exception.
The four student documentaries featured this year cover a wide range of topics, including the plight of an endangered penguin species, the physical and emotional challenges faced by female slope-style skiers, a morality discussion with a doctor who administers lethal injections and a discovery travelogue tracking a World War II Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews.
“Student filmmakers are the future of documentary film,” festival director and founder Mary Ann Ponce said. “My son was a student filmmaker and that’s what we’re about: empowering filmmakers of all ages and levels to tell their stories. It’s just so important for these filmmakers to have an outlet for their art and that’s what we give to them.”
This year, the first student documentary to be screened is “Code Yellow” by Erica Jacques, 22, of Santa Paula, California. The film examines the yellow-eyed penguin’s fight for survival in New Zealand and the people dedicated to saving them. It premiers the morning of Oct. 5.
In a phone interview, Ms. Jacques explained that she was initially a photojournalism major, but she switched her focus after taking a required documentary filmmaking class. While at the Brooks Institute in Ventura, California, she took an international study course focused on New Zealand and the preparation of filming a documentary.
“I was doing research for something unique in Newland that I couldn’t do in the U.S. I came across the endangered species list, and I found the yellow-eyed penguin,” Ms. Jacques recalled. “I’d never seen a penguin before, and it was one of the rarest kinds. It would be a challenge to film, so I figured, why not give it a go?”
In May 2016, she headed to New Zealand with no guarantee of seeing the rare birds, but on the first day while scouting a location with a long telephoto lens, Ms. Jacques saw two male penguins fighting for a female’s attention.
“We weren’t there to get footage, but I started to hit record and one of the males knocked the other down and starting chasing him. I said, ‘Oh my gosh I got this on camera. I can’t believe I got this on the first day,’” Ms. Jacques said.
That first day was a sign of good things to come, and nearly every day, Ms. Jacques was able to get footage of penguins. After six weeks of shooting, Ms. Jacques spent another four months editing, and ultimately was the only student from her course to complete a full edit of a documentary film.
“I worked really closely with my professor, Susan Bloom, and she said it was really good and told me to put it in film festivals. She said she thought I’d be able to get into quite a few festivals, so I said I’d give it a shot. I’ve got great feedback, and I didn’t think I would get into as many as I have,” Ms. Jacques said.
Ms. Jacques currently is at Columbia College Hollywood and will graduate with a BFA next summer.
Later on Oct. 5, two more student documentaries – “Searching for Sugihara” by Adam Gross and “The Sandman” by Lauren Knapp – will be screened as part of the social awareness shorts program.
Mr. Gross, 28 of Los Angeles, first heard about his subject, Chiune Sugihara, while he was teaching in Japan. Mr. Gross explained that despite growing up in a Jewish household, he had never heard of the Japanese diplomat who lost his job after issuing thousands of visas to Jews fleeing Lithuania.
“When I decided to go into documentary filmmaking, I knew I wanted to make an effort to tell his story through one of my projects, and the best method I found was using it as my thesis film,” said Mr. Gross, who received his MFA in documentary film making from Chapman University in May of this year.
Mr. Gross began his research while in Los Angeles, and eventually began filming in Japan . His biggest surprise came in his last week of filming when he landed an interview with Mr. Sugihara’s son, Nobuki Sugihara.
“I hadn’t had any contact with him before I went to Japan. I made an appointment with the rabbi of the Tokyo Jewish Community Center, and while I was there, the manager of the temple messaged him through Facebook and sent him a letter on my behalf. (Nobuki) got back to me right away,” Mr. Gross said.
By pure happenstance, Nobuki, who lives in Belgium, was going to be in Japan on business the last week that Mr. Gross was in Japan.
“I had no intention of speaking with him. I didn’t know he was going to be in Japan, and with my budget, going to Europe wasn’t an option,” Mr. Gross said. “But with documentaries, anything can happen at any time, and you should always have a contingency plan. You go into a documentary with a certain script and idea, but everything always deviates. Someone may say something you didn’t expect, and it can change the entire scenario.”
Mr. Gross’s film will be followed by “The Sandman,” directed by Lauren Knapp, 33, of Washington, D.C. who made her film while completing her MFA from Stanford University.
Ms. Knapp explained that as a longtime opponent of capital punishment, she wanted to make a film focused on the use of medicine in executions. She, however, hit a roadblock when she found that most doctors involved remain anonymous as often, their licenses are challenged as a result. Ms. Knapp eventually came across an article naming Dr. Carlo Musso, who became the subject of her film.
“He went on record and mentioned that he was against the death penalty and donated his proceeds to charities. He felt that if we’re going to do this, it’s better to have a professional involved. I found that was really interesting and commendable that he was public about his involvement,” Ms. Knapp said.
After a series of phone calls, Ms. Knapp eventually went to Georgia to interview Dr. Musso and his wife, who had previously been involved in executions, and through conversations with the Mussos, and about 30 other doctors and lawyers, Ms. Knapp’s perspective began to change.
“I was always under the impression that if we’re having executions, that lethal injections are the best method because it’s the most humane option and the least painful seemingly. I’ve come to not really believe that. I’ve come to believe that it’s not painless and the bigger problem is that it masks a violence. Just because its bloodless doesn’t mean it’s nonviolent,” Ms. Knapp said.
Ms. Knapp sought to replicate her journey of discovery for the viewer in her documentary.
“It’s a really great way to bring the viewer along your journey and let them have the same experience of discovery, rather than telling them everything up front. Stories stick with you when you’re able to piece it together,” Ms. Knapp said.
The final student documentary, “Impact Point,” by Sydney Guthrie will be shown on Oct. 7.
Ms. Guthrie, 23, of Denver, Colorado, finished her film while studying at Chapman University. It focuses on female slope-style skiers, including Emilia Wint, the director’s childhood friend, who connected her with the skiers, their coaches and their doctors.
“I went in with an idea that the main message was going to be that these girls get injured, but this is their passion and they still pursue their passions. But in the end, the focus became the girls who walk away from the sport and that being a strength, too,” Ms. Guthrie said. “They love it, but they realize it’s not feasible anymore in this sport that’s too physically demanding. That was interesting because I didn’t think that was going to be a part of the film going into it.”
That shift in focus came as Ms. Wint was going through the decision making process about whether she wanted to stay in the sport she had committed to in high school, or retire.
“The timing was perfect,” Ms. Guthrie said.
Though the timing was perfect, filming was not, as Ms. Guthrie faced many challenges, including sound issues while filming primarily on mountainsides, and having to dig trenches to stabilize her camera in the snow. She also attempted for the first time to shoot footage while she herself was skiing.
“I thought I got these great shots, but when I looked at them, I realized they were completely unusable,” she said. But, she continued, those types of experiences are invaluable.
“I’m glad I went to film school, but at the same time I learned the most when I was out on my own with a camera. My biggest advice (to young filmmakers) is to go out and start filming. Even if it’s not with high-end equipment, just get out there with a camera and play with editing. That’s the best way to get better,” Ms. Guthrie said.
Her advice was reiterated by Mr. Gross. “Just get out with a camera and try different things. Find a story you’re passionate about and pursue it. There’s so many ways to make a documentary. You don’t have to be an expert to do it well and you get a lot of experience just talking to people,” he said.
It’s never too late to start thinking about documentaries, Ms. Jacques said. “When I was in high school, I wasn’t even thinking about being a documentarian. I just fell in love when I got to school, so if you have a dream or a goal in mind, you should do it,” she said.
“Compared to any other time in cinema history, this is the most accessible time,” Ms. Knapp said. “Just talk to people and don’t be afraid to reach out and listen. The only barrier is your own inhibitions.”
IF YOU GO
“Code Yellow” featured at Docs and Donuts
When: 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 5
Where: St. Joan of Arc Church, 496 E. Washington St., Chagrin Falls
“Searching for Sugihara” and “The Sandman” featured at Social Awareness Shorts
When: 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 5
Where: Chagrin Cinemas A, 8200 E. Washington St., Chagrin Falls
“The Impact Point”
When: 7:45 p.m. on Oct. 7
Where: Chagrin Falls Township Hall, 83 N. Main St., Chagrin Falls.